An entirely predictable result from a completely unpredictable match. Despite the defeat, some pride had been restored. Sure, Germany have dropped points in this group to Ireland and Poland, but that was at a time when they looked susceptible. When the world champions were tired from having played high intensity football all summer and then gone into another qualification campaign a short time later. Everyone can see now that they are firing on all cylinders, very tough to beat and will likely march to a European Championships final next summer. Poland didn’t get anything on Friday, Ireland won’t get anything next month and we were never likely to even take a point off such a well oiled unit.
And yet, maybe we could have done.
It was 3-2 after all. There was only one goal in it. I think that’s the reason why, even after seeing how ridiculously good the likes of Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger and İlkay Gündoğan – a player who, to my eternal shame, I’d never heard of before last night – are at football, I couldn’t help have this nagging feeling things could have been different. I guess that’s the nature of the beast.
Strachan opted for a 4-2-3-1 with James Morrison tucking back into a three alongside James McArthur and Scott Brown when Germany had the ball in Scotland territory. Simultaneously, the wingers would drop back in line with the back four. This allowed the full-backs to tuck in. Strachan deployed such a tactic for two reasons:
1) So that our wingers, James Forrest and Shaun Maloney, would have a much easier time of tracking the German full-backs, who basically attacked at will in the first half.
2) That it enabled us to basically play with four centre covering defenders, which would negate the space Germany had to pass around our boys in advanced positions.
Before I go any further. I would like to say that, in general, I think this tactic worked very well. Germany did score three goals, but they didn’t create many clear cut chances otherwise. When you beat the best you always have to rely on a little luck. France missed a couple of great opportunities in the first half of the 1-0 Hampden win in 2006, Bayern Munich squandered enough chances to win a Champions League group when Chelsea defeated them in the final, and even Hearts had to rely on Ki Seung-Yeung twice heading off the post from about four yards out to emerge victorious the 2012 Scottish Cup semi. On this occasion our opponents weren’t in the mood to be quite so wasteful and we lost because of it.
I would also like to add that I thought Gordon Strachan got his team selection pretty spot on. And I admit to this after ripping it to shreds on The Scotsman’s Scotland v Germany Preview show. Charlie Mulgrew got up and down the line very well, Alan Hutton had his best game since 2007 and James Morrison improved drastically when compared with Friday night. Even Steven Fletcher – who’s been getting a bizarre amount of stick on social media for what I thought was a good performance – played very well. He used his strength and technique to hold the ball up, while also working himself into the ground to deny time on the ball for German centre backs. I’ve seen some people claim Leigh Griffiths or Steven Naismith would have done the job better because they’re more dynamic. There’s strong reasoning to this theory, but what Fletcher did was use his body positioning and angle of pursuit to block off passing routes and make the German defenders uncomfortable. They still were able to pass the ball around (hello, they’re Germany!) but they misplaced passes at a greater rate than we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t sound like much, but against this team that’s a major victory.
I say all of this so it doesn’t look like I’m piling on top of this new found distrust of Strachan. Over the course of his management he’s done a good job and I wish to stick with him until that’s no longer the case. But looking solely at last night, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was one area of the field we didn’t account for.
Germany make their living in the gap between defence and midfield. That’s because in Muller, Gündoğan, Mesut Ozil and, to a lesser extent, Mario Gotze, they have a plethora of players who operate in this stretch of turf. Scotland should have had this area covered with three central midfielders, but of the group there was no true defensive midfielder. They took it in turns to press the ball, support defenders in wider areas or to drop deep. When you’re unfamiliar with such a system there’s going to be confusion and gaps will appear. Such a scenario created an opening for Ozil to have a shot from 25 yards early in the match, a warning we didn’t heed before Muller opened the scoring.
Both Brown and McArthur, rather than one of them sitting and keeping the danger in front of them, pressed the ball prior to the goal. Brown initially moved up before the ball was played to Mulgrew, then McArthur committed to the standing tackle, which enabled Muller to shift the ball past him. At this point Brown was too far advanced to get in front of the attacker and, unwilling to take an early booking and walk the proverbial tightrope, could only give the German a light shove. Muller, in case you hadn’t noticed, is built like the side of my house. He easily brushed off Brown and got the luck his overall play deserved when Russell Martin’s left boot deflected his shot into the net.
Even at the winner, I wonder if we could have been better served having a traditional defensive midfielder to track those late runs into the penalty area. Brown lost Gündoğan for the goal, but if his role had been more strictly defined then he might not have taken his attention off the Dortmund attacker.
Then there’s the impact Muller had on proceedings. Two goals and an assist. What happened to the old school ways of man marking the other team’s best player. Couldn’t we have tried that on a player who’s already single-handedly beaten us this campaign?
But I digress. Who knows what would have happened. If we’d implemented such an approach, maybe we’d have lost by more. Maybe sacrificing a player to follow Muller would have enabled Ozil to run the show. Against the very best there’s only so much you can take away. And then again, maybe we’d have won – ok, drawn. The what-ifs are swirling around my head like a flock of birds. It’s what a hard-fought football defeat will do to you.
Written by Craig Fowler (@craigfowler86)
Listen to the latest Terrace Podcast show by clicking here.