Here’s why Germany can give the United States so many problems in the Women’s World Cup semifinals

The number one and two teams in women’s international soccer will meet in Montréal in a few hours, but though today’s matchup between Germany and the United States has long been the potential highlight of this summer’s World Cup, the nature of women’s soccer means the Germans are largely anonymous. The U.S. has Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo — players who have a certain level of recognition in this country — but most sports fans are unlikely to recognize the names Célia Śaśic, Anja Mittag, or Lena Goeßling. To even most ardent soccer fans, Germany will be a team with a reputation that’s made up of unknowns.

That reputation will say the Germans should give the U.S. its toughest test of Canada 2015, but most may not know why. Here’s why:

GER-SWE-2015-06-20.svgWikipedia

That system

Remember back in 2010, when a young German men’s team became the darlings of the South Africa World Cup? Sure you do; or, if you’re like me, maybe you’ve blocked it out, choosing to see 2010 as the year of Spain, Diego Forlán and vuvuzelas. For a lot of people, though, the fluid approach executed so adroitly by the likes of Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Philipp Lahm created the most attractive soccer of that tournament. The German program became a blueprint for world soccer.

Part of that blueprint was the system – the “4-2-3-1.” The numbers not only refer to how the players are set out (four defenders, two deep midfielders, one lead striker) but a flexible approach which, generally, promoted the fluid, versatile, pressing style that’s become endemic of the modern game. The top four attackers can pursue and interchange; the two midfielders can sit and hold (or, let one move up into space); the back has enough protection to let the fullbacks bomb forward. Good stuff.

Though the world has spent the last three years coming up with ways to combat the approach, it’s still one of the world’s go-to systems. And with the Silvia Neid’s German women’s national team, the system is still used to near-perfection. The passing, pressing, and swapping of the team’s attacking triangle — Śaśic (that lead attacker), Anja Mittag (behind her) and Alexandra Popp (the left-to-in attacker) – is vaguely reminiscent of what Miroslav Klöse, Özil and Müller provided in South America. Lean Goeßling offers Schweinsteiger-like stability in the middle (if in a different way), and fullbacks Leone Meier and Tabea Kemme are able to provide the width through the midfield the system sometimes sacrifices when its wide attackers play high.

This is the system that ended the era of the 4-4-2. It allows you to hurry another team’s back line, maintain numbers in midfield, while often keeping a numerical advantage at the back. It lets you to leverage all the advantages of modern, more physically, technically, and tactically adept talents, without whom this type of approach couldn’t be implemented before.

And one of the main reasons all this matters today: the United States plays a 4-4-2.

That striker

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 26:  Celia Sasic #13 of Germany moves the ball past Louisa Necib #14 of France during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarter final match at Olympic Stadium on June 26, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)Getty Images

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 26: Celia Sasic #13 of Germany moves the ball past Louisa Necib #14 of France during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup quarter final match at Olympic Stadium on June 26, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

You can’t play Germany’s system with just any striker. The plodding targets of yesteryear, or the smaller halves of those big one-little one combos? They don’t work. The physical and technical progress the 4-2-3-1 leverages are embodied by its strikers. You have to have fit, versatile, willing talent that can lead from the front. And those talents have to score goals.

In the women’s game, Celia Šaśic is one of the prototypes. The leading scorer in this year’s Frauen Bundesliga, Šaśic also has a tournament-leading six goals in Canada, and even though two of those scores have come from the penalty spot, her four open play goals would still be good enough for second in the tournament. On Friday, in the tie-breaking penalty shootout against France, she buried the conversation that provided Germany’s winning margin. She’s on her way to an unbeatable claim for World Player of the Year.

If anything, though, Šaśic’s goal-scoring has been her second-best asset this tournament, something I don’t say lightly (considering she has scored those six goals). Harassing opposing defenders and creating chaos as she tracks back onto other teams’ defensive midfielders, Šaśic is helping create the series of turnovers that’s helped German dominate three of its five games. Leading from the front, she’s been the tournament’s most complete forward.

The best example of this was in the Sweden game, when Germany’s attackers forced a series of turnovers in the Swedish half (right), enabling the team’s surprise rout of the world’s fifth-ranked team. Unfortunately for the U.S., Sweden is the team in this tournament that is most similar to it, be it in formation, style or (thanks for former coach Pia Sundhage) temperament.

Whereas France’s speed and skill made Śaśic’s intensity a non-factor — allowing Les Bleues to easily transition from one phase of the game to another — the U.S. could be pressed into these same turnovers. Or Šaśic’s ability to come back and harass deepest midfielder Lauren Holiday could lead to a series of possession-changing punts as an outnumbered midfield fails to provide options.

The worst case scenario: The same 4-4-2 formation that Germany snapped against Sweden will again break in Montréal.

That pairing

If Šaśic was doing her wrecking ball routine without a partner in crime, loose balls would be scooped up by opposing defenders, calmly played forward, leaving Šaśic to run herself into the ground. While that’d be fun to watch for 60 minutes (and, potentially physically destructive to whomever faced Germany), it wouldn’t do Neid’s team much good. A wrecking ball’s pretty useless if you don’t use the ground you’re trying to level.

Enter Anja Mittag.

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20: Anja Mittag #11 and Pauline Bremer #8 of Germany celebrate their win after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 round of 16 match between Germany and Sweden at Lansdowne Stadium on June 20, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada.  (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)Getty Images

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20: Anja Mittag #11 and Pauline Bremer #8 of Germany celebrate their win after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 round of 16 match between Germany and Sweden at Lansdowne Stadium on June 20, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)

When FIFA announced its player of the year nominees last year, Seattle Reign and former Arsenal head coach Laura Harvey reacted with three obvious omissions: her star midfielder, Scottish international Kim Little; the NWSL’s best player over its two seasons, Holiday; and Mittag, a player well-known in Germany and northern Europe but without an international profile.

