There are times when teams relish their own reputation. They invoke it, adding to the mythology. “Never write us off,” wrote Sami Khedira on Twitter after their 2-1 win over Sweden. Never write off the Germans. It is a lesson many have learnt, often painfully, over the years.
The Germans could be written off on Wednesday. Beat South Korea by a two-goal margin and they are guaranteed a place in the last 16. Anything else and the equation could get more complicated. Their habitual place in the knockout stages may beckon, but they could yet suffer a first opening-round exit since 1938. Germany specialise in making history; just not usually in unwanted fashion.
Never write about the Germans, either. Or not critically. That seemed the message from Mesut Ozil. “We are one team - on and off the pitch. No matter what they say,” he posted on Instagram, along with a picture of himself and Marco Reus, the man who took his place. He was railing against accusations of factionalism. It has been alleged that Ozil is a member of the magnificently-named "bling-bling gang" in the squad.
Germany’s determined recovery against Sweden and Toni Kroos’ magnificent 95th-minute winner have allowed them to make statements about spirit and unity. An analytical Thomas Muller noted: “It is not self-evident that you turn this around.” Everything seems inevitable with hindsight, but Germany’s victory did not as Sweden stood firm for long periods.
Germany may go on to book a spot in the last eight for the 17th consecutive World Cup. Or they could emulate Italy and Spain, the last two holders whose defence of their title ended ignominiously in the group stages. Kroos’ winner was wonderful, and Mats Hummels semi-jokingly pledged to watch it 1,000 times. It has the potential to be a defining moment, the turning point Muller referenced, yet underlying problems remain.
“We had a hard time implementing our gameplan in the first two matches,” Julian Brandt admitted on Germany’s official website. “But as a team we know we are able to free ourselves from a difficult situation time and again.” Brandt’s argument was that escapology has made Germany stronger; that cohesion is growing.
Manager Joachim Low had logic on his side when he argued that sides rarely stay the same throughout tournaments. Equally, blueprints are rarely ripped up as quickly as Germany’s. It is not often so many of a champion team pose problems. Low could require a third centre-back and central midfield partnership in as many games.
Jerome Boateng, who was wretched before being sent off against Sweden, is suspended against South Korea. Hummels ought to be fit to return in place of his usual sidekick. In midfield, Sebastian Rudy is a major doubt after breaking his nose so Ilkay Gundogan could complete a swift journey from fourth choice to starter alongside Kroos. Sami Khedira, another of Low’s most trusted lieutenants was dropped after he was off the pace against Mexico, affording the defence too little protection.
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There are tactical issues: the full-backs have been too far advanced, with Mexico exploiting the space behind them to offer hope to Son Heung-min that the South Korean can dart in behind the attack-minded Joshua Kimmich. The centre-backs have struggled when isolated one against one. Sweden showed a new-found susceptibility to crosses.
There are personnel problems. Against Sweden, Low dropped Ozil for the first time in a major tournament. Some think the World Cup talisman Muller should join him on the bench; perhaps Julian Draxler, too. Mario Gomez strengthened his case to start in his cameo against Sweden, but that would require another alteration to the plans: the striker Timo Werner would have to move to the left wing. Brandt, who has hit the post in each of his substitute appearances, is another who could come in.
It will be Germany, but not as we have known them for much of Low’s 12-year reign. Yet their strength lies in being Germany, in their ability to intimidate because of their identity and their past. They can draw on their past to console themselves with the thought no one else has displayed the mentality for tournament football as often. And yet, suddenly, this is a time of unexpected uncertainties for Germany.