Keys for Germany: Its Front and Its Back

Updated: 04 July 2014 15:20 IST

Germany had a solid start to their FIFA World Cup campaign but have since slipped gradually. Against France in the quarterfinals though, the minutest of errors can cost the side massively.

Keys for Germany: Its Front and Its Back
Thomas Muller (left) scored three against Portugal. He has since not been able to stage an encore. © AFP

Rio de Janeiro:

It has been a hot and cold World Cup for Germany so far: from its bold statement match in steamy Salvador against Portugal to its botched lines and opportunities in the chill and drizzle of Porto Alegre against Algeria.

But even in fluctuating form and with seven players apparently under the weather with flulike symptoms, the Germans, as usual, are still in contention with the World Cup reaching its business end.

Next obstacle for the Nationalmannschaft: Friday's quarterfinal against a resurgent France.

This German side is hard to read but also hard to categorize, and its protean nature has been particularly evident at the front of the attack and the back of the defense.

Thomas Muller, once again its leading scorer, is an unusually versatile forward. Manuel Neuer is an unusually versatile goalkeeper.

Between them, they gobble up a great deal of ground inside and outside the penalty areas, and even on a rough night for the team in the narrow victory over Algeria, their energy, confidence and resourcefulness were decisive.

Germany will need more of the best of both of them if it is to end what is now quite a drought by its standards, with no World Cup victory since 1990 and no major trophy since the Euro in 1996.

But Muller and Neuer, who play club soccer for Bayern Munich, are certainly not short on trophies, with Bayern winning the German Cup, the Bundesliga and above all the Champions League in 2013.

Muller, 24, has still come a long way in a short time. Only a year before the 2010 World Cup, before the former Bayern Munich coach Louis van Gaal spotted him, he was playing in the third division for one of Bayern's reserve teams.

Only a few months before the last World Cup, he made his international debut for Germany and took a seat at a news conference before a friendly match next to Diego Maradona, the Argentine superstar who was then Argentina's manager.

Maradona did not recognize him and did not suspect, from his youthful appearance, that he was one of the players. So Maradona got up in a huff and threatened to leave.

But Muller soon become a much more familiar face, leading the World Cup in scoring with five goals in 2010 and playing a critical role in Germany's 4-0 quarterfinal destruction of Maradona's Argentina.

Muller was an attacking midfielder on that team, usually operating on the right and sniffing out or creating opportunity after opportunity. He has since proven that it was anything but a fluke. Four years later, he has four more goals in Brazil, and in light of his age and craftsmanship it is hardly a stretch to imagine that he might, by the end of his career, finish with more goals than any man in World Cup history.

For now, with nine goals, he is well behind Ronaldo and his teammate Miroslav Klose, who are tied at the top with 15.

"Muller's not a player who's going to pick the ball up and dribble past two players and put one in the top corner," said Chris Waddle, the former English star working here as a BBC analyst.

"Muller's a player who's honest and genuine and keeps getting in there and keeps arriving on the scene. He gets his chances because of his honesty and endeavor. If you make 20 runs, you might get one chance, and he'll make every one of those 20 runs."

Muller is ostensibly being used as a striker this time, but he is no pure No. 9. Instead, he is roaming all over the attacking zone and sometimes even deep into the midfield to try to start something new and hopefully threatening.

Muller, with his long stride and middle-distance runner's build, likes his open space, and one of his gifts is in finding it. "I know I don't have the most elegant style; I'm not a magician," he told France Football last month. "But I'm unpredictable, and I know what needs to be done: Go where it hurts, never give up and play with lots of spontaneity."

Lots of cool precision, as well. Consider his goal against the United States, beautifully struck off a rebound past the diving Tim Howard, a goalkeeper who has since proven to an even larger audience just how hard he is to beat.

"Credit to Muller, keeping that shot hard and low first time is very, very difficult," Howard said. "He's done it before, but that's the type of player he is. I thought I read it well, but it was a great finish."

Howard is an aggressive, acrobatic keeper, unafraid to challenge. But he is old-school in comparison with Neuer, whose play far off his line here has been the ultimate expression of the goalkeeper's expanded role in the flow of play.

The long-ago spark was the change in the back pass rule in 1992, which was intended to open up the game and forbid goalkeepers to handle the ball when a teammate intentionally kicked it to them. That new rule gradually put more emphasis on foot skills for keepers and ultimately helped produce a man like Neuer, who has been called quite rightly a "sweeper-keeper."

Already inclined to venture outside traditional goalkeeper territory for Bayern, he took his style to new extremes against Algeria, when he touched the ball 19 times outside the penalty area, and not only with his foot. In the second half, with Algerian striker Islam Slimani bearing down on a bouncing through ball, Neuer sprinted outside the area and snuffed out the danger with a leaping header.

On other occasions, he played with the ball at his feet like a midfielder, visibly enjoying the joust at one stage in the first half as he faked out an Algerian forward and only then delivered the pass upfield.

It was bold but undeniably risky, a little too risky for some, including Franz Beckenbauer, who played plenty of sweeper for Germany but not as a keeper.

"Yes, Manuel Neuer saved us in some situations, as an outfield player would do, but he threw caution to the wind," Beckenbauer said at a news conference this week. "I would prefer that he remains in goal against France."

That might be wiser, particularly when it is difficult to imagine the German manager, Joachim Loew, asking his defenders to play quite as high a line against France as they did against Algeria. That should leave less open space that Neuer will feel obligated to patrol. But with France also possessing an aggressive keeper with wanderlust in Hugo Lloris, there should still be plenty of new-age goaltending on display.

But Germany's (and France's) future also depends on whether Muller can continue to produce his new-age goal scoring.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

Topics : Thomas Muller Germany France FIFA World Cup 2014 Football
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