Despite dominating possession, Germany were unable to fight back from 1-0 down against France in their Euro opener.
In all their time on the ball, Germany had something missing. They had two central midfielders both perfectly capable of receiving and playing the ball. They had a front three who have all shown their talent at finding space to occupy in the final third. The missing piece of the puzzle was the player to thread it all together.
In essence, Germany need to find a way to replace Mesut Özil.
What Özil Brought
For five international tournaments in a row, Germany had a player who was able to retain possession, progress the ball, and create chances in the final third. Even when deployed wider in the 2014 World Cup, or with reduced minutes in 2018, Özil was always producing.
This production was somewhat lacking against France. When Germany got high up the pitch in the first hour, they would likely stall or play a loose pass. Towards the end, gaps were found as they really pushed for a goal, but it was a case of too little too late. Germany were missing the final ball.
When you occupy a role so long and play it to such a high standard, you have a tendency to leave something of a hole in your absence. What I’m suggesting is not that Germany need to recall the 2021 version of Mesut Özil, for factors owing to age, low minutes over the last year, and the circumstances of his international exit. This would not be a good idea.
Instead, they must find a new solution.
A Misinterpretation of Kai Havertz
Perhaps the greatest case of mistaken identity since Gibbs x Oxlade-Chamberlain, is the vision of Kai Havertz as the spiritual successor to Mesut Özil.
Make no mistake, Havertz is, in my view, a top-quality player. His runs in the final third are genius, he does a brilliant job getting onto the end of passes, and he has a solid enough final ball. He is not, however, Özil.
The biggest difference for me comes in the build-up. I see Havertz as getting involved towards the end of a move, whilst Özil is the guy to shepherd the move on its way. Özil was capable of averaging a pass accuracy of around 88% with three solid chances created. This is a different type of player to the more touch shy Havertz.
The point I am getting to, is that Kai Havertz should not be expected to take up the mantle of ball handler in chief. Not simply because I think he would do a poor job (he probably could do a solid one), but more so because it would totally hamstring his own skillset. A player who thrives when it comes to moving off the ball can easily become bogged down when they start having to take more touches. Right now, he is better off left to play his natural game.
Finding an Alternative
In a new development to this blog, here is a real actual diagram. In scrolling through Twitter, my interest was piqued by this touch and passing network. The dots represent average position of each player, and thickness of line the frequency of passes between the players.
To me, I see a team with a very narrow front three with a heavy reliance on wing backs to attack. The strongest line are the lateral ones, across the centre backs and wing backs, and also across central midfield and wing backs. The lines are noticeably thinner towards and between the front three.
Gnabry was totally isolated, and looking at the setup that is very little of a surprise. In the front three you have three players who are best suited to receiving the ball as they move into space, this is as opposed to forwards who like ball to feet with a defence to run at. Their struggles to get the ball in dangerous positions suggests that Germany are suffering through a lack of a creative focal point.
So, what is the solution?
One solution would be to change formation and put Joshua Kimmich into the midfield. This would require a change to the back four unless they are willing to bench one of Kroos or Gundogan, and would give them a more noticeable presence in the centre of the park.
One potential benefit of this move would be the liberating effect it could have on Ilkay Gundogan. Playing in a midfield two naturally requires more discipline than a three, and Germany could look to give Gundogan licence to roam. At Manchester City, he played this more advanced role to great effect. It should not be ruled out as an option.
Another tactical change would be to change the balance of the front three. I see Müller and Havertz as running the risk of being a bit samey. I would be tempted by the idea of moving Gnabry to his more natural left-sided position, and starting Timo Werner in the middle.
Overall, Germany were hardly catastrophic, and they could very well change nothing and go on to succeed. There is just a feeling that something quite crucial is missing from their team. It might be too soon to say that they should go looking for the next big thing with a cultured left foot from Gelsenkirchen, but it would hardly be a bad thing for the current team.