At half-time against Sweden in Sochi, Germany were teetering on the brink. Another half of the same, and we would have been talking about the Nationalmannschaft’s earliest elimination in the tournament since 1938. Eighty years. Instead, we witnessed ten men fight tooth and nail, and a moment of magic that has to go down as one of the most memorable moments in the long and stellar history of the team. To think that there have been quite a few of those…
Facts and Stats
Germany and Sweden have a long footballing history, and this was the 37th meeting between the two countries since their first encounter in Stockholm in 1911. While the Swedes would hold the upper hand in the early years, since the Second World War the Nationalmannschaft had proved to be the more consistent outfit.
Before the meeting in Sochi, Germany had won fifteen matches and the Swedes thirteen – including a penalty shoot-out in Berlin in 1988 – with eight draws. In twelve competitive meetings, the Germans would have the more superior record: nine wins, three draws and just one defeat. That one reverse would come in the infamous semi-final of 1958, where Sepp Herberger’s reigning world champions were literally beaten into submission in Göteborg.
Excluding the penalty shootout defeat in 1988, one would have to go back a further decade to find the last time any German team had been beaten by the Blågult (“blue-yellows”) – a 3-1 friendly defeat for West Germany in Stockholm in 1978, with the only German goal scored by former player and assistant coach Rainer Bonhof.
The last meeting between the two teams had been in late 2013, a topsy-turvy World Cup qualifier in Stockholm. Jogi Löw’s men had found themselves two goals down in the first half, but would engineer a stunning comeback to win 5-3, with André Schürrle claiming a 20-minute hat-trick.
In making a number of personnel changes, the coach’s decision to leave Mesut Özil on the bench marked the end of a staggering run of major tournament matches for the Arsenal playmaker. Since his first major tournament appearance in South Africa in 2010 against Australia, Özil had played in 26 successive matches in three World Cups (including this current edition) and two European Championships. In Özil’s place was Marco Reus, who made his first start in a World Cup finals match.
This match marked a special moment for Jogi Löw. Sweden had provided the friendly opposition for the coach’s first match in charge of the Mannschaft back in August 2006 in Gelsenkirchen (a 3-0 win with a goal from Bernd Schneider and a brace from Miroslav Klose). Twelve years on, this far more important fixture was Löw’s 100th competitive international in charge – and his 80th victory.
A number of players continued their move up the all-time appearances list. Mario Gómez, winning his 77th international cap, moved one clear of current team mate Sami Khedira, as well as 1980s and 1990s stalwarts Toni Schumacher and Guido Buchwald. Toni Kroos moved level with world and European champion Andy Möller on 85 caps, while Thomas Müller’s 93rd international appearance left him just two behind FC Bayern München legends Sepp Maier and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Having lost their opening match against Mexico, Germany’s 16th win over Sweden meant that they avoided a second successive defeat in the opening group stage – something that has never happened to any Germany team in the history of the World Cup. It also staved off their earliest elimination since 1938, though they will still have to get a good result against South Korea in their final match to make sure of that.
Knowing the task ahead of them, Germany quickly looked to stamp their authority on the match. They found their rhythm quickly, and the mission could have been made a whole lot easier had Julian Draxler found the back of the net after just two minutes. The shot was blocked, building the plot of a story that was to bubble right through to the final seconds of injury time.
Germany should have been in front, but after just twelve minutes had a very lucky escape. A mistake from centre-back Antonio Rüdiger allowed Sweden’s Marcus Berg to get a run at the German goal. Although Manuel Neuer was quick off his line to effect the block, Jérôme Boateng’s challenge was definitely worth another look. Had the boot been on the foot, German fans would have been screaming at the referee to consult the VAR. In the end, we were thankful at the signal to play on.
On another day, it could have been a penalty to Sweden and a very early bath for Boateng.
The next significant moment of drama saw Sebastian Rudy, an unexpected but pleasantly surprising starter in the defensive midfield, depart early. Having taken an accidental boot in the face from Swedish striker Ola Toivonen, the FC Bayern man’s nose was streaming with blood. Rudy wanted to stay on, but there was no way that he could possibly continue.
