Germany faces a formidable dragon in its attempt to defend the World Cup title in Russia. Do not let Toni Kroos’ wonder goal against Sweden fool you into thinking that the team’s problems have gone away.
The Germans have to overcome many obstacles if they even want to make it to the final four. Here’s my take.
Styles make fights
Joachim Löw’s current squad plays a style that has been figured out at European and international levels. A high line of defence and high possession rate make for fascinating attacking football… if you are creative and can finish your chances.
The Germans lack such creativity at the moment. They cross the ball to the penalty area and hope that something sweet will happen. Sweden has demonstrated, on Saturday, that you can defend against that style although they were ultimately unlucky.
Furthermore, this particular brand of football makes teams vulnerable after losing the ball. FC Bayern fans have witnessed this for years, ever since Pep Guardiola made possession a way to defend in addition to a way to score.
Löw may have to tweak his tactics to rebalance the team. In sports, few things are worse than having your style figured out. Someone finds a solution, the word spreads, and anyone can stop you.
No midfield general
While Toni Kroos is an excellent passer, he is not a midfield leader who can hold the fort. When he commits forward, all it takes is one lousy pass (everybody makes those) for the team to fall apart defensively.
Unlike in 2014, the Germans do not have the right central midfielder to complement Kroos, organise the team and mow opponents down. In other words, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s role is unfulfilled since his retirement. The result: Germany are very shaky without the ball in the first two matches.
There is no solution in sight. Sami Khedira is not as effective as he once was. Sebastian Rudy is an honest worker but does not have the robustness to handle the task either. Ilkay Gündogan is anything but the real deal. Shall Löw give Leon Goretzka a chance?
Lack of leadership
Speaking of Schweinsteiger, his absence and Philipp Lahm’s absence have left a massive void in the German national team. They used to rally the troops off the pitch and lead them into battle after kickoff.
Manuel Neuer’s presence and aura in the first third of the pitch are perhaps unprecedented. He indeed is an incredible captain and leader at FC Bayern. However, his magic spells have yet to be as effective with the national team. Thomas Müller has worn the armband many times, but a recent decline in performance harms any attempt at being a leader.
For all their talent, the Germans need a stronger dose of leadership or their efforts to defend the World Cup title are doomed. It is an old cliché to say that teams are more than a sum of their parts, but it remains true to this day.
Several key players have lost a step since World Cup 2014. This hurts.
A few years back, I was happy to tell anyone who would listen that Jérôme Boateng was the best central defender in the world. No more. Mats Hummels’ recent form is a huge worry. He brought a few weeks’ worth of bad performances with him to the World Cup.
Mesut Özil has earned himself a benching against Sweden. So has Sami Khedira.
Toni Kroos scored a spectacular goal, and I can only hope that this will light a fire under the team. However, up to stoppage time against Sweden, his command of the midfield was not as impressive as in the past.
Such declines have not been balanced out by other players’ sharp progress. Joshua Kimmich has done a fantastic job at right-back, and Marco Reus seems resurgent. Will that be enough to make up for the other guys’ miseries?
No first-rate striker
Miroslav Klose’s absence from a starting lineup turned out to be a more significant problem than anyone could have expected. Remember 2014? The veteran was a substitute in the group stage, and he had to start knockout matches for Germany to find its mojo.
We can still say, four years later, that Löw has not found a successor. Timo Werner seems to lack Klose’s killer instinct and physicality. Mario Gomez solved the second problem against Sweden, but he is not exactly efficient in the box. He scored his last goal for Germany against Norway in September 2017. His last goal against a significant international opponent… was scored in 2012.
Poor preparation in friendlies
The Nationalelf’s management had an excellent idea before the World Cup, organising high-profile friendly matches against Spain and Brazil. It seemed to be a brilliant way to get the team ready against rivals, but it backfired. The Germans played poorly against both.
You can reasonably argue that form is temporary and that class is permanent. In recent memory, Germany’s subpar pre-tournament form before World Cups and Euros campaigns were forgiven once the team shifted gears.
On the other hand, you can only defy gravity without falling back to Earth or play with fire without getting burned for so long. Athletes and sports teams usually need a good bout of form to build confidence, and going into a major tournament without form is always risky.
Sports fans tend to be superstitious. They look back and think that history will repeat itself. With that logic, Germany can always muster the firepower to win. They should start worrying now.
Having been pessimistic in the run-up to World Cup 2014, I will not go as far as saying that success is impossible for Die Mannschaft. It would be foolish.
However, the odds are stacked against Germany’s title defence. A group stage exit may have been avoided, but a dragon is looking at them in the eye.