Germany doesn't take footballing defeat that well, especially against historic foes the Netherlands. A 2-0 win in Northern Ireland won't dispel Friday's dour mood, but maybe Serge Gnabry's international record should.
German coach Joachim Löw, who has not been reticent in praising Bayern Munich forward Serge Gnabry in the past week, had more reason to pile on the superlatives after Germany's 2-0 win in Belfast on Monday.
"His quota for us is outstanding. But he's not only important to us for that reason. He's a target player, someone you can pass to even when he's under pressure. It's only logical that his place in the team is fixed," Löw said of Gnabry, after he netted his ninth goal for Germany in just his 10th appearance.
The goal will have gone some way to restoring wounded German pride after the 4-2 defeat to longstanding rivals the Netherlands — and indeed after a rather stale and sometimes shaky performance in the first half in Northern Ireland. Winning by just one goal in Belfast, despite the many second-half chances, might have been seen as another disappointing performance in the domestic press.
Löw raised eyebrows before the defeat to the Oranje when he recalled a conversation with Bayern coach Nico Kovac about Gnabry, who had been struggling with injury and was a doubt for the game.
"I spoke at length with Nico on the phone: 'Serge Gnabry is playing, Serge Gnabry will always play while I'm here.'" Löw recalled. "[Particularly] in this form that Serge has showed for us, but also for Bayern. And in different positions: in the center, or on the wings, Serge has the pace to run at goal, he has good technique, and Serge can play in a variety of different ways. That's extremely difficult for the opponent."
Gnabry's 92nd-minute finish on Monday showed several of these qualities all at once. First, he showed his tactical awareness, staying onside and picking the right diagonal run in behind the defense. Then, he showed the pace to take two Northern Irish defenders out of the question before even reaching the ball. Then he latched on to Kai Havertz's pass at an impossibly tight angle to the right of goal, but demonstrated the technique and nerve to shoot first time and find the bottom corner. Northern Ireland goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell looked behind him immediately after the goal, and then back at the point where Gnabry had shot from, as if baffled that the striker had found an angle past him and into the far corner.
Poster boy for the next generation?
Transition has been the buzz word around the German team at least since last summer's early World Cup exit. And despite dozens of different opinions on the details, what's certain is that the process is ongoing. Some say it's moving too fast, that old studs like Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng were put out to pasture before their time. Others think a few more veterans, maybe Manuel Neuer in goal, or even Real Madrid playmaker Toni Kroos, should have bowed out alongside the central defenders. Still others ask quite what Germany's latest generation of rising stars have really brought to the national team as yet.
Gnabry is certainly doing his utmost to disarm that last line of criticism. And while one of the mysteries of Monday's game in Belfast might have been Löw's decision to give Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz just half an hour on the pitch, Gnabry effectively provided the 20-year-old with his first assist in a competitive international, as he clinically finished Havertz's clever pass in behind the lines.
It capped off another night of firsts for Germany's next generation, roughly half an hour after Marcel Halstenberg opened his international account with a sweetly struck volley.
Expecting Gnabry to keep up a quota of 0.9 goals per game for the national team is surely not realistic. It's also a very small sample size for serious comparison. Plenty of past German internationals have a better quota, but most of them played very few matches (many of them played just once and scored, for a ratio of 1.0!), and all played in a different, higher-scoring era. Indeed, the most recent Germany player to boast a better goal scoring ratio than Gnabry's to date is one Gerd Müller, Der Bomber himself, who banged in 68 in 62 caps between 1967 and 1974.
Read more: Kai Havertz, the candidate for Germany