Note: I am writing this piece as a counterargument to Bavarian Football Works’ piece on Germany going all-in on the 4-2-3-1 formation. You can find their full article here.
First off, I am going to state that Joachim Löw is a borderline fraudulent manager, lifted to success by one of the best national team squads in recent history. Look to the 2018 World Cup, where Germany fell out of the competition during the group stages following losses to South Korea, Mexico, and a close win against Sweden. This was in stark contrast to Germany’s World Cup win in 2014. The 2018 group stage culminated in a veteran group of players being ousted from the national team, with Löw attempting unsuccessfully to piece together any semblance of competency and success ever since.
I am going to break down my response to BFW’s piece in five steps: why Germany was successful in 2014, what went wrong in 2018, why the 4-2-3-1 is not the answer, why bringing back the old players is not the answer (especially in the 4-2-3-1), and finally, why Löw must go.
Germany’s 2014 World Cup:
When I think about that run, there are three games that stick out the most: the 2-1 win against Algeria in the group stage, the 7-1 result against Brazil, and the 1-0 final against Argentina. The common theme in these matches is that each match was decided in the midfield. That is often the case with international matches - the play style is much simpler, ball progression is often through the middle of the pitch, a full pitch press is a rarity and is often replaced with a midfield press.
The most notable midfield press that Germany faced throughout the knockout matches was against Algeria, who lined up in a 3-6-1 formation. Yes, if you did not watch the game, a 3-6-1. Their midfield was very compact as Germany dominated possession with 67%. Germany’s back 4 was given free reign to pass around the back while a minimum of 2 players consistently pressed any pass that was aimed towards any player who was not in the back four. Algeria’s tactic was focused on using this press to force mistakes and take advantage on the counter. It was not until extra time when the game opened up and both Schürrle and Özil scored before Algeria could respond with a goal of their own.
The game against Brazil was settled because of Brazil’s lack of a coherent midfield. While Brazil lined up without Neymar after his injury against Colombia. Throughout the group stages, Brazil’s formation revolved around a 4-2-3-1 with Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and Fred in the front 4, while Luis Gustavo, Fernandinho, and Paulinho rotated in the two defensive midfield positions, shielding the back line. The problem was ball progression, as this huge hole was built between the back 6 and the front 4. This disjointed nature between the attacking and defensive players in the squad was exploited by Germany, and the best midfield in the world at the time. The ability to consistently recycle play after losing possession forced one of the most infamous World Cup results in the recent memory.
The game against Argentina was cagey, because of the occasion, and especially against a very underrated midfield in Mascherano and Biglia. While we all remember Götze’s iconic goal, Germany’s midfield won the battle especially with Schweinsteiger’s vintage performance. Argentina had 10 shots with 0 on target, while Germany amassed a total of 5 on target on an equal number of shots. Throughout the competition, Germany used a combination of the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 shapes, while often employing a more defensive midfielder than typically used in that attacking midfielder position. The 4-3-3 shape, most often with Lahm, Kroos, Schweinsteiger, and Khedira was aimed towards possession retention, defensive solidity, and recycling play. That said, the sport has evolved much since 2014, and Löw’s tactics would probably not work in the current time.
Germany’s 2018 World Cup:
Alright let’s talk about this dumpster fire of a tournament. After 2014, a lot of the older heads left the squad. Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Benedikt Höwedes all left the national team setup following 2014, and made way for younger players. Let us also get this out of the way: Löw used a 4-2-3-1 in the 2018 World Cup, while going with the more midfield focused 4-3-3 in 2014.
The mistakes that Löw made are pretty horrific in retrospect. Playing the 4-2-3-1, Kimmich tended to drift all the way down the pitch with little forethought at a potential counter down his side of the pitch (sound familiar BVB fans?). The midfield pivot was comprised of Kroos and either Khedira or Sebastian Rudy. With the creative Kroos, someone who is defensively minded was needed next to him, while neither Khedira nor Rudy necessarily had the legs to shield the back line by themselves. Timo Werner tended to play up top, replacing Klose from the 2014 squad. Werner, playing his entire career as a second forward next to a target man, was completely isolated next to more creative players around him in Müller, Özil, Reus, and Draxler. Löw’s tactics focused on using one of the wingers for ball progression, which Draxler did in the games against Mexico and Sweden, while Goretzka was a wide target man/ball progression focused winger against South Korea, as Löw was clearly out of ideas. With the team being so attacking-focused, Hummels and Boateng were isolated for the counter, where they consistently held off 3 vs 2 and 2 vs 2 situations, while letting the occasional goal get past.
In short, the German national team lacked a clear goalscoring option with so many creative players and Werner not being able to create space for himself, forcing Löw to commit numbers forward, leaving Hummels and Boateng to suffer the fate of numerous counterattacks from the opposition.
After the World Cup, Löw took little responsibility, and instead brought a lot of the blame on Özil for his pre - World Cup antics with Turkish President Erdogan, Hummels and Boateng for being obsolete and slow, and Thomas Müller for lacking his typical clinical nature from previous World Cups, while a lot of the blame should have rested on his shoulders.
