Mexico thoroughly deserved their 1-0 win over defending champions Germany when the two nations met in the first round of the fixtures. I shall try and explain how and where Mexico exploited Germany, which was a result of a complete understanding of how the Germans play and bringing them out of their comfort zone so that Mexico could hit Germany where it hurt.
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Germany (4-2-3-1) Manager: Joachim Low
Neuer; Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Plattenhardt; Kroos, Khedira; Muller, Ozil, Draxler; Werner
Mexico (4-3-3/4-2-3-1) Manager: Juan Carlos Osorio
Ochoa; Salcedo, Ayala, Moreno, Gallardo; Herrera, Guardado; Layun, Vela, Lozano; Hernandez
How Germany generally setup in possession:
Germany customarily started in Low’s favourite- 4-2-3-1, with Kroos and Khedira as the central midfield duo, in behind Draxler-Ozil-Muller, the triumvirate that play behind the lone striker in the form of Timo Werner. Draxler was chosen ahead of Borussia Dortmund star, Marco Reus as the team was more or less the expected one from Joachim Low.
Germany have built a reputation for playing with lots of possession, but one that aims in creating space effectively for their forwards to combine and use. This is the reason why Low has assumedly left out Leroy Sane back in Germany, as the Manchester City player is one who thrives in wide areas, with space in front of him. The profile that Low likes to use in his left wing position is different though. He likes his wingers and attacking midfielder to drop in between the lines and play quick, combination football to break down the opposition defense, something that Sane is not all that adept at doing so.
Thomas Muller is always a mainstay in this German side under Low, and he took up the right wing position. He would nominally drift inwards and look to attack the half spaces and make late runs into the box. This attribute would work well with Mesut Ozil, who likes to roam around looking for the ball, and play incisive passes into the final third when the right moment arises. This would also complement the highly attacking nature of their right back, Joshua Kimmich, who is known for his attacking prowess in the final third. He has often been given full license to join the foray in the opposition half and make up for the width on the right hand side, which Muller usually vacates in his search for space nearer to the box.
Toni Kroos functions as the team’s heartbeat as most of the play in the first and second phase go through him. Sami Khedira has always held a tactical role for Low with the national side and it was no surprise seeing him start the match.
The below graphic shows how Germany ideally setup when they are in possession and look to advance with the ball
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How Mexico setup to negate Germany
Juan Carlos Osorio has built a reputation for making this Mexican side extremely versatile from a tactical standpoint. Mexico played a variant in between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 with Miguel Layun, usually a fullback, playing on the right side, drifting in between the flanks and the half spaces. Carlos Vela was deployed behind Chicharito, who played as a lone striker, while Hirving Lozano played on the left side. Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado played in the centre of the midfield.
We witnessed a brilliantly executed game plan from Croatia yesterday that looked to limit Messi’s influence on the game. Mexico, similarly, used a strategy that made use of a pressing/marking scheme that looked to take Toni Kroos out of the game. Kroos holds a very important role tactically for the German side as he makes the play on the left, so it was only natural that Osorio devised a defensive scheme that looked to limit Kroos’ influence on the game.
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Carlos Vela, playing in and around the #10 zones for Mexico, was tasked with man marking Toni Kroos when Germany built play in the first phase. But shutting down Kroos is not such a simple task that can be managed by tasking a player with a man marking duty. Both Herrera and Guardado moved in tandem to cover the space behind Vela and Lozano. Herrera in particular was aggressively set upon Khedira whenever he made any runs into space from midfield. This marking however, was more situational rather than a set role as Khedira and Herrera came up against each other on the same side of the pitch. Herrera is also a better ball winner than Guardado, so it seemed logical that he took Khedira on.
Kroos is covered by both Hernandez and Vela. Mexico shutting down the centre and forcing Germany to play to their right
Layun’s role here was further amplified as he acted as the stopper on the right side for Mexico so he could have access to Plattenhardt on the far side. This setup ensured that the left side was underused by Germany as they looked to advance the ball down the right side via Joshua Kimmich.
Kimmich occupied a high position on the right side as Muller drifted inwards while Mesut Ozil was found a tad deeper to aid circulation and advance the ball into the final third. Germany almost always leave just Boateng and Hummels at the back when they look to circulate possession in the opposition half. This very fact was exploited by Osorio as he set his team up to hurt Germany in transitions, attacking the space left behind by Kimmich and Khedira.
To read about how transitions were effected in this game, read our previous article on that here.
How Mexico took advantage of Germany- Mexico’s counterattacking plan
Mexico looked to win the ball in their own half before they could break out in numbers and hurt Germany in transitions. Their plan was to attack the large space in behind the fullbacks, by making use of Lozano and Layun, with Vela moving to the ball near side to contribute for overloads. Javier Hernandez had an important role here as he often dropped deep to lay off the ball to a runner. The problem here for Germany was that neither Boateng nor Hummels could follow Hernandez and pressurize him as they were the last two bodies at the back for Germany.
