Who will Joachim Low send onto the field? How will his friend Jurgen Klinsmann respond? What will happen in Thursday's Group G finale? ASN's Blake Thomsen has it all mapped out for you.
WAS THERE EVER ANY DOUBT
June 25, 2014
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that it would all come down to this? Despite those glorious 14 minutes against Portugal when it looked like—gasp!—this game wouldn’t matter all that much, here we are, with the U.S. likely needing a point to secure qualification to the knockout stages.
As we did for Ghana and Portugal, let’s take a look at Germany’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how the U.S. will approach this game.
Germany thumped Portugal in its first group game before picking up a somewhat fortuitous point against Ghana on Saturday. Its path is straightforward: win or draw and top the group, lose and (in all likelihood) finish second.
Aside from the likely comfortable progression to the knockout stage, all is not rosy for the Germans. They have been decimated by injuries over the past six months or so, and that has sapped some of their trademark depth. Here’s how Germany has lined up in the last two games:
It’s a 4-3-3 that actually shares quite a few similarities with Portugal’s 4-3-3:
The front three are generally disinterested in playing too much defense, which leaves space down the flanks. But unlike Portugal, which featured a more conventional front three, Germany’s Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, and Mario Gotze interchange freely, which makes them very hard to mark. One is usually playing in a false nine role while the other two take up the space on either side. There’s a joke in here somewhere about how Ozil might be more of a false footballer than a false nine at this point, and it’s possible we could see Andre Schurrle or Miroslav Klose in from the start in place of Ozil.
The middle three are not particularly mobile, though Philipp Lahm is rangier and far better positionally than any Portuguese central midfielder. Still, the U.S. has an athleticism edge in the middle, which it used to great effect against Portugal and could do so again here. The German midfield is far better on the ball than Portugal’s, though. All are excellent passers, and Toni Kroos is an incredibly dangerous long shooter (evidence below) as well as a world-class distributor.
The back four lacks pace and can be exposed with through balls in behind fullbacks or in the channel between the center backs and fullbacks. This Asamoah Gyan goal for Ghana comes via a midfield turnover and quick through ball that Per Mertesacker simply could not keep up with.
One last note on the lineup: not only could we see Ozil replaced, but Joachim Low could replace a whole host of Germans. Low could easily value the freshness of his players for the knockout stages—where Germany will almost certainly find itself, barring Ghana destroying Portugal and the U.S. winning—over playing his first-choice side. This isn’t guaranteed to help the U.S., though, as some German starters are actually a better matchup for the Yanks than the prospective subs. For instance, second-choice left back Erik Durm, who doesn’t even start for Borussia Dortmund, is probably better suited to face Fabian Johnson than starter Benedikt Howedes is. Howedes is a center back playing out of position, and Johnson could run circles around him.
THE U.S. LINEUP
Given the difficulties of playing in Manaus, a post-Amazon squad rotation seems likely for the Americans. The punishing effects of playing in the middle of a rainforest have been well-documented: All four teams to have played there before the U.S. and Portugal have since been eliminated, collectively gaining one point in six total games after playing in Manaus. Yikes.
We won’t speculate too much on how Jurgen Klinsmann will arrange his team, but another five-man midfield seems likely. It worked well against Portugal, and it seems the most logical given the absence of Altidore, especially against a team of Germany’s quality. It's also possible that Aron Johannsson could play from the start, with Dempsey dropping back into more of a true attacking midfield role to maintain the five-man midfield shape. Johannsson's pace could be an essential weapon against Germany's lumbering back four, and deploying him from the start could lead to a few early chances.
Elsewhere, is there a curveball with DeAndre Yedlin at midfield from the start or Fabian Johnson moved up to midfield, with Timmy Chandler at right back? Don’t rule it out. Doing so would allow for some fresh legs in the wide areas, which have been the source of most of the U.S.’s promising attacks thus far.
The center of the midfield probably won’t be touched, but it seems possible that Klinsmann could drop Michael Bradley a little deeper and move Jermaine Jones a touch higher up the field. The move would effectively swap their positions from the first two games and makes sense for a few reasons:
Bradley has had well-documented struggles in the attacking third, and Jones is in the attacking form of his life—over the last two games he’s scored a stunning goal, assisted Clint Dempsey’s opener against Ghana, and played a useful through ball to Yedlin which helped set up the U.S.’s second goal against Portugal.
Jones is currently on a yellow card, which means one more would see him miss the U.S.’s next game. Of course, a next game isn’t guaranteed. But if Klinsmann can send out an equally strong team that also minimizes Jones’ card risk, it’s worth doing. If Jones were stationed farther up the field than his usual defensive mid role, he’d be far less likely to commit a costly second yellow of the tournament.
