World Cup 2018: German Efficiency Plagued By Midfield Meltdown
In his mind, Toni Kroos had already found his teammate in white, who would then orchestrate yet another German raid on the Swedish goal. But in an uncharacteristic error, his foot didn’t go through the ball as much as it should have, and the said teammate was sold short. Possession was overturned cheaply, and Sweden wasted no time in capitalizing on the error made in the German midfield. Seconds later, Ola Toivonen saw his ball loop over the helpless Manuel Neuer and bulge the back of the net.
Swede dreams were made of these.
Germany were staring down the barrel, yet again.
Yes, Germany eventually won, and yes, Toni Kroos redeemed himself in the most dramatic of fashions when his last-minute free kick beat Robin Olsen’s outstretched hand and curled into the far corner.
Die Mannschaft were entitled to all the wild celebrations that ensued, for it was a crucial win – anything less than a victory would have put the defending champions on the verge of being eliminated in the first round itself.
One thing, however, cannot escape the average viewer’s attention. Granted, last minute goals are accompanied by frenzied jubilation. But celebrating a 2-1 win over Sweden in the group stage in the way the Germans did, would make a German fan uneasy, and not without reason. It seemed very un-German.
It all seems very un-German.
Germany, perennial favourites for the title, came into this World Cup on the back of a 2-1 defeat to Austria, who couldn’t even qualify for the global footballing extravaganza. They then huffed and puffed to a 2-1 win over lowly Saudi Arabia, who were blown away 5-0 by Russia in the World Cup opener.
Germany’s own opener saw them take on Mexico, a team they’d beaten 4-1 in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup last year. But right from the first minute, Mexico carved open the defending champions and looked like scoring every time they poured forward. The trio of Carlos Vela, Miguel Layun and Hirving Lozano were running rings around a non-existent German midfield, and by the time Lozano cut in to score the most important goal of his fledgeling career, the only surprise was how Mexico hadn’t scored before their 35th-minute strike. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira were having a torrid time in the middle of the pitch, which was a surprise given their efficiency in pulling the strings.
Khedira’s shoddy afternoon in Moscow cost him his place in the starting eleven for the game against Sweden, and Sebastian Rudy replaced him. In an unfortunate turn of events, Rudy was clattered by a flailing boot - resulting in a broken nose - and the young Bayern Munich midfielder had to be replaced by the effervescent Manchester City maestro, Ilkay Gundogan.
The change in personnel didn’t seem to be working. Sweden’s all too frequent forays into the German half were threatening, and on one instance, Marcus Berg was hacked down by Jerome Boateng while the former was through on goal, inside the penalty area. We'll never know why the penalty wasn’t given, but Sweden’s loud protests for a video referral were completely justified.
Even after Rudy’s substitution in the first half, Germany’s general solidity was conspicuous by its absence. Sweden should’ve added to their goal tally before the break as well, but unfortunately, Viktor Claesson couldn’t sort out his feet with only Neuer to beat.
Once again, Germany’s midfield was being overrun on the counter-attack with remarkable ease, and one could be forgiven for wondering where the much-touted German efficiency was.
Was this the same Germany that so ruthlessly hammered Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals four years ago? Was this the same Germany that held firm against Argentina in the final, and went on to lift the trophy?
On the face of it, no, it isn’t. Philipp Lahm has retired and record World Cup goalscorer Miroslav Klose, too, has hung up his boots. But in Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner, the Germans do have a pair of incredibly exciting youngsters to fill up the massive void left by Lahm and Klose.
Also missing is Bastian Schweinsteiger. And therein lies the problem.
Schweinsteiger was the midfield mainstay for Germany; he was the combative engine room player they lack so sorely now. Slotting in next to Khedira and Kroos, the former Germany vice-captain would effectively run the midfield, acting as the link between defence and attack. Without him, Kroos and Khedira struggle to impose themselves on the game. The former is a silky ballplayer who likes to bomb forward, while the latter cannot do the dirty work on his own, as Mexico made evident.
Germany’s recent record in tournament finals is nothing short of brilliant. They’ve played the 2002 World Cup final, the 2008 European Championship final, and the 2014 World Cup final, winning the last one. They have also made it to the semifinals in each tournament they’ve played in since 2004, including the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the 2016 European Championships.
The resounding success of the Germans was down to their rock-solid midfield, led by Schweinsteiger, and before him, Michael Ballack. Tough tackling players, their no-nonsense, almost Roy Keane-esque approach allowed the flair players to roam the pitch, creating chances at will, while the former held fort, not exposing their defenders for a moment. It was this perfect combination of silk and steel that made Germany the most feared team on the planet.
This team, however, makes flair a bigger priority than footing, and the consequences are there for all to witness. Germany may be in a good position to qualify for the knockout rounds as of now, but their struggles against Mexico and Sweden do not bode well for coach Jogi Low. Sebastian Rudy may become a great midfield enforcer, but it isn’t his time now, and Khedira is clearly at the fag end of his international career. There's a reason why nobody, since Brazil in 1962, has been able to retain the World Cup, and right now, Germany don’t look like doing so either.
The last time steel was in such short supply for Germany was in 1945, when they went on to lose a global battle. Though the stakes are much lower here, the lack of steel may again lead to Germany's downfall at a world event.