By Clark Whitney
Because of the constant flux of coaches and players in modern football, it is uncommon to see a team develop under relatively constant conditions. Pep Guardiola has managed to achieve consistent success while adjusting his Barcelona team over the years, but otherwise, there are very few that have lasted for an extended period.
On the international stage, though, there is one example of note: Joachim Low has coached Germany since 2006, and his five-year reign has seen a general philosophy stay true, while specifics have been adjusted again and again as he has searched for the right combination.
In the beginning, Low sought to maintain the aggressive, attack-minded values that he had helped instill while working as assistant to his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann. He valued the promotion of young Bundesliga stars, and had no qualms turning the likes of Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger into cornerstones of his team.
But during his time at the helm of the DFB team, Low has adjusted certain aspects of his philosophy. He first preferred 4-4-2, but has since resorted to 4-2-3-1, and even 4-1-4-1 systems. In his earlier years, he might have hesitated to promote a 21-year-old (Mario Gomez) to the senior team. But his trust in youth has grown and grown: a year ago, he called up the then-18-year-old Mario Gotze and 20-year-olds Lewis Holtby and Andre Schurrle, handing them their first caps in a friendly against Sweden.
There is a grand scheme at the DFB, and it is one that for all its technicality is often missed or ignored. But every so often, Low and his staff offer a glimpse at Germany’s philosophical direction. Below, Goal.com takes a look at the latest developments from the DFB.
Believe it: 4-2-4 could be the future
Five years ago, Franz Beckenbauer wrote that for young players, it is best to prepare in a 4-2-4 set-up. Therein, there is no "focal point" of the attack, and all-across the front line learn a more complete skill set.
The topic re-surfaced in 2009, when DFB chief scout Urs Siegenthaler asked Spox: "Why not play with four strikers?"
"Barcelona play with three strikers, and suddenly the whole world is calling for three strikers. But the pure copy of success inhibits one’s own development. We need to find our own solutions, even if they are sometimes provocative."
Siegenthaler’s point at the time was more a comment on Germany’s need to lead their own way than a definite recommendation. But recently, 4-2-4 has re-surfaced as a possibility.
In August and September, Germany U20 coach Frank Wormuth experimented with a 4-2-4 formation that included striker-type players, but had no real "focal point" among Lennart Thy, Kevin Volland, Florian Trinks and Patrick Herrmann. When asked about his tactics, the trainer replied: "Barcelona have shown that you can play perfectly well without a classic centre forward."
Looking at the up-and-coming forwards in German football, there are few top talents who are purely classic 'No. 9'-types. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, of Hertha Berlin and the U21 national team, is one exception. But others, even those with the physique of a classic target-man, have been trained to play in deep areas and out wide. One example is the rather burly Alexander Esswein, who plays wide for both Nurnberg and U21 national teams, but is naturally much more a '9' than a '7.'
Volland, 19, has been prolific for 1860 Munich this season, but his role is more that of a supporting striker, and he often assists. The same goes for Samed Yesil, 17, who has been setting the U19 West Bundesliga alight for Leverkusen ever since returning from the U17 World Cup with six goals and seven assists. Germany really are moving away from the concept of a "poaching”" centre forward. Gomez - who is becoming increasingly a complete player - could be the last such striker we see in the German national team for some time.
A switch to 4-2-4 is by no means a change to expect anytime soon, however. Low said on Wednesday that playmaker Mesut Ozil is no option in the centre of attack should Klose and Gomez both be unavailable. But regardess of the way they are ultimately deployed tactically, Germany’s forwards are making a distinct move away from the classic six-yard box type, and towards a more balanced type, capable of playing outside the box.
Mental development matters more than age
As an isolated quality, age has little value. It is not the years someone has, but the experience, composure, and maturity - in addition to skills - that a player possesses which will give him an edge. As recently as early 2010, Low was still reluctant to make large changes to his team. He waited until March of 2010 to cap Thomas Muller, and to move Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wing to central midfield. Rene Adler was only replaced by the clearly superior Manuel Neuer when the Leverkusen man suffered an injury before the World Cup.
Low now has no qualms shaking things up, and the turning point perhaps was the recent World Cup. Muller’s performances proved that even a 20-year-old could have the mental fortitude to play at the highest level and shine. Had it not been for the Bayern man’s success, Low might have replaced the suspended winger with Piotr Trochowski for the semi-final match against Spain. Instead, he used the young Toni Kroos, who himself had only earned his first international cap three months prior.
Low backed up his decisions with philosophical comments in October, at a conference at the Freiburg youth academy.
“Cognitive development is extremely important. The development of the mind, I think, is now more important than ever. Intelligent players are receptive and capable of implementation,” he said, according to the official Freiburg website.
"A Mesut Ozil, a Mario Gotze, a Mats Hummels, a Holger Badstuber, and so on - they are very mature even in their younger years. A couple years ago I had a different picture."
Indeed, since the World Cup, Low has dropped the likes of Jorg Butt, Arne Friedrich, Serdar Tasci, Piotr Trochowski, and Stefan Kiessling in favour of younger replacements, whom he believes to be sufficiently mature.
Individual proficiency is more important than the system
Also at the Freiburg conference, Low emphasised the increasing importance of individual class in the modern game.
"We clearly have better training in technical aspects. But the space on the pitch has become smaller, the time to act scarce. Individual skill is therefore the most important factor in training, more important than the system."
Indeed, with the increasing athleticism of players, there has been a drop in acceptable margin of error. If a player receives the ball, for example, it is now more important than ever that he have a soft first touch, because these days he is more likely to have a marker nearby.
Low was quick to clarify that such 'individual class' extends far beyond ball tricks and step-overs. Instead, he emphasised complete mastery of the basics in every player’s repertoire.
"We need to make the simple into the very special: the passing game, the timing, the pressing and trapping, the game without the ball, how we deal with one-on-one situations, how we quickly find solutions in small spaces."
It is in these so-called 'simple' areas that Low’s Germany have excelled in recent years: their movement on and off the ball, and decisions in one-touch passing in particular. Success can only come when each player's proficiency works in concert with the next, but the most fundamental and eluse pre-requisite is that each brings an adequate skill-set to the training camp before learning the system.