Why the 4-2-3-1 does not work:
If you want the short answer to skip this entire section, the answer is ball progression.
Now here are a bunch of diagrams to break it down. The focus is on triangles from the back line all the way up to the front line. The graphic below depicts the three formations the national team has used in recent years, showing from left to right the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3, and 3-4-3.
(Yes, my ability to create graphics in powerpoint is impeccable)
Looking at the graphic, it is understandable why the 4-2-3-1 has been such a beloved formation throughout the last decade. The involvement of the number 10 connects the deeper midfield players and the front three in the center of a pentagon, giving the player a creative outlet to various teammates in more advanced positions.
The 4-2-3-1 is juxtaposed by the 4-3-3, where the CDM sits in-between the back line and the midfield, offering an easy outlet for the center backs, but therefore leaving the more advanced central midfielders to close the space between the center forward and the wingers.
The 3-4-3 emphasizes play on the wings. Unlike the 4-2-3-1 where a player occupies the space in-front of the double pivot, and the 4-3-3 where a player sits behind the double pivot, the 3-4-3 allows both spaces to be open. Which is certainly a problem in national competition, where the center of the pitch is most emphasized in more simplistic coaching strategies. However, the 3-4-3 allows the easiest ball progression when the opposition midfield has done well to prevent effective play through the middle.
In summation, and in theory, the 3-4-3 allows the easiest progress through the wings of the pitch, while the 4-3-3 allows the easiest progress through the center of the pitch, and the 4-2-3-1 allows for the most effective creative play in the opposition’s half. It is only possible, with someone like Toni Kroos or Thiago Alcantara, to make the 4-2-3-1 work effectively, since they were and are the most press resistant and creative players in the world. While Alcantara has been the best deep lying midfielder in the world recently, Kroos has never been an athletic, or a defensively focused midfielder, thus forcing his midfield partner to be someone who can cover that ground and workload for him.
While the 3-4-3 is not the way to go for the national setup after citing the aforementioned reasons, the 4-3-3 is probably the way to go. The 4-3-3 is much more effective to give Kroos the freedom be a sensational midfielder, while allowing Germany to put its best foot forward in a competitions that tend to have more midfield centric games relative to domestic competition. It gives someone like Goretzka his best position as a center midfielder who roams into the box, allows Werner or Sane to play on the wing with the ability to run into space behind the back line, Kai Havertz to play on the other wing in the half space, while someone like Gnabry or Nils Petersen to play as an unorthodox CF. Obviously those are just hypotheticals, but from what we have seen, Timo Werner lacks the ability to play in the CF position by himself, even with Nagelsmann as his coach last season.
While Bayern did employ the 4-2-3-1 shape last season under Hansi Flick, they did so with Alcantara and a high line, having the luxury of a rapid center back in Alaba, a sprinter in Alphonso Davies, and more conservative defenders in Pavard and Boateng. Employing Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 under Löw would be disastrous, as the midfield situation would hardly be as balanced as Bayern’s, the back line much slower than Bayern’s, with much more attacking fullbacks, and a CF in Werner who is much more uncomfortable playing by himself compared to Lewandowski.
Bringing the Older Players Back Is Not The Answer:
This is the most controversial of mine in this article, and it is going to be pretty short. While I think that Hummels is certainly still a sensational CB, Boateng is still a very good CB, and Müller is still a sensational winger. Putting these players back into the national team setup, especially when the process of building the team around players like Sane, Havertz and Kimmich has already begun would most likely be a regression of the squad in the long term. While putting Hummels and Boateng back into the back four would definitely improve the team, both players are at the back ends of the careers and will need to be replaced soon anyway.
Rudiger, Süle, Ginter, and Tah are somewhat underwhelming alternatives to the duo, but Germany’s defensive failings in 2018 were ultimately Löw’s responsbility, as are the squad’s current problems on the defensive side of the ball. With Müller, he still has enough quality for the starting 11, but he would prevent someone like Havertz, Brandt, or Sané from reaching the pitch, all players who are starting to really come into their own and eventually make a difference by themselves for the NT setup. Going back on the decision would do little to help the squad other than in the short term, while the best option would be to keep those players around as veteran voices in the locker room with occasional minutes on the pitch in any upcoming tournament.
Löw Must Go:
This really is not controversial in any way. He botched the 2018 World Cup, not any of the players who he placed the blame upon. In 2014, he was lifted by a historically quality German national team, with a genuinely talented assistant in Hansi Flick. And despite his best efforts, he is unable to understand the strengths and weaknesses of this current Germany roster. He is unable to put his personal grudges to the side, as shown with Hummels, Boateng, Müller, and Özil, and even further in the past with Marcel Schmelzer. He lacks any tactical versatility and any semblance of understanding in the modern game. He consistently puts players in roles that highlight the flaws of their game rather than their weaknesses. And while the individual brilliance of certain players keeps the team afloat, he is unable to build a coherent identity that was built for him by generational talents like Philipp Lahm or Bastian Schweinsteiger.