Heavy is the head that wears the crown in global soccer. As Germany embarks on what will surely be a treacherous road in trying to defend its title, Die Mannschaft has a Munich-sized target on its back.
Assembling a team and keeping its core healthy for the length of a long and grueling tournament like the World Cup is difficult enough, but when each and every opponent has a laser focus on on upsetting the reigning champions, there is little room for an “off” day. How this iteration of the German national team handles the pressure of being the reigning champions will play nearly as big a role in pulling off a repeat as their cohesion and workmanship on the pitch.
On paper, Germany should dispatch Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea with relative ease, but that same paper isn’t going to factor in the extra effort that each of those squads will exert in trying to knock off the current kings of the sport. Mexico and Sweden are proud and talented teams whose entire tournament would be made by knocking off the defending champions.
Should Germany advance from its group, the levels of talent they will face are far greater and the stakes will be even higher, which raises the question, can this squad weather the storm that it is about to enter?
With an insanely talented core group, it is easy to see why Die Mannschaft enters the tourney as one of the favorites, alongside other powerhouses Brazil, France, Argentina, Spain, and Belgium. Since England and Croatia are also deep and skilled — yet for some reason often excluded from the potential contenders — the terrain to securing another title will be full of pitfalls.
One thing that Joachim Löw can lean on, however, is the experience he gained from winning the 2014 World Cup, along with a veteran cast of players who understand the grind of a World Cup run.
The biggest question you can ask of Löw, however, is whether he will let his loyalties stand in the way of what is right for the team. Most glaringly: will he stick with a largely ineffective Sami Khedira when he has a box-to-box terror like Leon Goretzka waiting in the wings? If Mesut Özil looks unmotivated, will Löw react quickly enough to fill that void with a hungrier player? It is not so much a question of talent for Germany, but how that talent is managed.
One of the areas where Germany may actually be underrated is its attack. Powered by the likes of Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Timo Werner, and Özil, Die Mannschaft has a combination of speed, guile, and play-making ability that few teams in the tourney can match.
Werner is a blur with a vicious attacking mentality, while Reus is player who can create and finish opportunities with his speed and elusive style of play. With the likes of Müller, Özil, and Toni Kroos able to create offense and outside backs Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector more than willing to jump into the attack, Germany has the ability to wear down any team in the tourney.
Thus far, however, Die Mannschaft has not looked completely in sync. If we learned anything in the two friendlies leading up to the World Cup, it’s that the attacking unit is capable of creating chaos, but also that they need more fine-tuning to ensure that the havoc they create pays off in the form of goals.
Germany’s defensive unit has been susceptible to the counter-attack, partly because of Kimmich and Hector’s respective willingness to jump into the offense. With the duo of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng likely to be anchoring the defense, Germany should be able to rely on two of the best at their craft to play the role of stopper. Boateng, however, has had lapses of inconsistency of late, and Hummels can only cover so much ground if things break down around him. Against explosive offenses like Brazil, France, or Belgium, Löw’s tactics will be put to the test.
Manuel Neuer and Marc-André ter Stegen represent possibly the strongest goalkeeping duo in the tourney, but even with their supreme talents, Germany will have to do a better job of limiting the opposition than it did against both Austria and Saudi Arabia.
The best and biggest punch of every opponent is what Germany will face, and the margin of error between taking it squarely and crumbling or nimbly weaving and providing a stinging counter-punch is remarkably slim. As Löw pulls the strings of this talented roster, any one decision that goes poorly will analyzed and dissected tenfold, so his strategy and tactics must stay on-point.
This World Cup field feels more skilled, tougher, and confident than in 2014, making Germany’s quest for a repeat that much more difficult. No one — and we mean no one — wants to be subject to a drubbing like the 7-1 decimation that Die Mannschaft put on Brazil in 2014. That’s one reason why every opponent will come out swinging with all their might. There’s no point in trying to rope-a-dope the Germans: they’ve already proven time and time again that they are squad who capitalizes on your mistakes, not vice versa. The best way to beat the champs is to batter them with speed and clinical finishing and also to press them into a level of discomfort, which is increasingly hard to do. In important games since 2014, not many teams have been able to execute that successfully against Die Mannschaft.
Whether or not Germany can withstand an initial flurry from each and every opponent remains to be seen, but Löw’s team has all of the necessary tools in place to make its move at becoming the first team to repeat since Brazil won in 1958 and 1962. Whether Germany can win falls largely on the shoulders of Löw and how he handles the squad. It also depends on his über-talented roster, which must not waste opportunities and look to provide a knockout blow of its own.