The German Football Federation, the DFB, breathed a sigh of relief when Marcel Halstenberg scored a spectacular go-ahead goal against Northern Ireland early in the second half of Germany’s last match. Germany had nearly conceded twice in a lifeless first half. Kai Havertz’s creativity and Serge Gnabry’s outstanding finishing put the match at last beyond doubt in stoppage time. The flattering 2-0 result over Northern Ireland was a godsend to German soccer and particularly to head coach Jogi Löw.
Germany now sits atop Euro 2020 qualifying group C — tied with little Northern Ireland on 12 pts but ahead on goal difference. Germany had previously won narrowly over the Netherlands (3-2), beaten Belarus (2-0) and pummeled Estonia (8-0). The latest 2-4 loss to the Dutch and an unconvincing 2-0 win over Northern Ireland do little to burnish that record.
Yet they move on. Löw has emerged from yet another pair of question-raising performances on results.
Who is this Germany?
Since Germany’s catastrophic exit from the 2018 World Cup, Löw has reiterated that the team is in the process of rebuilding, but his method of renewing the squad has raised more questions than answered them. He dismissed former starters — Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, and of course Bayern Munich’s own Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller — but he has neither forged their successors into a coherent team nor identified a coherent system in which to play them.
What remains is an often baffling collection of all-too-movable parts. Löw has transplanted Joshua Kimmich from right-back to central midfield, echoing his then controversial tinkering with right-back and captain Philipp Lahm in 2014 (until he abandoned the plan in the knockout stage of the World Cup). But Germany’s midfield remains vulnerable to costly errors, and its defense is arguably as brittle as before.
The loss of Kimmich at right-back has inaugurated a search for a competent replacement. Paris Saint-Germain’s Thilo Kehrer has been dreadful. Lukas Klostermann looked adequate, but nothing more than that. Matthias Ginter has been relatively solid at right-back, but he contributes little on offense, and it shows.
Meanwhile, the central defense has suffered the most: Löw took the unprecedented step of declaring that Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels’ international careers were over, that he would never call them back. They are 31 and 30 years old respectively. In their absence, Niklas Süle has become defensive boss, a role he deserves, but his fellow defenders fall far below his level. Ginter — who has been on the national team since 2014 — has been mediocre (Borussia Dortmund moved on from him and now has called Hummels back), while Jonathan Tah has been a disaster, making Antonio Rüdiger dearly missed — not a phrase I would have expected to write. Hertha Berlin’s Niklas Stark meanwhile has been left on the bench for six matches, almost a record under Löw.
Rafael van der Vaart recently summarized the problem succinctly:
When you cut Boateng and Hummels, then the others have to be better, and they’re not.
Germany still searching for a system
What is Germany’s system? No one knows! Löw has shifted back and forth between a back-four and a back-three without a discernable plan beyond a response to the problems laid bare by the previous game. In this latest round, the back-four was dropped for a 3-4-3 (or 5-2-3), but the results were atrocious; so the 4-3-3 was reintroduced, but the team still lacked cohesion and stability against an inferior team.
The midfield and defense have struggled, and the offense cannot compensate forever. Is it because Kimmich is wasted in the midfield? Are the wing-backs in the 3-4-3 subpar? Ginter, Kehrer, and now Klostermann have now tried to replace Kimmich’s production at right-back. Halstenberg at least looked good at left-back, but in his drive to reinforce Germany’s defense without calling up an actual defensive midfielder (e.g. Sebastian Rudy, Julian Weigl), Löw has clipped the team’s wings.
The midfield that Kimmich was supposed to bolster remains vulnerable. The weak links are not difficult to see: Kimmich is a good, but not great, central midfielder. His forte is offense. Meanwhile Toni Kroos, who contributes nothing on defense where it is most needed, remains fixed in place, figuratively and often literally. Leon Goretzka might have been a solid box-to-box midfielder, but his status as a starter (especially over Kroos) is uncertain, and now he is injured.
At least Germany’s offense has been a somewhat happier story, albeit too often undermined by the flaws elsewhere in the team. Löw changed his tune after he left Leroy Sané off the 2018 World Cup roster, and he is not to blame for Sané’s current absence, but Sané is sorely missed, although Julian Brandt is a capable substitute.
Not everything is rosy, though. Timo Werner, an extremely effective second striker for RB Leipzig, has struggled to play as a center forward or winger for Löw. His goal-scoring touch seems to leave him as soon as he sets foot on the national stage, and even Marco Reus is now struggling despite excellent form for Borussia Dortmund. Löw drafted him as striker with Werner on the wing and Julian Brandt as an attacking midfielder behind them. Other, potentially better options remain un- or underused. Kai Havertz, who could play as a winger or a central attacking midfielder, is still languishing on the bench.
The bright spot has been Serge Gnabry. His strong, vertical approach to goal has flourished under Löw’s new counter-attacking tactics, so much so that Löw echoed Louis van Gaal about another player in declaring “Gnabry always plays.” But despite Gnabry’s heroics, Germany still lacks an effective striker and, until Sané returns, a left wing that can provide him with service. At least Julian Brandt would be a capable backup — if Löw actually played him there.
On to the next mini-crisis
Germany is presently at the top of Group C, and it would take a truly catastrophic turn of events to prevent the team from qualifying for Euro 2020. But this Germany seems susceptible of truly surprising blunders. Germany plays Estonia again on October 13, hosts Belarus on November 16 and Northern Ireland on November 19.
Northern Ireland came very close to taking a lead against Germany in the first half, but none of the teams Germany has left to play should pose a serious challenge. That is good for Germany’s chances, but it leaves Löw with little incentive to make the dramatic changes that seem necessary to make Germany a serious contender for Euro 2020. Germany seems poised to coast until it can no more.