"#Rudy wird nicht spielen können. Das Nasenbein ist mehrfach gebrochen, er hatte für kurze Zeit eine Vollnarkose, bekam zwei Tage kaum Luft",
erklärt Bundestrainer #Löw auf der Pressekonferenz#KORGER#WM2018 pic.twitter.com/UutWudMbxL
— DW | Sport (@dw_sport) June 26, 2018
İlkay Gündoğan replaced the clearly disappointed Rudy, and it felt like a lot of the steel had been torn out of the defensive midfield unit as a result. Given the initial selection of Rudy, his replacement with the cannier but far less abrasive Gündoğan was a bit of a surprise. I had been expecting Leon Goretzka to come on off the bench.
It was more coincidence than anything else, but moments after Gündoğan’s arrival, Sweden took the lead. The man at fault was the least likely candidate. Toni Kroos would go on to have a statistically excellent match and cap that off with the last-gasp winner, but it was his sloppy pass that gifted Sweden the lead. In a trice, Viktor Claesson had found Toivonen. One looping shot later, the Mannschaft were left with a mountain to climb.
That mountain would have been even steeper were it not for Neuer, whose magnificent save from Berg’s glancing header kept his team in it. Had Germany fallen two behind with the last kick of the first half, the blow could have been a mortal one. Instead, Neuer dived to his right, and got a crucial glove on the ball.
The second half saw an immediate change, with Gómez coming on for Draxler, who had almost disappeared since missing the chance in the opening minutes. The switch allowed Timo Werner, who had been largely anonymous in the first half, to take up a position on the left wing. It made all the difference.
The impact was almost immediate. Just three minutes into the second half, Kroos started to make up for his earlier botched pass. A lovely ball to the repositioned Werner, whose low cross into the box was finished by Reus. Crucial to the move was the presence of Gómez, whose lumbering presence seemed to discombobulate the Swedish defence.
From that point on, it was a strange feeling to be a Germany fan. On the one hand, it felt like something was going to happen. On other, it felt like it was going to be one of “those” nights. Then, countering that, the strange belief, devoid of all logic and common sense, that Germany simply do not lose matches like this. That somehow, by hook or by crook, things would turn out right in the end.
The wind had changed, and more chances started to come. But nothing was really clear cut. A backheeled attempt from Reus which, had he made any sort of meaningful contact, would have been one of the goals of the tournament. A shot from close range scooped over he target by Gómez, which provided some chilling memories of a decade earlier at Euro 2008.
Just as as looked like the Mannschaft were ready to up the ante, Boateng was shown the yellow card. Then, just over ten minutes later, a second. There was a strange feeling about it all.
The moment Boateng’s second challenge came in, there was sense of foreboding. Then, an almost surreal wait as the referee first allowed play to continue before turning to VAR. Looking at the replay, it was clear was what coming. The foul on Berg was as plain as day, and the flash of red no surprise.
For many teams, being reduced to ten men in such a crucial, potentially tournament-ending match would have led to a complete mental collapse. This German team had been described as soft by many, and in this respect I will also have to hold my hand up and plead guilty. There were no obvious leaders on the pitch as in 2014, but somehow, and from somewhere, the ten men found the courage and determination to pick themselves up. They decided that they would not be beaten.
If anything, the dismissal of Boateng was like an injection of adrenaline. The entire team pushed harder, and created better opportunities. Then, those same thoughts. Was this going to be one of those nights? No, surely not. This is Germany. I can be almost certain that supporters of any other team do not have these strange and contradictory thoughts running through their heads, all at the same time.
When a well-directly Gómez header was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Swedish ‘keeper Robin Olsen, one might have thought that the chance had gone. Then, even more so when a stunning effort from 87th-minute substitute Julian Brandt crashed against the left post. With a little more luck, Brandt could have two World Cup goals. We might not have been left gnawing at our nails.
But no. The ball pinged off the post, and Werner flipped it over the bar from an offside position. As the clock continued to run towards the end of the five additional minutes, a desperate Reus stretched and sliced another chance into the crowd.
Then, Werner made another burst down the left. There was no guarantee that he would have got the ball in the box, but it did not matter. When Swedish substitute Jimmy Durmaz brought down the Leipzig man just outside the penalty area, it was the perfect buildup to the final twist.
