World Cup 2010, England Vs. Germany Preview: Stopping Waves Before They Start

Much of the discussion of this match-up centers around penalty kicsk, with England’s habit of being eliminated from major tournaments in shootouts starting with their 1990 and 1996 losses to Germany. While the excitement surrounding an England-Germany shootout would be worth the two hour wait, the chances of us getting there are slim, giving us reason to look at what will define the match in regulation time.

Soccer matches often come down to a battle of the midfield, and this match may be no exception. England must win individual, midfield battles before Germany can transition into attack, and if they do,England will be able to create instantaneous opportunities for Wayne Rooney and (possibly) Jermain Defoe.

If they don't, the favorites will continue their tendency to attack in waves, creating problems from their older, slower opposition.

Germany, Going Forward: A 21-year-old son of Turkish immigrants, attacking midfielder Mesut Özil has already transformed the German team. He is part of the new face of German football, a face of diversity that is also represented in this year’s team by players of Nigerian, Tunisian, Brazilian, Ghanaian, Spanish and Serbian descent. Most of those players have been parts of youth teams that have dominated Europe’s U-levels, with Özil’s contributions so influential that Joachim Löw and the senior set-up have switched to a modern 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation because of Özil’s ability to play the deployment’s high, attacking midfield position - a position (and player) Germany'd previously lacked.

This presence accounts for the Germany’s ability to attack in waves: Özil carrying the ball into the opposing half with Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller on the wings, Miroslav Klöse pushing the line back to give his creator his room.  When Germany's at full-speed -at their most dangerous - it's common to see a ball played behind the left back, Müller running on to it with Klöse going near post. Podolski will be alone on the weak side while Özil’s near the arc, ready to score a goal like the one he finished against Ghana.  Philip Lahm can come in support, provide an outlet to eventual cross, potentially creating a goal like the one we saw against Australia.  

When Germany enters the attacking third at full speed, this kind of attack becomes frighteningly difficult to stop.  It's easy to say "don't let Müller get behind you," much harder to pull off when you're asking a left back to go from a stopped position, turn and run when his opposition's already baring down on him.

Strong central midfield play can stop the wave at the point of origin, with England midfielder Gareth Barry potentially making this match Özil’s most difficult of the tournament. If Barry can be on Özil when he receives the ball, the defensive midfielder can keep his opponent from turning, moving up the pitch, and putting Barry and Frank Lampard in positions where their lack of foot speed will have to keep-up with Germany’s attackers.

England, Going Forward: Until Jermain Dafoe’s goal against Slovenia, there were questions as to how England was going to score. Their only previous goal came as a result of a defensive breakdown by the United States. For the final 86 minutes against the States and the full ninety against Algeria, England’s attack seemed to consist of playing through Wayne Rooney only to see the all-world forward turn the ball over to a defender.

But after James Milner’s cross to Dafoe against Slovenia, England seems to have hope in an alternative.  Though some numbers show almost all of Milner’s crosses failed to find their target, there is an optimism built from the one that did. Against a German central defense that is at best untested  (at worst, weak) in the middle, the thought of attacking Per Mertesacker and Arne Friedrich in the air is not the worst approach.

As with everything England right now, the question is less of tactic, more of execution. Playing through Rooney was not a bad idea, but it was poorly executed. Playing through the wing is not a bad idea, but against Germany, it’s going to have to be executed better, because although Germany maybe be weak in the middle, it’s a relative weakness.

Mertesacker is criticzed for failing to meet standards, but those are standards of the German national team. Unless England can provide something that defies that standard, Mertesacker should prove sufficient.

How The Match Turns: It Gareth Barry is not deployed higher on the pitch so that he can challenge Özil as he’s receiving the ball, it will be too easy for Germany to get into attack. If, however, Barry can congest the midfield and stop Germany from transitioning out of their end, he could create the type of turnovers England will quickly turn into opportunities for Rooney and Dafoe to run at isolated defenders.

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