What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, a youthful, second-string Germany swept Mexico aside at the Confederations Cup.
Inspired by two goals from Leon Goretzka – the former Liverpool transfer target now Bayern Munich-bound – Joachim Löw’s world champions looked a polished attacking unit, despite the absence of rested stars Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Marco Reus.
However, what was quickly forgotten about last summer’s meeting in Sochi was Mexico’s valiant fightback. Despite going three down, El Tri continued to pour forward purposefully.
The eventual 4-1 scoreline reflected harshly on the CONCACAF representatives but they exacted sweet revenge on Sunday afternoon, beating Nationalmannschaft 1-0 in a breathless Group F encounter.
Hirving Lozano, the highly-rated Everton transfer target, struck the decisive goal in the 35th-minute and, while Mexico had to hold on towards the end, Juan Carlos Osorio’s side were good value for their three points.
The result sent shockwaves through the tournament and raised major questions marks over Germany, who looked a beleaguered, wilting version of the 2014 machine that hammered Brazil en route to lifting the trophy.
Never write Germany off, but they were undone by a Mexican tactical masterclass in Moscow.
Throughout the game, particularly during an opening 45 minutes invigorated by Mexican energy, Germany looked frighteningly exposed when their opponents broke.
They also looked startled but had no reason to be. During his pre-match press conference, Osorio clearly outlined how he would seek to unnerve the world champions.
“Any team that tries to play with a back four at the halfway line is exposed with 35 meters in behind them, and they are not an exception,” the 57-year-old said.
Exposed they were. Mexico, through their most advanced quartet of Javier Hernández, Carlo Vela, Miguel Layún and the matchwinner Lozano, were a constant menace on the counter, with a combination of quick passing and direct movement stretching Germany time and time again.
In fact, the first warning sign arrived in the opening minute. Typically, it came through a rapier-like attack from Mexico. First, the centre-half Héctor Moreno takes four Germany players out of the game with a penetrating pass to Hernández.
The West Ham United striker, who led the line admirably, finds Vela with a reverse first-time ball, maintaining the quick tempo to Mexico’s attack. Look at how stretched Germany are already at this point; Mats Hummels doesn’t know where to be, Toni Kroos is nowhere near Hernández and Sami Khedira already looks to be struggling with the pace of the game.
Then there is Joshua Kimmich. The 23-year-old has been lauded as one of the world’s best right-backs following a stellar season at Bayern and there can be no questioning his creative output for his country (he had the most assists in qualifying with nine).
However, as he showed against Mexico, Kimmich is a long way from matching Philippe Lahm, his ultra-consistent predecessor at right-back who captained Germany to World Cup glory in 2014 before bowing out of the international scene.
As pointed out by Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch, Stats Zone revealed how unreliable Kimmich was defensively against Mexico.
2/ The right side of Germany's defence
Here's all of Mexico's attacking action in that opening half hour. It's almost as if they spotted a weakness… pic.twitter.com/aaHy14wEO9
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) June 17, 2018
Kimmich gets caught ball-watching and lets Lozano slip by him.
With Lozano goal-side, Kimmich is struggling and clutching desperately in Lozano’s wake. Luckily, on this occasion, Jérôme Boateng charges down the PSV Eindhoven wide man and sends the ball for a corner.
However, it was a warning sign Germany failed to heed.
Having flirted with danger for most of the first half, Germany are finally caught during a rapid Mexico break.
It starts with Héctor Herrera, who enjoyed an excellent game in midfield, winning the ball with a fine tackle on Khedira (who endured a nightmare before being taken off on the hour mark). The Juventus midfielder, who missed the 2014 after sustaining an injury during the warm-up, lost eight out of his ten duels and was dispossessed three times. Usually a steady passer, he misplaced 11.
Again, notice how high Kimmich is.
The ball falls to Moreno, who once again picks out the right pass to Hernández, who is well-placed in the centre circle.
Sensing that Hummels is committed, the forward lays it off to Vela immediately and races in behind the defender. As you can see, Lozano is beginning his sprint down the left flank at this point but Kimmich is nowhere in sight.
Vela sends the ball into space for the scampering Hernández. We’re not quite sure what Hummels is doing at this point but, again, Kimmich is missing from the shot.
With Boateng helpless, Mesut Özil of all people is the one frantically tracking back.
However, the Arsenal playmaker’s attempted tackle is weak, allowing Lozano to skip past him and rifle his shot into the bottom corner before Kroos can intervene.
Just as Osorio had predicted in his press conference, Mexico’s quick transitions tore through Germany. As predicted, Löw’s men played a high-line but, with Khedira out of sorts and Bastian Schweinsteiger no longer around, it was incredibly risky.
Mexico were exuberant, committed and deadly but, apart from Lozano’s strike, lacked a cutting edge when it came to finishing. Having caught Germany on the break on several occasions, Mexico were unable to finish the world champions off.
Inevitably, as the game wore on and Mexico tired, they were forced to sit deep and defend their 1-0 lead. But they did so admirably by charging down Kroos at every opportunity, with Andrés Guardado and Herrera keeping close tabs on the Real Madrid midfielder. As a result, Kroos was ineffective, making only one key pass from his 98 touches. The 28-year-old’s finest moment came from a set-piece, striking the crossbar with a free-kick.
As you can see Kroos’ player persona radar, exclusive to Football Whispers, for the match below. He was involved in plenty of build-up passing but with little chance creation to speak of.
Özil, too, struggled to impress, being dispossessed four times as he failed to establish a connection with Timo Werner ahead of him, while Müller – the highest-scoring active World Cup player with 10 goals – offered little.
You can see Mexico’s team persona radar, exclusive to Football Whispers, below, illustrating how they favoured fast attacking.
Mexico were a breath of fresh air but there are unquestionably better teams than them in this World Cup.
The defeat to El Tri may force Löw into a rethink for the now critical game against Sweden on Saturday and, although the 58-year-old played down Sunday’s defeat, this is unknown territory for him: before Mexico, Germany had won their opening game in each of the last seven World Cups, while scoring 20 goals in the most recent four.
Löw has never stared down the barrel of a group stage exit but, having been outfought and outthought by Osorio’s Mexico, he will know how high the stakes are heading into Saturday’s showdown with Sweden.
Since the turn of the millennium, it’s been a case of heavy is the head that wears the World Cup crown, with France, Italy and Spain all falling at the first hurdle in defence of their title.
Surely this ‘curse’ won’t befall Germany, international football’s juggernaut who have reached at least the semi-final stage in each of the last four World Cups? One thing’s for sure: play like they did against Mexico and it certainly will.