The international break is here which means no club football for the next ten days. To the players, it comes as a much-needed break from the hectic club schedule before the business end of their respective leagues and competitions. Obviously, it also means a few national fixtures and although in the past they have seemed pointless, the introduction of the UEFA Nations League has given countries something to play for. It also throws up interesting matchups from time to time.
Serbia travelled to the Volkswagen Arena in Wolfsburg on 20 March to play Germany. Both sides are now at a curious parity. Since losing to South Korea and getting knocked out of the group stages at the World Cup last summer, Germany have seen themselves relegated to League B of the Nations League after losing to France and the Netherlands. The rebuilding journey has been a tumultuous one and Joachim Low’s men were keen to start off the new year well.
Serbia, on the other hand, had also been knocked out in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup, but having fielded a young and talented squad consisting of names like Luka Jović (who has garnered interests from the likes of Barcelona), Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Aleksandar Mitrović of Premier League team Fulham, few would have been quick to write them off so soon.
Germany lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Low’s preference for youth clear to see. He started Jonathan Tah and Niklas Süle as centre-backs, Marcel Halstenberg at left-back, and handed a debut to right-back Lukas Klostermann. Ahead of them, Joshua Kimmich of Bayern Munich and İlkay Gündoğan of Manchester City were the two deepest midfielders with Julian Brandt, and Leroy Sané playing on the right and left wing respectively. Kai Havertz played as the #10 and Timo Werner as the lone striker.
Serbia lined up in a 4-1-4-1 with Marko Dmitrović in goal, behind a back-four of Antonio Rukavina, Uros Spajić, Nikola Milenković and Miroslav Bogosavac. Nemanja Maksimović of Getafe played as the #6, with a midfield four consisting of Darko Lazović, Milinković-Savić, Mijat Gaćinović, and Adem Ljajić. Luka Jović started up top.
There weren’t substitution limitations so both benches were packed.
Germany’s positional play – old wine in a new bottle?
Lots of things were expected from the new look Germany but their familiar possession heavy approach was still intact. Their formation on the pitch during possession was very similar to their nominal lineup on paper. The full-backs pushed up high, with Gündoğan and Kimmich providing support in the centre. The front four were exploiting space behind Serbia’s line or in between their midfield and defensive lines. All of the German players were very mobile and a few elements of their possession play require deeper discussion.
As mentioned earlier, the German machine was built upon the mobility and versatility of the players within the system and their ability to play in a variety of positions. Although it wasn’t Total Football 2.0 as the players stuck to their usual positions more often than not, the structure was given paramount importance and players adjusted and readjusted their positions relative to their teammates. The fullbacks and wingers changed positions frequently. Either the fullback would provide width, in which case the winger would drift inwards to draw attention, or the wingers would stay wide so that they could use their excellent 1v1 ability to beat their man, all while the fullback underlapped. Sometimes the fullbacks would even cut inside and attack the box to confuse Serbia’s man-marking schemes.
Germany looked to create overloads all over the pitch. Depending upon the part of the pitch where they had the ball, they used two common methods to achieve these overloads. If they were out on the wing, one of the deeper midfielders would move over to support the fullback who had the ball. The winger on the nearside would make a run to the byline. This provided a passing lane on the touchline as well as pulled out the Serbian centre-back. Kai Havertz would provide support on the halfspace and this resulted in the formation of a diamond out wide.
To create central overloads, Werner was the one who’d drop in. He’d play the false nine role when Kimmich or Gündoğan had the ball and attack the box when one of the fullbacks or wingers were looking to cross into the box. When he dropped, Havertz moved out to the left dragging his marker (Maksimović) away with him and creating space.
The result of these overloads was that Germany were able to play through the opposition’s midfield line and create goalscoring chances. If they weren’t and Serbia recovered well, they still had the option to switch play to the other side – to either the opposite fullback or winger. This brings us to the next topic which is…
Most often, it was Sané who was making such runs. Usually, Germany tried to attack down the right side because they had identified Gaćinović as the weakness of that side. If overloading the wing didn’t work, they’d usually retain possession and play it back to Gündoğan. As soon as Gündoğan got the ball, Sané would make a run behind the defensive line. This coupled with the fact that the Serbian block moved up following a back pass meant that if done correctly, it would leave Sané in a lot of space, and ready to make a cut-back or a cross across the six-yard box. If Sané‘s run was tracked successfully by the fullback – Rukavina and/or the centre-back – Spajić, it would still create a lot of space on the wing for the fullback – Halstenberg, as both of the defenders on the left side, would be attracted by Sané‘s movement.
