It’s never a nice feeling when you wait four years for the World Cup to come along, and in the opening match, your country lets you down. Four years of watching qualifiers and friendlies. Four years that consisted of a bitter European Championship exit for Germany in 2016, and a pleasantly successful Confederations Cup triumph just a year later. A lot has happened for the World Champions since Mario Götze’s extra-time winner versus Argentina confirmed their status as the cream of the international crop. And yet, the shocking defeat to Mexico last Sunday has sent everyone associated with the national team into panic mode.
A dose of reality from Mexico
There is some justification to feeling as if the world is closing in on Germany. They were ripped open time and time again by a ferocious Mexican attack. The 1-0 scoreline was somewhat of a relief for Joachim Löw considering their opponents’ countless goal-scoring chances. Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Miguel Layun and Carlos Vela ran riot on a day when Germany’s slow build-up and possession-based tactics were made to look redundant. Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng were constantly left exposed from the failing midfield partnership in front of them as neither Toni Kroos nor Sami Khedira seemed intent on sacrificing their offensive responsibilities to help shore things up in front of defence. But, as bad as last weekend was, I’m here to reassure you that the defeat isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could be the kick up the backside that Germany needed.
The holders of the World Cup generally struggle in the tournament that succeeds their triumph. France exited in the group stage in 2002; Brazil had no answer for the vintage Zinedine Zidane performance in the quarter-finals four years later; and in 2010 Italy failed to get out of a group consisting of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. 2014 was perhaps the biggest shock: defending champions Spain, also the winners of the 2008 and 2012 European Championship, failed to recover from a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Netherlands in their opening game. A 2-0 loss to Chile in the next outing saw them knocked out with a game to spare.
What these early departures and disappointments show is that it’s not only hard to repeat the performances of the previous tournament, but also just as hard to find a similar level of hunger. What Germany received in Moscow was a dose of reality that their players are four years older, and teams have had four years to improve and rise to the standard they set in 2014. How Germany respond will decide their fate.
Positives to be found
Trying to find positives from the opening game is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but believe it or not, they are there. Julian Draxler, in-and-out of the multi-million PSG team in the last year, looked good as he attempted to create for a stagnant German offense, while Toni Kroos rarely has two bad games in a row. We should see him give a bounce-back performance versus Sweden. The substitutions of Julian Brandt and Marco Reus provided some much-needed energy; the former came close to equalising when his half-volley deflected off the post. Manuel Neuer, recovering from a fracture in his foot, looked solid, while Joshua Kimmich was his usual reliable self going forward. Another big positive — assuming Löw indeed makes changes to his side, and at this stage it’s hard to justify sticking with the same starting lineup — there are difference-makers on the bench who are ready to seize their opportunity.
Germany’s hungry youth
Leon Goretzka, on his way to Bayern this summer, is more than an adequate replacement for the aging Sami Khedira. In fact, there are many who would make the argument Goretzka should have been starting anyways. Ilkay Gundogan is also available to come in, while Mesut Özil’s lacklustre performance could open the door for one of Brandt or Reus to receive more minutes than last Sunday. Should the coaching staff deem the defensive pairing of Boateng-Hummels unworthy of another try, then Antonio Rüdiger or Niklas Süle are capable of stepping up. Having these fresh, hungry players clawing at the manager’s office door for a chance to kick-start Germany’s World Cup campaign is vital.
And that’s where this side differs from the previous title-holders. Spain in 2014 had the likes of Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas waiting in the wings but stubborn Vicente del Bosque refused to alter his side, opting to stick with his struggling veterans. Italy’s 2010 squad was even more seasoned, featuring a bench containing Simone Pepe, Fabio Quagliarella and Alberto Gilardino, which tells you all you need to know about their lack of depth.
Germany have the means to adapt
For Germany, it’s been tough to deal with the disappointment of Sunday’s defeat, made worse with the manner in which Mexico made it look easy to dispatch of the World Champions. But, as Manuel Neuer alluded to in his candid press conference yesterday, the loss has made the squad more vocal in their team meetings. How that bodes for team spirit, only time will tell. Yet, it’s refreshing that the players refuse to view the defeat as a fluke and instead have acknowledged an inexcusable performance. Unlike Spain in 2014 or Italy in 2010, Germany have the resources available to adapt to their setback and make the necessary changes to avoid a humiliating early exit.