This was where the static nature of the Kroos-Khedira pivot became exposed. Khedira does not have the legs he used to have once and Kroos is not all that mobile when he plays as a 6, with space to defend around him. Kroos did not adjust himself to make the distance between him and Khedira lesser to an extent and this was aptly exploited by the Mexicans.
There were some in-game adjustments made by Mexico, with the players realizing that the left side(Germany’s right) was far more easier to exploit as Khedira was oft positioned way higher to come back and help out Kroos and the centrebacks. This meant that a late run from the likes of Lozano, with Vela and Hernandez combining for setting him up was enough to destabilize Germany completely as they lost their shape in transitions.
Another in game adjustment that Mexico made was the way they beat the poor counterpress from Germany. It was poor due to the lack of coordination amongst the Germans, but it was an effective means nevertheless from Osorio’s men. With Khedira oft positioned higher up than Kroos, Mexico had to beat only him to bear down on Germany’s goal. They were also careful in winning the ball in right moments as they waited for Germany to advance centrally before putting in a tackle/interception. This is explained in the below image.
Kroos is easily outnumbered by Vela who has dropped deep to receive possession along with the Mexican midfield holding their shape. Kroos is bypassed easily with a single pass
Once the ball was intercepted, Mexico just played 1-2s around Khedira to bypass the midfield press before they could invade space. The fact that they won the ball centrally mostly helped their cause as they took out the fullbacks and the likes of Muller and Draxler easily by playing a simple vertical pass into Herrera or Guardado. Guardado’s passing came into good use here as his tutelage under Quique Setien this season has helped him hone his decision making under pressure as the midfielder looked completely unfazed when playing the ball with a number of German players around him.
The other aspect which I loved about Mexico’s possession play was how they were able to generate passing lanes by exploiting the man marking nature of the German pivot. Khedira was dragged wide by the runs made by the likes of Lozano and this opened up the lanes to both Hernandez and Vela in the centre. Mexico could break the German lines even when they were in their shape, and not only in transitions.
The image shows how easily the Kroos-Khedira pivot could be exploited for space by a ball from the first phase of play
Seeing out the lead- using the 5-4-1 to close out the game
Osorio made a change early into the second half when he brought Alvarez on in the place of Carlos Vela and shifted the shape to a prominent 4-3-3 with Alvarez at the base of midfield instead of the #10 position that Vela occupied. It showed that he was happy with the 1-0 lead and if need be, his players can grab a goal when Germany kept pushing as the clock went on.
This change helped Mexico see out the wave of Germany attacks, which were caused due to two reasons. Marco Reus came in for Sami Khedira and injected a fresh pace of energy and variability in attack. Also, the fullbacks now constantly held wide positions for Draxler, Muller and Reus to attack in and around the halfspaces. Ozil dropped deep alongside Kroos to circulate the ball into the final third.
The low block from Mexico was adept at handling any aerial duel inside the box while the industry that they displayed was commendable as they were able to maintain their energy levels throughout the entirety of the match. The number of attacking transitions drastically reduced, and with Mexico unwilling to commit men forward, Germany were able to keep a hold on them from a defensive perspective. Attacking wise though, they left a lot to be desired as Mexico combined well executed tactics with excellent defensive discipline so that all the good work did not go to waste.
Solutions for Germany
The system that Low has employed with his team is well tested and drilled in his players. There is no need for any drastic measures to be taken as I believe that Germany are one of the best international sides tactically and technically. They have had immense success under Low and there is no real need for them to abandon their tried and tested philosophy.
However, they do need a few personnel changes and in-game tweaks if they want to avoid the repeat of what happened against Mexico. The space in behind the fullbacks is going to be a problem if there is no pure ball winner in the centre of the pitch. One change that Low can try implement is by asking one of the fullbacks, Plattenhardt preferably, to stay back and form a situational back three in case of any turnover. While this shall not necessarily overcome their problems in midfield it does help provide Boateng and Hummels some sort of additional support at the back. Kimmich should also be tasked with tracking back, something he is very much capable of as he showed this season with his great defensive acumen at Bayern, along with his offensive threat.
The major change that they need to make however, is to replace Khedira in the centre of the pitch. He is not that player anymore that made a name for himself as one of the best box to box midfielders in the world. That is not saying that he cannot get the job done at this level anymore, but it runs a risk of being exposed against sides that can break like Mexico did. Goretzka alongside Kroos would be an interesting option, a like to like switch in terms of profiles. Playing Gundogan alongside Kroos is another option that Low might be contemplating as it gives Germany another source of playmaking in the second phase.
The final tweak that needs to be done is look to boost the final third dynamics and introduce a bit of variability in the attacks. Germany have the fault of becoming a bit redundant for all their quality in the final third at times. This can be due to the fact that opposition almost always defend deep against them and there is no specialist dribbler in the side on the flanks. The fullbacks are the only source of width in the side and this needs to change if Germany are to break down further opposition. I have illustrated below what I think can be a good attacking strategy for Germany:
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