When Germany won the World Cup two years ago there was, quite rightly, much praise for its rebooted academy system that had led to the glut of technically gifted midfielders and forwards–Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze–who had inspired them to victory. Two years on and a problem that was beginning to emerge then looks even more troubling now: for all the neat, intelligent creators it has produced in the past decade, Germany lacks a high-class center forward or anything in the way of fullbacks.
It’s not uncommon for teams to suffer a reaction after winning a major tournament, nor is it uncommon for Germany occasionally to lose concentration in qualifiers or friendlies, but even with that caveat, a qualifying campaign that include defeats to Poland and Ireland and recent friendly defeats to England and Slovakia offer cause for concern.
Germany in 2010 was a superb counterattacking side.
Excluding the third-place playoff, which is never taken entirely serious, the pattern was clear: in the three games in which it scored early, against Australia, England and Argentina, it sat back, picked off opponents on the break and went on to score four; in the other three, it struggled to impose itself, lost to Serbia and Spain and narrowly beat Ghana.
In the years that followed, manager Joachim Low understandably sought to make it more proactive but never quite seemed to get the balance right, with the result that both Greece and, more significantly, Italy was able to expose its defensive vulnerabilities at Euro 2012. The problem wasn’t fully solved by 2014.
It’s easy to forget with hindsight how shaky Germany was early on, drawing 2-2 with Ghana and beating Algeria 2-1 only after extra time in the last 16. Low then went on his famous run along the beach after which he decided to return to the basics.
Back came the 35-year-old striker Miroslav Klose, the system was tightened up and France was seen off 1-0. A hysterical and acquiescent Brazil was eviscerated in the semifinal before the dour final and a 1-0 win over Argentina. It would be absurd to say the success was in any way undeserved, and the ruthlessness of the semifinal was stunning, but there were far more flaws to Germany than there had been to Spain four years earlier.
Those have not been solved. Even Klose couldn’t play on indefinitely and has retired, leaving Germany either to field Fiorentina striker Mario Gomez or try to employ one of Gotze, Muller and Ozil as a false nine. Schalke's 20-year-old Leroy Sane has also been included as, mysteriously, has Lukas Podolski. The Galatasaray forward tends to operate on the left for Germany, and he is presumably involved for his directness and finishing. He has scored 48 goals for Germany, but only six of those have come in the last six years, which is indicative of the paucity of Germany’s striking resources.
Podolski presumably would not have been included had Marco Reus been fit, but Low said he was capable of running only in straight lines, suggesting he had problems turning. Cynics, of course, might point out that Podolski’s entire game is to run in straight lines.
The other slightly surprising inclusion is that of Bastian Schweinsteiger after a dismal season at Manchester United. He has struggled with injuries, but he has looked unfit even when he has played, the general consensus being that Pep Guardiola was right to offload him from Bayern Munich. He was immense in the World Cup final, a game he finished battered and bloodied, but he arguably hasn’t been quite the same since. The loss of Ilkay Gundogan as a controlling midfield presence is highly significant, which should mean a place for Sami Khedira at the back of midfield.
And then there's the issue in the back. Philipp Lahm’s retirement from international football has left Germany without a single high-class fullback. Emre Can and Jonas Hector were used in the fullback positions against England, since when Low has twice opted for a back three, using Hector as the left wingback and Sebastian Rudy on the right. Rudy, though, hasn’t even been included in the squad. That suggests a back four, but with Mathias Ginter of Borussia Dortmund also missing out, that leaves the fullback options very limited.
Germany is still a hugely gifted side and is clearly a potential winner, a side that is a master at peaking at the right time, but it has vulnerabilities and it goes into the tournament with a surprising level of confusion for a world champion. There were always those who suggested Germany won the World Cup in spite of Low rather than because of him. Putting this right would be a convincing way of proving them wrong.