Structural considerations-cause and effect
Serbia’s 4-1-4-1, when intermixed with Germany’s 4-2-3-1, produced some interesting imbalances and tactical exchanges which both sides could take advantage of.
In Serbia’s system, the #6 – Maksimović had a crucial role. He was tasked with marking the opposition’s #10 – Havertz. However, a layered structure such as Serbia’s meant that it left a lot of space on either side of the defensive midfielder. Germany manipulated this weakness beautifully.
They’d usually play short passes on one side of the field (usually left) to encourage the Serbians to press. Once the forwards and attacking midfielders began to press Niklas Sule and Gündoğan, Germany would quickly switch to the right. This was done with Havertz’s simultaneous movement to the left dragging away Maksimović even further into the ball-far zone. After the switch, Maksimović was suddenly left with a lot of space to cover and what more, his interior midfielder was already stuck higher up the pitch, pressing Kimmich or Tah. This allowed Julian Brandt to exploit the right halfspace. To compensate for Gaćinović‘s advanced position, the centre-backs would have to move up to tackle and make sure Brandt didn’t have space to turn. This triggered either Werner or Havertz to make runs in the space left behind by the centre-back.
Germany created a lot of chances this way; they took a total of 21 shots out of which nine were from inside the box. Their xGpShot was 0.158 – a respectable figure given the shot volume. Indeed most of the offensive tactics employed by Die Mannschaft paid off well; it was only poor finishing, lack of a natural poacher in the box, and some good shot-stopping by Dmitrović that saw Low’s men wait till the 69th minute to equalize.
Serbia’s defensive block and pressing scheme
Serbia defended in a tight 4-1-4-1 mid-block. If Germany had a period of sustained possession, they shifted to a 4-5-1 low block to better protect their own box. Their defensive display was full of heroic last-ditch tackles but their block was tactically sound as well. It was their indisciplined pressing which caused problems.
Serbia didn’t press very high up the pitch or didn’t do so for sustained periods of time. They acted on certain pressing triggers such as sloppy back-passes or poor touches by the centre-backs. When these happened, they quickly sprung into action. The flat midfield four pressed in a man-marking scheme. The interiors – Gaćinović, and Milinković-Savić would press the German double pivot while the wingers would press the fullbacks. If the ball was on one side, Jović would shadow the near side centre-back so that the player on the ball had no immediate passing option. However, Germany were able to play through the press due to the press-resistance of Kimmich and Gündoğan, as well as the intelligent dropping movements of Havertz and Sané in support.
Germany’s defensive organization and transitional offence
In defence, Germany mirrored their opposition’s 4-1-4-1 (with Kimmich playing the holding midfielder role), sometimes shifting to a fluid 4-3-3. They never pressed the centre-backs or the goalkeeper, instead opted to sit zonally and protect the central space. They also acted on triggers such as a pass to the fullback. When this happened either Brandt or Sané would move quickly to close down the fullback on the ball. Werner would move in behind to guard the pass back to the centre-back and Havertz or Gündoğan would press the interior midfielder – Savić or Gaćinović.
Since Germany wouldn’t press high, Serbia could push their midfielders very high up the pitch in an attempt to occupy the halfspaces. Since Serbia pushed up their midfielders, Germany were quick to counter-press and win the ball back close to their own goal and transition into a counter-attack. They’d utilize Sané‘s pace and dribbling ability to carry the ball forward quickly into the final third. Brandt and Havertz would also support the counter-attack, running in from the left and right to try and stretch the backline and create space for Werner to finish the final ball. Again, this would have led to Germany going two goals up within the first 30 minutes itself if not for some poor finishing from Werner.
The change for Germany has been massive. Moving away from the World Cup winning centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng was a significant decision. It can’t be declared as a success as Germany look very weak during set-pieces and aerial duels, but the attacking play looks encouraging. They face Netherlands for the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers in three days time and will be keen to get some payback.
Serbia will face Portugal for the qualifiers of the same tournament on 26th March and they’ll be happy going into the match off the back of a draw against one of the strongest national sides. They have much to improve on but the signs are optimistic and if they can solve the conundrum of a balanced structure, they have all the makings of a side ready to battle it out with the best on the national landscape.
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