Football tactics are constantly evolving as anyone who has read ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ will know. Ever since Claude Makelele lifted the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid in 2002 almost every side deemed it necessary to have a player in the ‘Makelele role’. A player just in front of the back four, offering them extra cover and solely focusing on the defensive aspect of the game. These players rarely venturing past half way.
It’s a position that you’d find in almost every major side in the 2000’s. Juventus under Capello had Emerson and Arsenal used Gilberto to sit back while Vieria would venture forward. To give a modern-day equivalent Spurs employ Scott Parker or Sandro in that position. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side was built around Makelele who was a vital part of their 4-3-3 system. Even Spain used Marcos Senna to protect the back four at Euro 08. But as tactics evolve it seemed one defensive midfielder wasn’t enough and two holding midfielders started to emerge at the start of the decade. Manchester City are guilty of this, in the 2010-11 season their starting eleven regularly had De Jong and Barry shielding the defence. This made sides harder to break down but the attacking aspect of the game suffered.
The 2010 World Cup was accused of being a dull affair as many sides employed defensive tactics. Holland made the final playing football that was very un-Dutch like. They played a 4-2-3-1 system with van Bommel and De Jong acting as midfield destroyers. De Jong’s kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso became an iconic image that represented just where the Dutch team had gone (in terms of their football). But for every system there is a counter-system. Managers will always think of ways to respond just as Barcelona found out this season. Teams have thought of ways to react to Barca’s play and they struggled at times to over come that. Look at Chelsea v Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final and against Real Madrid in the last Classico of the season.
Football was bound to react and already we have started to see signs of it in the season just past. Manchester United started the season with Tom Cleverley and Anderson as their first choice midfield pairing. Neither one of them could be classified as a ‘holding midfielder’ and both seem to be footballers that can run from box-to-box, tackle and cover for one another. They’re more rounded footballers to be boxed into a certain category of midfielder ie. destroyer or creator. When one would push up field the other would sit deeper to give defensive cover. Both suffered injuries that ruined their seasons and disrupted what was a promising pairing.
Now for Germany with have a similar situation with the pairing of Bastian Schweisteiger and Sami Khedira. They both showed a fantastic understanding against the Dutch in their 2-1 victory. Even though Holland started with van Bommel and De Jong in midfield neither were able to stop Schweisteiger from setting up both of Gomez’s goals. He was able to run from deep untracked as the Dutch were preoccupied by Ozil, Muller and Khedira. They have played together many times for Germany and have formed a good understanding. Both started all of Germany’s matches in the 2010 World Cup where they finished 3rd. They were also paired together regularly during the qualifying campaign that saw German win all their 10 matches.
The idea of having one midfielder who only attacks and another that only defends has major flaws. You mark the more attacking of the two out of the game and the more defensive one is hardly a threat to the opposition’s goal. The situation with Schweini and Khedira is different. As against Holland, Khedira could push forward with the ball and Schweini would drop back and vise versa. Schweisteiger’s ability to cover even allowed defender Markus Hummels to push forward with ball safe in the knowledge that his position would be covered. His surge up field in the second half almost resulted in a goal.
Joachim Low has a midfield pairing that can offer the defensive protection he wants but also has two players that can provide an offensive threat. In picking these two he is not disadvantaged by picking players that are one-dimensional in their play. In the England v France game Scott Parker broke up play well but his passing in the final third of the pitch was poor. Parker is a player who focuses so much on the defensive aspect of the game that he offers little to the attacking play. But for Germany their flexibility in midfield is something that Holland weren’t able to deal with in the first half.
van Bommel and De Jong are not accustomed to facing so many attacking options in the middle of the park. In the lead up to the first goal De Jong was dragged out wide left by Ozil and van Bommel was trying to mark Khedira before going off to track a run by Muller. Normally these two provide an excellent barrier for their defense but were being dragged about by Germany’s movement in midfield. They couldn’t track the run of Schweisteiger who arrived unmarked in the final third of the pitch to set up Gomez’s goal. It may be a bit harsh to put all the blame on van Bommel and De Jong as Sneijder should have tracked Schweisteiger and Robben and Afellay are not the most disciplined of wingers.
Germany have shown the value of having players that are adaptable and not just structured footballers who only preform one role. Defense has started to dominate football and so attackers have had to get more intelligent. Barcelona started the movement with their quick-passing, high tempo, high pressure game but that resulted in teams just ‘parking the bus’. Germany seem to have thought about this and evolved their play. Players look at other players and think of them in terms of ‘defensive midfielder’ ‘attacking midfielder’ and thus pay more attention to the attacking ones. But if you rid yourself of these boxes or labels that we give to players, then every single one of them becomes unpredictable. That was the whole idea behind Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff’s total footballing philosophy in the 70’s.
Every player should have the ability to play each position and that way has a better understanding of the game and the role of his team mates. It’s ironic that this German side are more akin to the total football philosophy then the current Dutch side. Khedira and Schweinsteiger have created a midfield pairing where neither is the destroyer or creator but instead two partners who work in unison. One of the biggest criticisms of total football is that for all their nice play Holland in the 70’s (the champions of total football) did not win anything. That is the one thing Germany have to do to make them truly great, win this tournament. They have come close before but this feels like their time. So far at this Euros they are on course to re-write history.