Finally, in the second half of its second game at the 2018 World Cup, Germany began to play.
It looked as though it had left it too late, that it would be relying on Mexico and Sweden not playing out a draw of self-interest but then, in the fifth of five minutes of added time, Toni Kroos swept home a free kick from the left. It was a stunning goal to end a game of constant drama and give Germany a much-needed 2-1 win. It means that Germany will qualify for the last 16 if it gets a better result against South Korea on Wednesday than Sweden manages against Mexico. It also, in one moment, perhaps explained just why Germany has not gone out of a World Cup in the first round for 80 years.
Sweden, frankly, having done most things right for most of the game, was poor in the final minutes. It was as though, after Jerome Boateng had been sent off, it was caught between protecting a 1-1 draw that would have kept it three points clear of Germany and a winning goal that would have guaranteed it went through at the wold champion’s expense.
There was too much that was harum-scarum, too many fouls, too many opportunities gifted to Germany.
And Germany, by then, was actually looking like a world champion, finding chance after chance to work the ball wide and drive crosses into the middle. But for two excellent saves from the Sweden keeper Robin Olsen, and the post that kept out a Julian Brandt drive, it would have been ahead already.
But the first 135 minutes Germany played in the tournament cannot be swept away with one good half. Although Germany dominated the opening minutes to an almost preposterous degree–after about 10 minutes it had completed 122 passes to Sweden’s six–Sweden still created two one-on-ones in the opening 12 minutes. The second of them probably should have led to a penalty as Boateng bundled over Marcus Berg from behind.
Sebastian Rudy, who had been far more forceful in the holding role than Sami Khedira, was forced off on the half hour with blood dripping from his nose. Ilkay Gundogan replaced him, but he hadn’t had a touch when Kroos, who had been weirdly lax against Mexico, squandered possession cheaply in his own half. For a player who is usually so assured in possession, this was hallucinatory stuff, although admittedly not as hallucinatory as the sight of Ola Toivonen taking the ball down on his chest as Sweden surged forward, holding off Antonio Rudiger and lobbing Manuel Neuer.
As in the first game, the balance simply wasn’t right. Mats Hummels, who was ruled out of the game against Sweden with a dislodged vertebra, complained after the Mexico game about the lack of protection he and his fellow center back Boateng were afforded.
“If seven or eight players play offensively,” he said, having made the point previously internally, “it’s clear that the attacking momentum exceeds the defensive stability.”
Here again, the fullbacks seemed to play too high, placing an intolerable burden on the single holding midfielder. Win the ball back against Germany, Mexico and Sweden showed, and there will be space into which you can accelerate.
The question, then, is why the manager Jogi Low would be so lax. Perhaps it was down to Khedira no longer being able to cover the ground, but it’s hard not also to see a measure of self-indulgence in Germany’s display, whether in a lack of focus or, more seriously, in a tactical approach that became more rooted in making stylistic points than about winning the game.
This has generally not been a happy Germany camp. Mesut Ozil and Gundogan prompted widespread outrage for agreeing to be photographed with Turkish president Recep Erdogan during his campaign for Sunday's general election. There have also been reports of a rift in the camp between, on the one side, the “bling-bling gang” of Ozil, Boateng, Khedira and Julian Draxler, and on the other the Bavarians Hummels, Kroos, Neuer and Thomas Muller. The main point of contention, it seems, was the omission of Leroy Sane, with Ozil’s group disappointed the Bavarians did not do more to encourage Low to select the Manchester City winger for the squad.
There have also been allegations of complacency, with Marco Reus, remarkably, saying he didn’t mind being left out of the opening defeat to Mexico because he knew he would be needed for “in the important games.” This, evidently, was important enough, and Reus started, scoring the equalizer from a Timo Werner cross.
World Cups, of course are not won in the opening two fixtures. Champions, as Germany did four years ago, often grow into tournaments. A little early stress-testing can be a good thing. But this was rather too stressful, and there are major issues to be resolved with the balance of the side.