Germany and the Semantics of Position

Watching Germany v Portugal last Monday raised some interesting questions about our perceptions of positioning in football. This is not meant strictly in a tactical sense but more in the way we classify players. FIFA states that a final squad of 23 must be submitted for the tournament, with the only stipulation that it must include three goalkeepers. Beyond that, players are listed as “defenders, midfielders and attackers”. However, do we define this by their shirt numbers, their previous performances, the formation they are placed in or by the space in which they operate on the pitch?

Germany offered several good opportunities to explore these questions. Philip Lahm has been the tactical writers’ dream this year, a player who had made a career as a full-back capable of playing on the left or right before his redevelopment as a midfielder last season under Pep Guardiola. Such is Lahm’s versatility, we could label him a defender and a midfielder. He has become so competent in his new holding role that it no longer seems fair to describe as a full-back playing out of position. Thus, through time and a process of reinvention, Lahm has become Bayern Munich and Germany’s Renaissance man, whose sheer ability and intelligence have allowed him to retain his utility at the highest level. Lahm represents Leon Battista Alberti’s humanist maxim that “a man can do all things if he will.”

In the defence itself, Joachim Löw’s decision to field four centre-backs raised eyebrows. This is where the debate between past experience and future deployment comes into play. Here, Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng, who normally play as centre-backs, were placed on the left and right respectively. It seemed an odd line-up but as the game developed, Boateng showed great resilience in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo under wraps. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as he has experience playing as a right back, but the extent which it does demonstrates the significance that is easily placed on primary positions.

Boateng has been typecast to a certain extent as more of a central defender and because we associate a particular set of attributes to that position (namely height, heading, strength etc.), it seems unusual that he should be able to deputise so well in another one. Löw would disagree though, as when Mats Hummels came off injured he brought another ‘centre back’ on in Shkodran Mustafi who filled in at right back, with Boateng moving into the centre.

Even Manuel Neuer stretches our perceptions of what a goalkeeper is. He is a great example of a ‘sweeper keeper’, often seen playing well up the pitch, and is a thoroughly modern footballer. Not only is he an expert shot-stopper, his distribution allows Germany quick and calculated build-up from the back. As mentioned above, the only stipulation within World Cup squad is that three goalkeepers are named. Here we have a slight complication. Neuer is different from the rest of his XI because as a goalkeeper he is allowed to use his hands; yet simultaneously he is a key part of Germany’s outfield play, the foundation from where many attacks begin.

In 2010, North Korea famously tried to manipulate the rules by naming an extra striker as a goalkeeper. The gamble backfired with FIFA ruling that he would only be allowed to feature in goal and not outfield. These rules seem a little draconian. Rarely is the third goalkeeper called upon and it would perhaps be fairer to consider the position as simply the man wearing the gloves rather than a fixed role. There are plenty of instances of outfield players going in goal, with some (like Glenn Hoddle) doing it on multiple occasions. Additionally, lest we forget, David James was thrown on as a target man under Stuart Pearce for Manchester City in 2005, while the likes of René Higuita and José Luis Chilavert were set-piece specialists who scored at international level. The boundaries between goalkeepers and outfield players needn’t be as concrete as they are often thought of as being.

Back to Germany though, and perhaps the most telling part of this performance was Löw’s use of the ‘false nine’ system. With a three-pronged attack of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze, Germany looked threatening even when Portugal had 11 men, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward. As Seb Crankshaw points out in his recent piece on refereeing, football is a game and therefore, “nothing but a simplified system defined by rules”. As long as we adhere to these rules, the rest is up to the coaches and the players to interpret this system as they see fit. Whether Löw is an innovator or simply a pragmatist is open to debate, but his interpretation of the game certainly merits discussion.

What is particularly likeable about this increasingly popular Germany side is the emphasis on the whole over the individual. Indeed, it seems that they have finally transcended the era of the übermensch. At various points during Germany’s recent history, it has felt like the side has been carried by a supreme individual. Matthäus, Klinsmann, Sammer, Ballack and Klose have all assumed this role at some point and it was the ‘super’ qualities of these players that made Germany perennial challengers. Now Germany play like more of a team, emphasised by the egalitarian false nine system that does not place the focus on any one player but rather relies on a co-operative and fluid style to be most effective. This is of course in complete contrast to the Ronaldo-centric model of Portugal.

While Muller was in fact the star against Portugal, he is far less assuming than most cast in that narrative role are. His technique is an especially unique one; his beauty is in his graft, his effectiveness derived from his sheer relentlessness. He is not always pleasing on the eye but after Monday’s hat-trick he already has seven World Cup goals to his name at the age of 24. Last year, the German press dubbed him the Raumdeuter (‘space investigator’), a fantastic description of Muller’s distinctive capabilities. As the player most adept at finding and exploiting space on the pitch, he is the embodiment of this shape-shifting side. Mehmet Scholl commented after the game that he “is not a false 9, he’s a crazy 13”, a fitting tribute to Muller.

Spain’s dramatic exit has left a power vacuum in world football and Germany look like one of the strongest European contenders to fill it.  Built on the nucleus of the exciting 2010 side, these players are maturing together and should be reaching their peak at just the right time. Germany will always be there and thereabouts at International competitions, but Löw’s model of co-operative efficiency makes this World Cup an achievable target.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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