PACE OF PLAY
It seems highly unlikely that Klinsmann and Joachim Low will actually arrange the fabled “gentlemen’s draw.” But that doesn’t mean that this game won’t be played at something of a walking pace in the early stages. Neither team has much incentive to attack with numbers, and it’s possible that we could see long periods of play with the ball moving relatively slowly in midfield. Especially if neither team scores early, this game could finish with very low shot totals. That’s not to say a 0-0 is likely, but a slow-paced game is indeed likely, especially in the first half as long as the score remains tied.
Along with having little incentive to attack, both teams will be looking to keep their legs as fresh as possible ahead of the knockout stage, especially Germany. That means the Germans are unlikely to aggressively press—they don’t really have the personnel to do so, anyway—which should allow the U.S. to have similar time and space on the ball as it did against Portugal.
Now, once a goal is scored, the tempo should pick up, as neither team wants to lose this game. The U.S. obviously can’t really afford to, and Germany would prefer to avoid Belgium in the Round of 16. Whichever team falls behind will be forced to pick up its tempo, and thus observers can expect a far different game once a goal has been scored.
TARGETING GERMANY’S LEFT FLANK
It’s pretty clear by now that most of the U.S.’s dangerous attacks are coming down the right side. Johnson has been perhaps the standout right back in the entire tournament, and he’ll be expected to shoulder much of the chance creation load. The U.S. has done a superb job of overloading that flank so that Johnson ends up in one-on-one situations as much as possible, and it has proved to be an extremely threatening tactic.
Johnson may be deployed in midfield to maximize his offensive impact, but regardless of whether he’s in midfield or defense, he’ll almost certainly be on the right side. That is good news for the U.S., as he’ll be set up to attack Howedes again and again. Howedes is quite slow and had a hard time with Ghana’s Christian Atsu on Saturday—Johnson will be hoping to have similar success.
The one wild card is the possibility that Germany will recognize the threat of Johnson and adjust accordingly. Low is an astute tactician, and he may field Lahm at left back to account for Johnson. That would spell bad news for the U.S., but it would also throw Germany out of rhythm a bit. If Bastian Schweinsteiger is fit enough to start, Lahm could move to defense, but that would leave Germany even more immobile in the center of midfield.
STOPPING GERMANY’S ATTACKING TRIO
Germany’s biggest asset is its glut of talented attacking midfielders. To date, it’s been Muller, Gotze, and Ozil starting, but Germany has plenty of options if it wants to freshen things up. One option is Klose, who would give Germany more of a focal point in attack—Germany struggled somewhat against Ghana with a lack of threatening goal-scoring targets in the box.
The Germans could also field Andre Schurrle or Lukas Podolski—both are more direct players and better finishers than Gotze and Ozil, but they also lack the quality on the ball of the duo the Germans call “Gotzil." Watch out for Schurrle to start against the U.S.—he has the best work rate by far of any German attacking midfielder, and he could be deployed on the left to help deal with Johnson’s forays forward.
Whichever three—or perhaps four, if Germany reverts to a 4-2-3-1—attacking players that Germany fields will pose a major threat to the U.S. defense thanks to their freedom of movement and clever passing.
Enter Kyle Beckerman. Beckerman will sit just in front of the back four all game, and he’ll be tasked with breaking up play in the middle of the attacking third. This is Germany’s preferred attacking area, and having an extra body there—especially one with Beckerman’s excellent spatial awareness—will be vital.
Aside from clever interchanges in the final third, Germany’s other chief attacking threat comes via through balls or chipped passes played by central midfielders. To account for this, Bradley and Jones need to make sure to press Lahm, Kroos, Sami Khedira, or whoever else plays in the center. Germany’s midfielders are just too good for the U.S. to allow them time and space on the ball. Jones and Bradley excelled in pressuring Portugal’s central midfielders, and they’ll need to do the same against Germany. Gotze’s opener against Ghana came partly as a result of insufficient ball pressure.
The passer here was Muller, but the lesson remains the same: give the Germans space to pick out passes at your peril.
HIGHLY SPECIFIC PREDICTION
To recap (even though none of you care): I nailed the Ghana score prediction and feel strongly that my 2-0 win over Portugal call would have stood if not for Geoff Cameron’s fatal early mistake. To the Germany prediction we go:
Both sides will struggle to fashion many clear-cut chances in the first half, and the game will head into halftime scoreless. The U.S. will strike first through Johnson in the 64th minute, which will wake the Germans from their slumber. Germany will steal first place in the group with an 85th minute goal from Klose, and then both sides will exchange an elaborate series of winks and knock the ball around in midfield until time expires. Meanwhile, Ghana will beat Portugal 4-1, but thankfully, the U.S. will have done enough to earn a July 1 date with Belgium.
U.S. 1, Germany 1.
What do you think about that prediction? What will be the key for the U.S. against Germany? The comment section is all yours.
Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter and tell him how right or wrong he is.