Nobody doubts Germany's credentials entering the World Cup, but a few minor questions and wrinkles are starting to pile up, and they reveal a defending champion that is far from infallible.
The turning point for Germany at the last World Cup came before the quarterfinal, when manager Jogi Low, on a jog along the beach, decided to go back to the basics.
In came Miroslav Klose, and Philipp Lahm was switched back from midfield to fullback. Rather than trying to shoehorn players into the side and fiddle the shape accordingly, he simply picked the best center forward and right back available in those positions. Germany has such strength in depth that it won the Confederations Cup with what was essentially a second-string squad last year, but if there is a doubt about Low’s side, it is that those key shortfalls at fullback and center forward have not adequately been addressed since the retirement of Klose and Lahm.
That issue is compounded by the disappointing form over the past couple of seasons of the player who benefitted most from Klose’s presence at the last two World Cups, Thomas Muller. The Bayern Munich forward scored five goals in 2010 and won the Golden Boot, and he scored a further five at the 2014 World Cup, where he won the Silver Boot, exploiting the spaces punched by Klose.
There’s no reason why Robert Lewandowski shouldn’t be able to perform a similar function for Muller at Bayern, and indeed he has in the past, but in this campaign Muller has disappointed. His poor form began at Euro 2016, where he not merely failed to score but seemed an oddly distracted presence. By March of the 2016-17 season, he scored only one league goal.
The indifferent run continued into this season, and Muller was left out for both the second league game of the season and the Champions League clash with Anderlecht. The departure of Carlo Ancelotti following the 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain gave Muller a chance to rest, and there were perhaps flickers of his old self from March onwards–though he jokingly suggested it was the result of one of the horses he owns with his wife Lisa, an equestrian athlete, giving birth to a foal. Muller still wound up scoring eight goals in 22 games, but that is the fewest league matches Muller has played since he entered into Bayern Munich's first team in 2008-09.
Given Mesut Ozil had an indifferent season for Arsenal and the fact that Germany looks like relying once again on Mario Gomez as the central striker–the Stuttgart striker is 32 now and as inconsistent in front of goal as ever–that is cause for a slight doubt. This Germany might not be quite so relentless as it appeared it would be last summer. Certainly it’s easy to understand Sandro Wagner’s frustration at not being selected for the 23, even if retiring from international football in a huff is invariably not the right solution.
Stuttgart’s Nils Petersen was the starting striker in the friendly against Austria at the weekend, winning only his second cap at the age of 29. He was withdrawn midway through the second half for RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, but neither was really effective in a 2-1 defeat. That’s not a setback to be taken too seriously, given how many players who will presumably start for Germany against Mexico in its first World Cup game on June 17 were not playing, but it’s also a reminder that strength in depth goes only so far.
The striker problem is only one of Germany's questions. Although Joshua Kimmich has emerged as a regular starting right back and one who, like Lahm, is comfortable on the ball and will get forward, there is still no equivalent figure on the left. That perhaps explains Low’s experiment with a back three, using Leroy Sane as a wingback, but the likelihood is that Jonas Hector will be the starting left back in Russia. Sane was shockingly omitted from the final 23 after a 10-goal, 15-assist campaign in the Premier League, leaving Marvin Plattenhardt as another option at left wingback.
And then there’s the question in goal. Manuel Neuer was a huge factor in Germany’s success four years ago, not only for his shot-stopping ability but for his capacity to play outside his box and for his leadership abilities. He is still struggling with a fractured metatarsal that kept him out of action since September until the Austria friendly, and although he remains part of the squad and indeed was named its captain, there is no guarantee he will be fully fit and free of rust. Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a high-class replacement, of course, and he at least is a similar style of goalkeeper, comfortable sweeping up behind the back line, but he is not Neuer.
Again, that should only be a minor wrinkle, but those issues are mounting up for Germany. No side has ever won the World Cup having won the Confederations Cup the previous year, and as Germany contemplates how many wrinkles it takes to become a mess, it looks far less likely than it did a year ago to break that pattern.