When asked to explain how Germany had managed to lose their opening game of the World Cup for the first time since 1982, Thomas Müller was in a rather defensive mood.
Before barking back at suggestions that the squad lacked cohesion or had formed inner cliques, the Bayern Munich forward lamented the manner of the criticism aimed at the world champions after their 1-0 defeat to Mexico.
“I wish the criticism was a little less personal,” noted Müller, referring to the remarks in the German press about his own contributions.
However, before the 28-year-old left the press conference he admitted that “an error in judgement” had clearly been at hand in their opening match.
That, of course, was putting it lightly. Germany were completely stunned by Javier Hernández & co. and unless they address the clear issues before facing Sweden, elimination from the group stage becomes a distinct possibility.
Get the front-line flowing
For Joachim Löw, there are a number of issues that require attention. Starting at the top of his team, it was clear that the forward line tasked with breaking down Mexico’s stubborn defence simply were not up to the task.
As a result, newly-appointed goalscorer-in-chief, Liverpool transfer target Timo Werner, spent the 90 minutes chasing inaccurate through balls and leaping towards overhit crosses. Germany may be one of the most experienced squads in this competition but at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday their forwards looked as though they’d never met before.
Indeed, much of Germany’s attacking impetus in turn came through the marauding runs and dribbling of Joshua Kimmich. The Bayern full-back was one of the few players that played his usual, trademark game and was at the heart of just about any half chance that encroached on the Mexican goalmouth.
The young defender was criticised by some for the space that his attacking runs left on the Mexican left flank and although that is true it underlines where other German players were struggling to apply their own expertise to the match and coincidentally where Löw now needs to firmly apply any new solution.
Midfield needs a shake-up
The general premise of Germany’s set up is that when wide players like Kimmich roam forward, Sami Khedira and, to a lesser extent, Toni Kroos are supposed to sit deep and break down any potential counter-attack.
That didn’t happen at all against Mexico. Indeed, over the course of the match, the Juventus midfielder didn’t make a single interception or successful tackle and managed to give the ball away three times. His partner in the middle of the park, Kroos, didn’t make a single interception either and managed just one tackle.
Mats Hummels noted the lack of any, real defensive work from Germany’s midfield after the match, telling a German broadcaster: “If seven or eight players attack, then it’s clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability.”
Essentially, Germany had no functional defensive midfielders on the pitch against Mexico and all hell broke loose.
As such, this must be the primary concern for Löw ahead of the Sweden game. Although the Scandinavian nation are not nearly as attack-minded as Mexico, they will still require a well-balanced approach from Germany, meaning finding a solution to Khedira’s faltering form becomes a matter of great urgency.
The obvious candidate for this role is Bayern’s Sebastian Rudy. Although the former Hoffenheim midfielder is by no means an equal among the stars in this Germany team, he is undoubtedly Löw’s only, real defensive midfielder.
And with Rudy snapping at heels, intercepting through balls and breaking down counter attacks this German side would look far more at ease with itself in the middle of the park.
Low could also turn to Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan. Although the former Borussia Dortmund star is primarily an attacking player, he’s not nearly as negligent in defending as someone like Leon Goretzka or Kroos.
His talents ultimately lie in harassing opposing midfielders, winning the ball back and breaking on the counter. And although Gündoğan may not sit and cover for the likes of Kimmich, he would bring a ferocity that was sorely lacking against Mexico.
Should Löw still seek further reassurances in defence he could switch to a back three. The German coach did exactly that at least year’s Confederations Cup and by bringing in another central defender like Niklas Süle the German defence would not only allow their full-backs to bomb forward with little worry but could also allow one central defender to push a little further forward and break down opposing counter attacks, safe in the knowledge that adequate cover was available.
Every team needs a strong, defensive foundation to build upon. Even attacking, World Cup winning teams like Germany. And while a solitary defeat isn’t the end of the road for Löw and his side, it is a notable wake-up call. Germany need to fix the attacking and defensive issues that plagued them against Mexico and if they can then there’s no reason why this tournament isn’t still firmly within their reach.