Germany are facing similar problems to those that have afflicted previous World Cup holders, writes Adam Bate.
Germany’s status among the favourites to win the 2018 World Cup should come as no surprise given their pedigree. Not only are they the holders but they have reached the equivalent of the quarter-final stage in each of the last 16 World Cups. And yet, their opening-game defeat to Mexico is part of a wider trend for reigning champions.
Argentina were beaten by Cameroon in 1990 and France lost to Senegal by the same 1-0 scoreline in 2002. Italy were held as holders in both 1986 and 2010, while Spain were famously humbled 5-1 by Netherlands last time out. It is rather more than a curiosity. It is a consequence of the natural desire to keep a team of World Cup winners together.
The line-up against Mexico was the oldest to appear in a World Cup match for Germany since Joachim Low began the long regeneration process of the national team alongside Jurgen Klinsmann. Seven of the starters had at least 60 caps to their name. Such experience brings with it advantages. But a team can also suffer in other ways.
Against Mexico, Germany struggled to cope with the pace of the opposition forwards on the break. Time and again, the space left vacant behind Joshua Kimmich was exploited. The ageing legs of Sami Khedira, who is presumably the one expected to provide protection when the full-back makes his attacking runs, were simply no match for Mexico.
Mats Hummels summed up the problem when speaking to the media afterwards. “If seven or eight players attack then it is clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability,” he explained. “That is what I often talk about internally. Our cover was not good. Too often it was just Jerome [Boateng] and I at the back.”
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was among those shocked by what he had witnessed. “I could not believe how many times they looked disorganised and were counter-attacked on,” Neville told ITV. “You do not associate that with Germany, you think of them as being the most organised team.” But time is no respecter of reputations.
Instead, it remoulds players. Where Mesut Ozil would once be the one providing perpetual movement, now, more than ever, he is reliant on others to do the running. Toni Kroos has long been a Spaniard with a German passport but the whole side seems to have evolved in that direction too. The result here was too much possession and too little penetration.
Much will be made of Leroy Sane’s absence from the squad and the flying Manchester City winger would certainly have added more urgency to Germany’s midfield. But there are other solutions too. The introduction of another 22-year-old wide man, Julian Brandt, made a difference – crashing one right-footed shot just wide of the near post.
That is the energy that is required. Leon Goretzka, the young Schalke midfielder who is bound for Bayern Munich this summer, could help too. Low still has the opportunity and the options to freshen things up. But the concern for the Germany coach is that some of the issues that undermined them against Mexico were already evident. The clues were there.
Prior to the narrow 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up game – and how underwhelming that result appears in light of Russia’s thrashing of that side – Germany went eight months and six games without a win. “We won’t fool ourselves,” said Low after the loss to Austria earlier this month. “We have a lot to work on.”
He pointed to the fact that his players “lost the ball unbelievably often” and those turnovers in possession can cause problems when so many bodies are committed up the field. Not every team have as much pace and ambition on the counter-attack as Mexico. But not every team will be as profligate in front of goal as their Group F opponents either.
History would suggest that Germany will find a way to overcome this setback and go deep in this tournament. Spain even won it after a 1-0 defeat in their opening game. But that same history would also suggest that they are facing familiar difficulties for holders of the crown. Germany have much work still to do if they are to buck that particular trend.