Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
On this evidence, Germany’s problems are far from resolved. A win, of course, is a win. But Sweden, like Mexico before them, should have been out of sight before the Nationalmannschaft‘s second-half resurgence.
The “quicker defensive transitions” Joachim Low called for on Friday were not evident. Nor, for the most part, was the art of “getting attackers in behind Sweden’s defence.” For there was no space behind Sweden’s massed ranks. Nor, for that matter, was there any space between them: Low’s stubbornly narrow shape saw to that.
But, first, the positives. Caught ahead of the ball far too often against Mexico, Sami Khedira was benched here in favour of the more positionally-reserved Sebastian Rudy. The greater mobility of Marco Reus was also preferred to Khedira’s ever-languid “Bling-bling Gang” colleague, Mesut Ozil.
Reus would surely start on the left, helping to stretch the Swedish defence, thought all and sundry. Germany, starved of quality left-backs, badly lacked a genuine outlet on that flank against Mexico, after all. And there was also Low’s explanation for Leroy Sané’s notable absence: the Manchester City man’s subordination behind Julian Draxler and Reus in the left-sided pecking order.
All and sundry were wrong, however, as Reus instead proved a direct replacement for Ozil at number-10. Draxler continued to congest the play, drifting in from the left. Jonas Hector therefore, back here after a brief illness, was asked to mirror Joshua Kimmich’s role; despite plying his trade for relegated Cologne.
Low’s policy of encouraging both his full-backs into the final-third at the same time was severely punished last time out. And, although both Kimmich and Hector linked up for a big second-minute chance, Sweden eventually took advantage, too.
Drawn apart by the German full-backs, a nervy Swedish defensive unit did offer gaps to run into in the first 10 minutes. German players reached the byline on four occasions during this frantic spell, forcing Janne Andersson’s deep-lying defenders into fire-fighting mode.
But, once the Swedes got a mental grip on the game, and started to move laterally as a unit, Low’s congested attack found no way through. Long staunch 4-4-2 advocates, Sweden mimicked their Nordic friends Iceland by forming an ultra-deep, ultra-compact, three-bank wall. And, as with Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side, the strikers’ positioning was key: both Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg dutifully sat goalside of Toni Kroos, preventing the playmaker from doing his instigating thing.
As such, self-appointed fashion mogul and Beckenbauer wannabe Jerome Boateng took it upon himself to co-opt Kroos’ playmaking mantle. In fact, the Bayern centre-back touched the ball more times than Kroos during the first-half, keenly stepping into midfield, before slowly trundling back toward Antonio Rudiger at turnovers.
This insanity neatly explains why Sweden could fashion four gilt-edged counterattacking chances in the first-half, despite having only completed 23 passes by the time of Rudy’s 23rd-minute injury.
Harbouring precisely zero interest in ball-possession, or ball-winning for that matter, the Swedes simply waited for the interceptions that so readily arrived. Amazingly the metronomic Kroos coughed up two of them: one inspired Rudy’s bloodied nose, and the other Toivonen’s opener.
Toivonen’s strike partner, Berg, started the attack, doing precisely what his manager would have wanted. The Al-Ain striker, who like Toivonen is very much in career wind-down mode, intercepted a Kroos pass to Ilkay Gundogan. Viktor Claesson provided the through-ball, slicing through the disgracefully yawning gap between Boateng and Rudiger.
Claesson himself wasted another, later, counterattack; right before the break. And fouls from Thomas Muller and Boateng, on Forsberg and Berg respectively, halted the earlier two. Boateng’s foul went unpunished, however, and Sweden were denied a clear penalty-kick.
Punishment would soon follow for the defender, though, as Low instructed his captain to play even higher in the second-half. Boateng’s permanence in midfield formed one plank of the 58-year-old’s half-time change of strategy, which also included an implicit admission of guilt.
Werner, originally fielded up top, suddenly began to take up residence on the left-touchline. Germany finally had another wide outlet to complement Kimmich; and, predictably, it proved crucial in swinging the game.
The Leipzig forward, playing outside Celtic right-back Mikael Lustig, reached the byline time and time again: often fed, as it happens, by Boateng’s diagonals. And that is where Germany’s equaliser came from, as Reus nipped in ahead of left-back Ludwig Augustinsson to sweep home a Werner cross. The physical presence of half-time substitute Mario Gomez, Draxler’s replacement, did enough to distract Granqvist.
Robin Olsen, imperious here in goal, later prevented a near-own-goal from another Werner cut-back. And the Copenhagen goalkeeper, surely soon to be seen in a bigger league, also denied a point-blank Gomez header. The target-man was teed up by a Kroos cross, delivered from the inside-left pocket. Suddenly, after fetishising the right-flank for one-and-a-half games, the Nationalmannschaft were looking balanced in attack.
Not so much in defence, though. Leaden-footed powers of recovery, from a ridiculously high starting position, saw Boateng dismissed for two cynical counterattack-arresting fouls. But, with eight minutes remaining, shutting up shop was not an option for Low: a draw risked Mexico and Sweden turning the tables on Germany with a ‘Disgrace in Gijon’ of their own. Instead, Low went for broke, swapping Hector for attacker Julian Brandt in what looked like a rough 2-3-4: Kimmich shifted inside to partner Rudiger.
And, incredibly, Low was rewarded for his adventure, as two Swedish substitutes contrived to throw away a potentially huge point. Werner was again the left-wing hero, ramming home the folly of Sané’s absence by winning the killer Kroos free-kick.
But striker John Guidetti was the villain for eschewing a free team-mate and opting to shoot moments earlier. As was right-winger Jimmy Durmaz, whose propensity for stupid fouls in dangerous areas was simply incredible.
Defeat to South Korea still raises the spectre of elimination for Germany. But that’s hard to envisage now after this morale boosting, get-out-of-jail victory. Low had no option but to risk it all, and Lady Luck duly came up trumps for the German coach. His counterpart Andersson, meanwhile, may regret sticking with 4-4-2 throughout when a third centre-back might have helped to repel the wide barrage.
The Germans will likely march on, then, avoiding the ignominy of becoming the fourth winner in five to exit at the group stage. But Low’s insistence upon effectively employing two wing-backs within a back-four will inevitably come a cropper again against the bigger fish.
And, at the other end of the pitch, if Low continues to employ quality width only on the right, his attack will remain predictable, congested and ripe for turnovers. There are more than just some “small details” to be addressed here: don’t let this seemingly redemptive result fool you.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112