Germany focused on the positives despite issues in build-up to Euro 2024 opener

Tournament hosts have potential problems in various positions while their form over the past 12 months has been patchy

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Pascal Gross, who turns 33 on Saturday, may never score a more resonant goal than the one he netted late on Friday night. It will rank as one of the finest finishes Gross, a midfielder who has never won a major medal at senior club level, files away in his scrapbook, too – a beautifully clean volley, from outside the opposition penalty area.

There were 89 minutes on the clock in Monchengladbach. With a combination of daring and textbook technique, Gross, a second half substitute, had saved Germany from the ignominy of going into their own European Championship without a morale-boosting win against Greece, the 50th-ranked team in international football.

Greece will not be at the Euros. Nor, thankfully for the hosts, will Japan or Colombia, both of who have beaten Germany in Germany in the last 12 months.

But there have also been losses to Turkey, Poland and Austria, outsiders at this summer’s Championship and nations on the long list of underdogs who made Germany’s 2023 their worst calendar year, in terms of results, since 1964.

The previous year might equally have been classed as Germany’s most humiliating, what with its group-stage elimination from the Qatar World Cup, except that the 2018 World Cup had been as bad, given that the Germans went to Russia as title-holders and came home after three games.

These are the many punctuation marks on a 10-year decline. And this is Germany, once famed as peerless tournament specialists.

It’s that fame that breeds a special form of nostalgia when a big tournament lands there. Over the last week, German broadcasters have been ushering in Friday’s kick-off with various rose-tinted documentaries about successes past.

There’s been a deep dive into the dreamy World Cup in Brazil 10 years ago; a reliving of the 2006 World Cup, in Germany, where the host team finished a commendable third – above expectations – and the mood is remembered as especially joyous.

An eagerness to graft that spirit of optimism on to this event is palpable, and even after the anxious win over Greece, manager Julian Nagelsmann found himself answering questions about whether or not the mood was excessively positive. “That’s too crude,” he replied. “The feeling is good, but not too good. But we are taking steps forward.”

Naglesmann can reference some good signs amid the patchy recent results: France, the Euros favourites, have been beaten twice in friendlies since November. “Those were important steps,” said the coach, “we’ve become more solid, though we still need time to get our processes better.” Time is short. The clock stops with Friday’s tournament opener against Scotland.

Back when Germany last knew such vivid, in-their-own-back garden pressure, Nagelsmann was only 18 years old. During the 2006 World Cup, he was a bright-eyed, ambitious Bavarian apprentice defender, freshly promoted to the captaincy of 1860 Munich’s under-19 team.

He eagerly absorbed the action that took over western Europe’s most populous nation, enjoying, among other things, the excellent tactical analysis on the ZDF TV channel of a charismatic young coach named Jurgen Klopp. Nagelsmann, his playing career stalled by injury, would soon be joining Klopp’s profession, adding to Germany’s reputation for producing world-class managers.

He became national manager last year, his precociousness still striking, even if elite football is used to his youthful face on Uefa Champions League touchlines through the series of club jobs – RB Leizpig and Bayern Munich included – that have charted his rise.

He now manages a squad where one of his senior players, Manuel Neuer, is older, at 38, than he is, and, Neuer included, contains a core of players who less than 18 months ago were taking instructions from Nagelsmann at Bayern, where he was fired with three-and-half years remaining of a five-year deal.

Neuer, a World Cup winner, had his ups and downs with Nagelsmann at Bayern and their relationship is now under huge scrutiny, Nagelsmann’s loyalty to the goalkeeper under ever more persistent questioning.

Neuer for much of 2023 was out of action, having sustained a skiing injury after captaining Germany to their short, dismal exit from Qatar and every error since his return to fitness is magnified by the fact he has a long-standing national team deputy, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who presents excellent alternative credentials.

And the errors are stacking up: there was Neuer’s failure to cling on to a shot that cost Bayern a lead at the tail-end of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, who went on to win the competition. Against Greece, Neuer’s loose parry of a low shot invited Giorgos Masouras to give the Greeks the lead.

It meant more brutal headlines about Neuer. “I’m fully aware the subject [of Neuer] is being discussed in the media,” said Nagelsmann. “He has my trust. There’s no room for discussion here, and I see no self-doubt in him, which is vital.”

So much for the back end of the team Nagelsmann envisages taking on a group that, besides Scotland, includes Hungary and Switzerland.

Up front, there is a lingering dilemma between picking Kai Havertz, steered during his season at Arsenal into a new role as attacking spearhead, or Borussia Dortmund’s Niclas Fullkrug. Havertz’s neat turn and shot to equalise against Greece speaks in favour of his getting the nod.

But neither is a ‘complete centre-forward’. The gifted Havertz, 24, has spent most of his career playing behind or off a main striker; Fullkrug, 31, has spent almost half his senior career playing in divisions beneath the top flight of the Bundesliga, a late developer with strong, if sometimes rough-and-ready, target-man qualities.

Fullkrug at least boasts an international record that reads like a fairy tale: 11 goals in his 16 caps so far, and his late-career promotion to national duty mirrors that of a few in Nagelsmann’s squad.

Gross has done his time in the lower tiers, before hopping from Ingolstadt to Brighton and Hove Albion in England. He only won his first senior cap last August, aged 32.

Fellow midfielder Robert Andrich was 29 when he had his first call-up, early in the magical season he has just concluded with double-winning Bayer Leverkusen, where his club timeline took an upwards turn after spells at Dynamo Dresden, Wehen Wiesbaden, Heidenheim and Union Berlin.

In search of someone more thoroughbred in the roles Gross and Anrich occupy, Nagelsmann worked hard to try to persuade Toni Kroos, 34 and retired from Germany service since 2021, to come back.

Kroos said yes in March, and having bowed out of club football with Real Madrid’s European Cup victory earlier this month, will add as many games as he can to his 109 caps before hanging up his boots next month. Kroos’s passing and vision are an asset, but his return carries complications.

Some of captain Ilkay Gundogan’s responsibilities for directing play are now shared, with the Barcelona midfielder obliged to play further forward. Veterans such as Gundogan and Kroos will, ideally, be complemented by the verve of Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz, with the speed of Leroy Sane an alternative to both those prodigies.

The dressing room will remain animated as long as Antonio Rudiger, pillar of the defence, is involved and, should there be too many first-halves like that against Greece, Nagelsmann will not be shy of reminding his players they have an expectant public to honour.

“He warned us, and he got a bit louder,” Gundogan revealed of Friday’s half-time team talk, with Germany trailing 1-0. “He told us we can’t afford to start like that. We need an atmosphere, and we’ll only create that if we play like we did in the second half against Greece. And we need our supporters behind us.”

Updated: June 09, 2024, 7:48 AM