Germany’s Achilles' heel - Can defensive inconsistency threaten their European ambition?

Joachim Low's team dazzled in attack during their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign but the lack of certainty in front of Manuel Neuer could prove costly in Poland and Ukraine
By Cristian Nyari | Germany Expert

With a 3-1 win against Belgium on October 11 last year, Germany completed an impressive unbeaten qualifying campaign, winning all 10 matches and topping the group with 13 points between them and second place.

Picking up from where they left off in South Africa, Low's side played an exhilarating fast-paced attacking game that bewildered opponents and spectators alike, scoring an impressive 34 goals along the way. The most impressive performance of all may not even have been in qualifying, but in a 3-0 win over rivals Netherlands in a friendly in Hamburg at the end of 2011. In that match, die Mannschaft bedazzled the recent World Cup runners-up in a manner not seen under Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk.

Yet, despite all that, there remain questions about Germany’s defence, questions that have yet to be answered with their opener against Portugal just around the corner. While their attack has come on leaps and bounds over the last three years, the defensive game has failed to grow at the same rate and an imbalance exists in the team that may very well threaten any hopes of a European trophy this summer in Poland and the Ukraine.

The stats don't lie

In all 13 matches played in 2011, Germany kept only two clean sheets, one in the aforementioned friendly against Netherlands and the other against Kazakhstan in qualifying. They conceded 17 goals in those 13 games, not exactly a tally befitting a potential title contender.

That worrisome trend continued into the new year and was evident in their disappointing, albeit experimental, 5-3 loss in a Euro 2012 preparation match against Switzerland. It was the first time in nearly a decade that Germany had conceded five goals. Their 2-0 win against Israel a couple of days later was only their second clean sheet in their 14 previous matches, both of which came in friendlies.

Since Spain remain the standard-bearer in world football and are still the favourites to win this summer, let’s examine their record in 2011 by way of comparison. La Roja played 12 matches and conceded 11 goals. Now, that is not an enormous difference but it is notable enough for the purpose of our comparison.  Of those 12 matches, six were clean sheets, which does point to a discrepancy between the two sides.

Going purely by those stats, one team is clearly more solid, or at least has a better-functioning defense, than the other. Sure enough, title-winning sides are often founded on solid defensive foundations, Spain included, and knockout tournaments like the Euros do tend to cater to strong defensive sides, as the last couple of tournaments suggest. The world champions conceded just two goals in their World Cup-winning run in 2010 and three when they won the Euro two years earlier. The the same holds true for previous winners such as Italy in 2006, Greece 2004, France in 1998.

Line-up inconsistencies

Throughout qualifying, Low displayed a commendable willingness to give new players a chance and integrate those that had been doing well for their respective clubs, but the discontinuity, particularly in the team's back-line, played a large part in their defensive vulnerability and remains a problematic area ahead of the tournament.

In the last 16 matches leading up to the Euros, Low has used 13 different back-lines, continually rotating his back four and indirectly destabilising what was already Germany’s weak spot. The same back four only played back-to-back matches on two of those 16 occasions, back in early 2011. In that series of matches, Löw has used four different right backs (Boateng, Trasch, Howedes and Lahm), three different left backs (Lahm, Aogo, Schmelzer) and six different centre-back partnerships (Mertesacker/Badstuber, Mertesacker/Hummels, Mertesacker/Boateng, Hummels/Friedrich, Hummels/Badstuber and the three-man back-line experiment against Ukraine in the form of Hummels/Badstuber/Boateng).

It is no surprise then that Germany, for all their attacking ability, have kept only three clean sheets in those 16 games. In all fairness, the same questions were asked before the 2010 World Cup and Low's side did fairly well in that department throughout the competition, but it is nevertheless an issue worth noting because it remains unresolved and has materialised time and time again.

The apparent indecision over his personnel does not instill a great degree of confidence in Low, particularly when considering how dangerous their group-stage opponents can be in attack. In all likelihood, the coach will go into the Euros with the same back-line he used in the friendly against Israel, a back four that have played together only twice in the last 18 months. If Germany manage to outscore their opponents, none of the above statistics will matter much in the end, but Low's indecision regarding his defence may just hamper the team's great development in other areas and cost them glory once again.

Lahm - Mertesacker - Badstuber - Aogo  v Italy
Lahm - Mertesacker - Badstuber - Aogo
v Kazakhstan
Trasch - Friedrich - Hummels - Schmelzer v Australia
Lahm - Friedrich - Hummels - Schmelzer
v Uruguay
Lahm - Friedrich - Hummels - Schmelzer v Austria
Howedes - Badstuber - Hummels - Aogo v Azerbaijan
Trasch - Hummels - Badstuber - Lahm v Brazil
Howedes - Hummels - Badstuber - Lahm v Austria
Trasch - Mertesacker - Boateng - Lahm v Poland
Boateng - Mertesacker - Badstuber - Lahm v Turkey
Howedes - Mertesacker - Hummels - Lahm v Belgium
Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber (3-5-2)
v Ukraine
Boateng - Mertesacker - Badstuber - Aogo v Netherlands
Boateng - Hummels - Badstuber - Aogo v France
Howedes - Mertesacker - Hummels - Schmelzer v Switzerland
Boateng - Mertesacker - Badstuber - Lahm v Israel

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