True, that description applies to most players in the women’s game, but for Mittag, it’s particularly unfortunate. The 30-year-old forward is coming off a three-plus-year stint at Sweden’s Rosengård where she scored 62 times in 69 league games. At the same club, world renown superstar Marta has 10 goals in 16 games since 2014. With 43 goals in 130 career appearances for Germany, Mittag has long translated that production to the international stage, with her versatility leaving her able to fill any of Neid’s four attacking positions.

She’s not perfect, as her early sub in the quarterfinals against France showed, but her scoring instincts and versatility often make her a perfect foil for Sasic. As her partner creates chaos, she’s able to move into spaces that create quick moments of danger, with Germany’s early success against Sweden the prime example. And when it’s her turn to unsettle the opposition, it’s Sasic that reaps the rewards, as the duo’s 11 combined goals this tournament show.

The U.S. as a team has scored seven times all competition. It hasn’t had the fortune of facing a Cote d’Ivoire or Thailand, as Germany did in group stage, but the disparity is still telling. Whereas the U.S. has had trouble getting stellar performances out of its most famous stars, German’s destructive duo has been firing on all cylinders. By a large distance, Mittag and Śaśic will be the stiffest test of the tournament for what’s been a standout U.S. defense.

That solidity

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20: Saskia Bartusiak #3 nd Lena Goessling #20 of Germany celebrate their win after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 round of 16 match between Germany and Sweden at Lansdowne Stadium on June 20, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada.  (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)Getty Images

OTTAWA, ON - JUNE 20: Saskia Bartusiak #3 nd Lena Goessling #20 of Germany celebrate their win after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 round of 16 match between Germany and Sweden at Lansdowne Stadium on June 20, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)

One of the big disappointments hardcore U.S. fans have learned to live with is the lack of a defensive midfielder – a player who can occupy the deep spaces in midfield, both protecting the defense and providing a balancing presence in attack. Head coach Jill Ellis has tried to make Holiday, a natural attacker, into that type of player, but there appears to be no substitute for the real thing. As players like Seattle’s Keelin Winters continue to thrive in the NWSL, the national team forges ahead, oblivious to one of modern soccer’s most important roles.

However thick those “DM blinders” have become, it’s going to be difficult to ignore the influence Lena Goeßling has for Germany. She’s not going to define the match, and if the U.S. goes ahead, the Wolfsburg standout is unlikely to turn it, but as that a consistent outlet in the middle of Germany’s formation, Goeßling provides the reference point that makes her role so important in the modern game. As fullbacks and wingers flow, as midfielder partners push and recede, and as central defenders split and cover wide spaces, Goeßling’s role remains a focal point her team can come back to.

Maybe this is my bias coming through, but there’ve been times this tournament where I’ve only focused on Goeßling, watching her shift her position as she reads the movement of attackers pressing in front of her. I’ve seen her try to maintain her presence in front of Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak, Neid’s first choice central defenders. I’ve seen her set up just beyond the attacking third, maintaining her team’s outlet as players like midfielders Melanie Leupolz and Dzsenifer Marozsán push forward.

If the U.S. had a player like this, would I be so reverential of Goeßling? Would I pay so much attention to how she works in relation to Krahn? Would I so easily overlook the fact that, in some of her skills, she’s less a prototype defensive midfielder than a player who’s playing a part? A Schweinsteiger analog whose versatility allows her to offset the absence of another star midfielder, Nadine Keßler?

Perhaps, but to me, the contrast is undeniable. A part of six German cup, league, and European champions over the last three years (for club and country), Goeßling embodies the type of solidity that makes her position with Germany so valuable. And the U.S. doesn’t play with that type of player at all.

That motivation

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JULY 09:  Simone Laudehr (L) of Germany and Homare Sawa (R) of Japan battle for the ball during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Quarter Final match match between Germany and Japan at Wolfsburg Arena on July 9, 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)Getty Images

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JULY 09: Simone Laudehr (L) of Germany and Homare Sawa (R) of Japan battle for the ball during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Quarter Final match match between Germany and Japan at Wolfsburg Arena on July 9, 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

The U.S. was living off its us against the world mentality for long before Abby Wambach saved the team four years ago against Brazil, but tonight in Montreal, it’s Germany that’s looking for redemption. Yes, Neid’s team is number one in the world, but it was also knocked out of at the quarterfinal stage in 2011, losing on home soil. It didn’t get a chance to go to the 2012 Olympics and redeem itself like the U.S. did. Germany won Euro 2013, but on the world’s stage, it has had to live with its disappointment for a full World Cup cycle.

It’s more than just the upset. Germany went into 2011 as two-time defending champions. It was playing on home soil. It was considered the favorite, with a potential semifinal matchup against the U.S. seen as the game of the tournament before the first ball was even kicked. Yet in the first knockout round, against a Japan team that had never advanced past the group stage, Germany suffered an almost inexplicable upset. If the Nadeshiko hadn’t gone on to win the tournament, the upset would still be seen as the biggest in World Cup history.

Today is Germany’s chance at redemption. It may yet get Japan in the final, at which point it will have a chance at revenge, but this is the opportunity it’d envisioned. Fair or not, the U.S. is still seen as the standard. It has the name. It has the brand. It has the history. It is still the rival teams like German think of when they’re defining their obstacles.

The U.S. may thrive on its us against the world approach, but Germany’s motivation is far more tangible. It’s trying to live down 2011.

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