Low's adjustments pay dividends as Germany cruise past Slovakia
LILLE, France -- Sometimes, it's about being able to fix things on the fly.
Germany manager Joachim Low went into the 2014 World Cup with a back four of Benedikt Howedes, Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, with Phillip Lahm in a deep, playmaker role.
After the grueling win over Algeria in the round of 16, Low shuffled his deck. He moved Lahm to right-back, replaced Mertesacker with Boateng and rather than alternating Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira in midfield, he played both of them.
Germany went on to become world champions.
Two years later, Low is again showing he's unafraid to switch things up. He may have other faults, but stubbornness isn't among them. And this time the changes have come slightly earlier.
Against Northern Ireland, in the third and final group game, he turned to an old-school center-forward, Mario Gomez, while dropping Howedes for Joshua Kimmich at right-back. All of a sudden, Germany had a big, physical center striker who could tie up opposition center backs and force the ball through when opponents sat deep, as well as a full-back who could pass and cross on both flanks
Low was vindicated Sunday as he oversaw a comprehensive 3-0 dismantling of Slovakia that sees Germany through to the quarterfinal, where they'll play the winner of the Monday's Italy vs. Spain clash.
Before you take it as read that Low did what any good coach would do -- use the full breadth of his squad, especially when it's full of options -- consider Gomez and Kimmich for a moment.
The former had not played for the national side in three and a half years, and while after two horrid seasons, he was enjoying a mini-renaissance at Besiktas, that was in, well, Turkey.
As for Kimmich: Before the Euros began. he had one more cap to his name than Angela Merkel and only one season of top-flight football under his belt. He's a natural midfielder, who has only started 15 league games for Bayern, and most of those appearances were somewhere other than right-back.
An equally big call saw Low recalling Julian Draxler, who had started the first two group games but was dropped for the third. The 22-year-old did not seem to have a natural home out on the wing, yet he went on to be voted man of the match on Sunday.
After the match, Low was asked if he had found the perfect lineup. He looked nonplussed.
"No, I think against Italy or Spain, I might change or I might not," he said. "You saw how much Draxler benefitted from being rested; he was quick and sharp. I don't always have to keep the same starting 11."
Slovakia boss Jan Kozak also made changes -- four in total -- to the team that had held England to a 0-0 draw and deployed Juraj Kucka out wide, perhaps hoping to catch Low by surprise. But it was uphill from the start.
After eight minutes, Sami Khedira towered in the box to send a header just above the cross bar. Less than 60 seconds later, Boateng's rasping, first-time, edge-of-the-box volley sent a Slovak clearance straight back at Matus Kozacik. A slight deflection from the forest of players in front of him took it beyond the goalkeeper's grasp.
Five minutes later, the Gomez effect began to pay dividends when a shove on the big man from Martin Skrtel gave the Germans a penalty. Up stepped Ozil, whose finish was pushed away by Kozacik as the Slovak end of the ground roared its approval.
For a minute it looked as if the euphoria from the save had wiped out the setback of the early German goal. Vladimir Weiss and Milan Skriniar conjured up a neat one-two that should have led to a shot, only for the German defence to swarm on the ball and snuff out danger.
Slovakia had another chance to reopen the game in the 42nd minute. Patrik Hrosovsky's reverse pass found Peter Pekarik, whose flighted cross was powered toward goal by Kucka, only for Manuel Neuer to fist it away.
(That's the thing about Germany: You bust your rear end to create a chance and then you still have to beat that freak of nature between the sticks.)
If such a thing as momentum exists, that moment might have changed it in Slovakia's favour. Instead, the game flowed in the opposite direction, only twice as fast. Draxler floated into space in a left-wing position and beat Kucka with the kind of ankle-breaking move of which Allen Iverson would have been proud. He skipped to the by-line and cut it back for Gomez who punched it in to make it 2-0.
At the break, you could only see the game going one way. As Kozak would say afterwards: "I think we played with a bit of fear, but [Germany] were just so focused and single-minded out there, there wasn't anything we could have done to change it."
Maybe if Neuer hadn't neutralized Marek Hamsik's early second-half strike things might have changed. But, more likely, Kozak is right. When Germany are like this, all you can do is hope to absorb the hit.
Just after the hour mark, Low's men closed out the game. Hummels won a header in the box and the ball fell to Draxler who, from a few yards out, simply swung his boot to guide it past Kozacik. 3-0 and lights out.
Neuer has yet to concede a goal in this tournament, the German midfield is humming and the right formula seems to have been found in attack. But Low wouldn't be Low if he rested on his laurels.
"Look, it took us a while to get going in this tournament, and today we were better," he said. "But I think, and I say this with great respect to our opponents, today is not an indication that suggests we'll dominate this tournament or even win it. We must continue to improve if we want to be in the conversation to become European champions.
"I am not having sleepless nights at the prospect of facing Italy or Spain, no, I sleep very well at night," he added. "But we need to step up. It's as simple as that."
As for Slovakia, reaching the last 16 is in itself an achievement, and there's no shame in losing to Germany when they play like this.
"Could we have done more?" said Hamsik. "Maybe, but we're Slovakia, we're a small footballing nation against giants. I think we should smile and be proud of our performance at this tournament."
Smiles all around then. Because the Germans certainly are smiling too.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.