UEFA Nations League 2020/21: Ukraine vs Germany – tactical analysis
Going into the UEFA Nations League Group A4 clash on Saturday night, you perhaps would have been forgiven for believing that Germany would effortlessly triumph over Ukraine at the Kiev Olympic Stadium.
However, the hosts were, in fact, sat above Joachim Löw’s side in their group table having won one and lost one of their opening two matches whereas the Germans had drawn against both Spain and Switzerland in their previous two group games.
Furthermore, Die Mannschaft were without a win in three international matches having drawn 3-3 with Turkey in a friendly on Wednesday earlier in the week.
While Ukraine sat above Germany in the Nations League Group A4 table, they came into the tie following a humiliating 7-1 defeat in a friendly against France on the same night in which Germany were held by Turkey.
With neither side coming into the clash in preferable form, Löw’s side showed their dominance in the clash but were only able to find the back of the net on two occasions as they claimed a 2-1 victory over Ukraine.
For the clash with Germany at the Kiev Olympic Stadium, Andriy Shevchenko deployed his side in a 4-1-4-1 system which remained unchanged from the hammering against the French. Serhiy Sydorchuk sat as the deepest of the central midfielders in the holding role and Roman Yaremchuk led the line as the lone striker.
Germany also opted for an unaltered formation from the midweek friendly and they lined up in a 3-4-3 starting formation. As will be explained in the tactical analysis, this lineup was key for the way Die Mannschaft played and it allowed them to dominate the game. While the Germans scored just two goals, they enjoyed 71% of the possession and completed a whopping 764 passes compared with Ukraine’s 239.
Germany’s narrow front three
In their 3-4-3 structure, one key feature which caused Ukraine defensive problems was Germany’s narrow attacking three. For the majority of the game, Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, and Serge Gnabry were the three attackers with Gnabry predominantly down the middle, Draxler to the left, and Goretzka to the right.
As can be seen in this annotation, the front three often operated close together through the centre of the pitch. This allowed the three attackers provide one another with close passing options and also to find the gaps in the defensive line between the two centre-backs and between either centre-back and the full-back on their side.
As can be seen here, having the three narrow attackers also allowed the forwards to be interchangeable. This annotation is taken just seconds before Goretzka added Germany’s second goal of the night after Matthias Ginter had opened the scoring in the first half after a well-worked short corner.
Goretzka (circled) has moved into a central area while Gnabry has drifted onto the right. Gnabry’s run into the open space as marked by the arrow gives Vitaliy Mykolenko something to think about and opens the space for Goretzka to run into.
From there, Goretzka is able to have enough of a presence to panic the goalkeeper and Heorhiy Bushchan fumbles Lukas Klostermann’s cross which allows Goretzka to head the ball in to make it 2-0.
As can be seen on this occasion, it was not just Gnabry and Goretzka who alternated positions. In this instance, Gnabry has again drifted onto the right-hand side, while Goretzka has moved onto the left to make a run towards the back post. Draxler (circled) is now the most central of the three forwards.
This tactic reduced any chance of playing a man-marking system against Germany’s front three to nought.
While Die Mannschaft’s narrow front three caused Ukraine’s defence problems, Löw also deployed attacking wing-backs which provided Germany with as much width as they required. A key feature of the clash was both Marcel Halstenberg and Klostermann being involved in attacking moves.
As can be seen on this image of the two sides’ average positions, Halstenberg (3) and Klostermann (13) spent the game in positions around the same distance up the pitch as Germany’s front three on average. This allowed Die Mannschaft to stretch the pitch wider than Ukraine with Germany’s average width of four metres more.
These attacking wing-backs can be seen here with Halstenberg and Klostermann almost as advanced as the front three, moving around the outside of Ukraine’s back four. These high wing-backs also drew the attention of Ukraine’s full-backs – Eduard Sobol and Oleksandr Karavayev – which stretched their back four and widened the gaps in the defensive line for Germany’s front three.
As can be seen in this annotation, taken from the build-up to Germany’s second goal, here is a situation where the attacking wing-backs were effective in terms of goal success. Another key feature was Ginter joining the attack from the back three and in this situation, he receives the ball and plays it to Klostermann (circled) who is making a run down the line.
From his position out wide, the attacking wing-back is able to swing in a cross towards Goretzka, who headed home after Bushchan fumbled the ball.
Ukraine cracked the code too late
Despite enduring large swathes of the game under the cosh from the Germans, Ukraine were able to take advantage of the weaknesses in Joachim Löw’s 3-4-3 system, however, it came too late in the day to salvage any points.
Down Germany’s right-hand side, Klostermann was often on the attack and Ginter was not far behind, so this left a fairly hefty gap between Ginter and Niklas Süle – the central centre-back.
As seen here, Klostermann is caught high up the pitch and moves centrally to close down the ball carrier. This leaves Ginter in two minds over whether he should close the gap between himself and Süle or apply pressure to Yevhen Cheberko should he receive the ball. This leaves a wide-open gap in Germany’s defensive line.
To expose this, Viktor Kovalenko played a quick and direct through ball into the gap between the two central defenders for Yaremchuk to run onto.
The through ball leads to this situation with Yaremchuk bearing down on goal and Süle attempting to keep up with him as the deepest defender. In an effort to clear the ball, the German centre-back lunges and he brings down the Ukrainian striker in the box. Ruslan Malinovskiy stepped up to the resulting spot-kick and slotted past Manuel Neuer.
During the tie at the Kiev Olympic Stadium, it was without a doubt that Germany were in control of the game, enjoyed the best of possession and chances, and could have easily won by more.
However, the late penalty led to somewhat of a nervy end to the clash for the Germans, when it should not have been, as Ukraine found a weakness in their tactics. Furthermore, against sides who are quicker on the counterattack, this flaw in their system could be even more of a problem.
On balance, though, Germany deserved their win and were only a little bit of luck away from a comfortable victory.