Germany's loss to Mexico in their World Cup opener was no fluke. They were out-run, out-thought and out-fought by their opponents. The display poses Joachim Löw serious questions about some of his most trusted players.
As the team news filtered through an hour before kickoff in Moscow, it emerged that this was the oldest eleven Germany had selected for a World Cup game since the 2002 final against Brazil. From the moment the first whistle blew, that looked painfully apparent.
Despite that statistic, this isn’t an old team, only Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer are the wrong side of 30. But they were made to look ancient by a vibrant Mexico side who, had they made the right decisions in key moments, could’ve been out of sight at the interval.
Germany lost possession an incredible 36 times in a first half where the only surprise in Hirving Lozano’s goal was that it took so long. Khedira was particularly culpable. The Juventus man isn't naturally a true holding midfielder and with Toni Kroos alongside him, a pair of attacking fullbacks and a front four not renowned for their work rate, his can be a tough job when the world champions are on the back foot.
But Khedira completely abdicated his responsibility to protect his center backs. Time after time Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels were forced to step out of the defensive line to meet Mexican runners driving into space in the middle of the pitch.
This is a particularly uncomfortable situation for Hummels, who lacks pace, and Germany were fortunate that the defensive pairing was able to save their bacon on more than one occasion. Their reluctance to trust the left-hand side in the absence of Jonas Hector and the questionable nature of Joshua Kimmich’s first-half positioning were also glaring issues.
Pace is a problem
Unfortunately for Germany, Hummels isn’t the only man who struggles to keep up with a rapid opponent. Of Germany’s starting XI, only Timo Werner has genuine speed and while watching Lozano, Carlos Vela and Miguel Layun pour forward on the break, it was impossible not to think of Leroy Sane watching from home after being omitted from the Germany squad by Joachim Löw.
Despite the poor quality of their performance, Löw made no changes at the break and, given how far his trusted crop of late-20s performers has taken this team, it’s easy to understand his faith.
But even the best sides need freshening up. And for all Germany’s vaunted squad depth, there are still areas where their options are limited. While there’s a glut of attacking midfielders, Löw’s squad doesn’t really offer him a genuine midfield smotherer in the mould of Sergio Busquets, Casemiro or N’Golo Kante.
That point was rammed home by Löw’s first change, when he ended Khedira’s misery by removing him in favor of Marco Reus, finally making his World Cup debut, and moved the anonymous Mesut Özil back into the middle of the park.
The world champions started to look a little more dangerous going forward after the Dortmund man’s introduction, though more in desperation than thanks to any creative spark, while Löw’s faith in Draxler was somewhat rewarded by a display that, although far short of stunning, put his senior partners Özil and Thomas Müller in the shade.
Time to ring the changes?
But the change did nothing to stem the flow of Mexican counterattacks, with Özil often the deepest of Germany’s midfielders, a role he couldn’t be less suited to.
Löw waited until the 80th minute to make his second change and the 86th minute to make his third. The men brought on — Mario Gomez and Julian Brandt — went as close as any German player all game.
With the exception of Boateng, Hummels and Neuer, his senior men let him down. All have plenty of credit in the bank but Löw must decide if that’s enough. Would Ilkay Gündogan, Leon Goretzka or Sebastian Rudy stiffen the midfield? Is Reus a better bet than Özil or Müller? Or is this result enough to shake his leading men from their slumber?
As concerning as this display was, it’s unlikely to be fatal. In Spain in 1982, Germany lost their opener to Algeria, before going on to reach the final against Italy. Four years ago, they tied a group-stage match with Ghana before going on to win the World Cup. And even after Sunday, Sweden and South Korea should be easily swatted aside.
Many had felt the same way about Mexico. But the team in green offered a thoroughly convincing blueprint for how to topple the holders, one that’s available to any side with pace and the ability to counter-attack.
After months of buildup, Löw is left with far more questions than answers. He may be forced to choose between his heart and his head.