A shock defeat in the opener to a solid underdog. A late, desperate fight-back against an European opponent to turn their fortunes completely around. A final-day clash against an international minnow where winning was both expected and probably sufficient.
Is this déjà vu all over again for Germany at the World Cup? The shades of 2018 are more than a little eerie. Let’s compare then and now, and take a gander at whether Hansi Flick’s side will have what it takes to avoid a haunting by the ghosts of tournaments past.
A team beset by controversy
Joachim Löw’s side entered the 2018 with storm clouds hanging over them. Two of his stars, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, were under fire in the German press for posing with Turkey president Recep Erdoğan — which was seen as PR for someone regarded as an authoritarian dictator and who was facing protests from human rights groups. Worse, there were rumblings of division in the German camp, unhelpfully portrayed in the media as a schism between the “Bavarians” and the so-called “Bling-bling gang” — a loaded term every which way, especially as it was applied to a group of mostly minority players.
The energy of the 2022 camp is different. The German players themselves presented a unified front — whatever internal differences existed — with a protest over being prevented by FIFA from wearing the OneLove armband. Togetherness is the theme — on and off the pitch. For all the sound and the fury coming from outside, this has all the makings of a tight-knit group willing to play hard for one another.
Frailty in defense that won’t go away
Spirit, bravado, and a touch of derring-do can only go so far, however. Issues of talent remain — maddeningly, at some of the same positions. Germany never found those full-backs, and if anything, they lost one — as Bayern Munich maestro Joshua Kimmich is now crucially needed at the base of midfield.
If Löw struggled to find the right combinations among his center-backs, Hansi Flick hasn’t had it easy either. Though, of course, it was Flick himself who made the gutsy call to leave Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels at home. Some are very high on the potential of Nico Schlotterbeck — but as of now he’s not a clear choice in the XI.
In 2018, Germany were put to the sword for their high line. Mexico and Sweden both hit them on the break fast, and the Swedes — who probably deserved a penalty, too — had more than one chance to put the game out of reach. As was, the Germans were fortunate to survive long enough for Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos to send the stadium into raptures with one glorious free kick.
The story in 2022 starts different, but not entirely better. Against Japan, Flick and his team settled into a languid complacency after finishing the first half 1-0 up — failing to come alive to Japan’s tactical adjustments and eventually blundering their way to collapse. That the result went against the xG doesn’t account for the fact that it was a repeat of an all-too-common refrain ever since the magic of 2014 vanished in a poof.
However, the second game is where things diverge. Löw’s 2018 side showed that Mexico’s shock win was no fluke against Sweden. Meanwhile, Flick & co. dragged Spain, one of the tournament’s early favorites, into an alley brawl in a game many neutral observers felt was the class showdown of the group stages.
The current edition of the German defense has notable weaknesses, yet the team effort to just about withstand Spanish pressure was brilliant. They may not hold a candle to France’s. But don’t count them out.
A sputtering attack in want of a clinical finisher
In 2018, the Timo Werner experiment as Germany’s number 9 was beginning to crash and burn, while 33-year-old Mario Gómez (then of 16th-placed VfL Wolfsburg) was brought on in desperation in all three of Germany’s matches. Well, what else is new? SV Werder Bremen striker Niclas Füllkrug, with his club currently sitting 9th in the Bundesliga table, was judged the best of the bunch and only after current Wolfsburg striker Lukas Nmecha fell off Flick’s radar due to an injury.
Füllkrug has also been making appearances off the bench for Germany, but the difference is he’s scoring. While Gómez was something of a veteran in the national team setup, Füllkrug has only recently made his debut — one week before the tournament started, in fact.
It’s a fast acclimation, but he’s hit the ground running. Helping matters will be the experience of Bayern Munich’s attacking trident — Serge Gnabry, Thomas Müller, Jamal Musiala — who are all used to looking for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in the box this year. Musiala’s neat cross to Füllkrug at the near post was an early preview of things to come. If Flick can trust the Bremen striker to start — and at this point, how could he not — you’d have to figure good odds for Germany to grab goals, plural, against Costa Rica.
Goals, singular, weren’t even managed in 2018. But here, we can be assured of nothing. Mesut Özil delivered a chance-creating masterclass against the Republic of Korea on that day, yet nothing landed. Neither Mario Gómez nor Thomas Müller got their start, and a German team that looked nervous from the off staggered to humiliation.
Costa Rica will surely be defending for their lives. With the scenario facing the team nearly identical — win and you’re (almost certainly) in, a game-changing super-sub striker, and calls for Müller to be rested — Flick will need to find the courage to make a gutsy call.
Tactics may not even be the decisive factor when all’s said and done.
Hansi Flick isn’t Joachim Löw, and the weighty champions’ curse no longer applies. The pressure of repeating is off Germany’s shoulders. If anything, there's the forward-looking moment towards the 2024 European Championships which Germany will host.
Meanwhile, Spain have already set the marker with their 7-0 blasting of Costa Rica on the opening day in Group E. Luis Enrique’s side are possession-based, technically gifted, and don’t always field a classical striker except from the bench. Sound familiar? They’ve also faced questions about their clinical ability in the past — but delivered an efficient seven conversions from eight shots on goal.
Against Spain, Germany morphed into a counter-attacking team that relied on physicality. But they have some of that midfield-focused positional DNA in them as well. If they execute with conviction and positive spirits, they could be well on their way to writing a different — maybe fairytale? — ending to 2022.
Interested in a VERY in-depth review of Germany’s 1-1 draw with Spain? Then why not check out the latest episode of our podcast? We talk about everything from lineups, tactics, and individual performances, to a discussion about Bayern Munich at the World Cup overall. Listen to it below or on Spotify.
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