The last time that Die Nationalmannschaft lost a World Cup’s opening game, it was a 2-1 loss to Algeria, a fixture which they had approached with alarming complacence and arrogance.
“We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs,” a West Germany player had quipped before the match. On Sunday, it was cluelessness and lethargy that led for Germany’s downfall as Mexico grabbed a famous 1-0 win at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Juan Carlos Osorio’s side dispensed with the niceties as they followed a simple game plan and stuck to it; get behind the German lines and hit them on the counter, the goals would follow. At the end of the day, the scoreline was a relief for the defending world champions, it could have should have been three or four, if not for some poor decision making by their forwards.
Being defending champions can bring it’s own brand of pressure. Germany hadn’t been smooth in pre-World Cup friendlies and carried over that form to the first game of the tournament.
Before the tournament, Joachim Low had spoken about the difficulties of retaining a World Cup. Only two teams prior, Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 had managed to do it. “Teams develop and change, players finish their careers and you must bring in new players which makes it the most difficult achievement.”
The midfield combination was always going to be a puzzle which was going to trouble Low and his best-laid plans. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s retirement had left a gaping hole in the middle, one that was always going to be difficult for one man to fill.
It may have only been four years since, but 14 of Germany’s 23 World Cup winners have either been replaced or dropped but none have affected the team as much as the departures of the captain from Rio, Philipp Lahm and Basti. In Brazil, Low had options in midfield, including Lahm, who had been converted into a central midfielder by Pep at Bayern.
Against Mexico, Toni Kroos started with Sami Khedira, who looked every bit of his 31 years. El Tri bypassed the midfield at will, with Germany really missing the services of a number 6. Low is an old-school sentimentalist, and opted to start one of his trusted lieutenants from 2010 and ‘14 but the truth is that Khedira’s time has come, and he should be put to pasture now. Sebastian Rudy is Germany’s only specialist defensive midfielder in the squad, but Leon Goretzka and Ilkay Gundogan are better options than Khedira.
It wasn’t Low’s only call to backfire. There is a growing realisation both at Bayern Munich and Germany, that the pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng may not be as effective anymore. With Niklas Sule and Antonio Rudiger waiting in the wings, Low is unlikely to remain patient much longer.
They played a high line against the pacy quartet of Javier Hernandez, Lozano, Carlos Vela and Miguel Layun. Here’s Osorio on his tactics against Germany: “We always thought of having two quick players on the wing. We chose Hirving [Lozano] who is our fastest player. In the first half we managed to play defensively with a great deal of intelligence and hit them on the counter. In the first half of the match we were the superior team. In the second we knew well that Germany have an outstanding team.
“We prepared for the use of Mario Gomez up front. Yesterday we practiced defending with four midfielders and three players up front and that was how we almost got the second goal today.”
In terms of game play, this was reminiscent of Germany’s Round of 16 clash against Algeria four years ago. The North Americans had exploited the high line, and used their pace to get in behind the German backline and ambushed them, only for Neuer to bail them out.
Mexico found themselves in similar situations, often on the desirable end of a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-2 positions but for the final pass to let them down. They overloaded the wings, their three-man midfield pushing Germany back as the world champions failed to respond.
The Europeans were also very lethargic in attack, devoid of ideas and execution. Julian Draxler was very poor, his decision-making either too slow or his final ball lacking the quality to penetrate the Mexico defence. Marco Reus did come on latter to switch things up, but the attacking build-up in the first half was tedious and lacked speed and imagination.
Low admitted to as much after the game, “In the first half we played very badly. We were not able to impose our usual way of playing attacking and our passing. In the second half we were able to press match but Mexico also pulled back.”
Their opponents didn’t have to defend out of their skins to strangulate Germany, as the holders passed it around in the final third quite a bit without managing to play the killer pass even once. They lacked a ‘plan B’, as they were unable to adapt after the passing lanes were cut off.
Sweden and South Korea will pose a different challenge and will sit deep, inviting Germany to break them down. A wholesale change in personnel and tactics are required if these two must-win opponents are to be overcome. Spain’s capitulation in 2014 will play on their minds; after four straight semi-final appearances, this record is under jeopardy.