The final piece of the drama is something that will be repeated in the head of every German fan, long after this tournament is over. A short tap from Kroos, a perfectly cushioned stop from Reus, and a curling shot that one can watch time and time again on an infinite loop. Sublime, unerring, and the gentlest of swerves to take it away from Olsen and into the top right-hand corner of the Swedish net.
— Die Mannschaft (@DFB_Team) June 24, 2018
Then, the celebration, the outpouring of emotion and relief. With just seconds to go, Germany had been teetering on the brink, with just a point from their opening two matches. When the final whistle blew, they were still in the tournament. You simply could not have written a better script.
The plot was convoluted, and the final scenes were wonderful. We will always remember that free-kick, and how the team were just seconds away from disaster. But the fact remains that the overall performance was poor. The team has so much talent in its ranks, and it is fair to say that an opponent like Sweden should have been swatted aside. This German team should not be relying on last-gasp free-kicks to win this sort of match. Then again, they should not have lost to Mexico either.
But here we are. This is the grim reality.
When it really counted, the team – well, ten of them – came together. But it will take more than this to progress deep into this tournament. It will also need a thorough reevaluation of the tactics by the coach. Does having four men at the back really work? Might it be time to look at having a three-man back line, and having more protection in the middle of the field?
There are a number of selection issues that need to be addressed too. Some that might be unpalatable. Julian Draxler has had two starts in Russia, and has disappointed in both. Perhaps it is time for him to be benched. In doing this, it raises another question. Should benching Draxler mean a return for Mesut Özil? Not necessarily.
In the final phases of the match in Sochi, the team had finally started to look half decent. With both Draxler and Özil off the pitch. Reus was dynamic down the right, Werner down the left. Müller, although he did not have a particularly great game, was far more effective in the second half. Gómez, despite the one fluffed opportunity, was a disruptive force that provided much needed physicality in the opposition box. For opposition defenders, Super Mario is like one of those lumbering house spiders, while Werner is like a fly.
In the defensive midfield, it was clear that the premature departure of Sebastian Rudy had a detrimental effect on the structure of the team. İlkay Gündoğan added little to the mix, and I, as a mere pundit, have always believed in a mix of subtlety and steel. An iron fist in a silk glove. As Rudy is not fit to play against South Korea on Wednesday, Jogi Löw has to start with Leon Goretzka.
Please, Jogi. Do not use Rudy’s injury as a reason/excuse/justification to shoehorn Özil back into some weird Maharishi Jogi starting eleven. Or Khedira, like Thomas Hitlzsperger does with this otherwise interesting lineup:
— Sportschau (@sportschau) June 26, 2018
Defensively, it was shambolic at times. Despite the result, there was not much improvement from the Mexico game. Antonio Rüdiger had a horrible start, but would get better as the game went on. He is a player that thrives on confidence, and being given a run in the team could help iron out any remaining deficiencies.
Jérôme Boateng, meanwhile, had a horrible game. He was described by the English pundits on ITV as “trying to look like Beckenbauer”, and I found it hard not to disagree. Time and again he was caught out of position in the opposition half, and always seemed to be a step behind with his challenges. Either that, or it was a return to the bone-headed Boateng of the past. In a way, his being banned for the match against South Korea could be a blessing in disguise.
With the current 4-2-3-1 system, the unavailability of Boateng and the likely return of Mats Hummels means that there will only be one place for either Rüdiger or Niklas Süle, who is yet to make an appearance at this tournament.
In previous articles I have suggested a 3-5-2, 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1, which will allow the wingbacks more licence to get forward. This, of course, solves the Süle/Rüdiger selection issue. With Boateng out of the equation, we could see a Dreierkette of Hummels, Süle and Rüdiger. Ahead of them, Kroos and Goretzka in the centre, with Joshua Kimmich and Jonas Hector (hereafter, “JoJo”) as flexible wingbacks.
Further up the field, no Özil and no Draxler. Reus on the left, Müller on the right, and Werner in the centre or up top.
But now we have one of those painful selection dilemmas. For me, one of the most problematic.
Thomas Müller’s second half against Sweden may have been slightly better than his first. But, coupled with his complete no-show against Mexico, it has been a poor tournament for Der Raumdeuter. Despite my being a Bayern fan who has been a fervent supporter of Müller for a long time, even I have started to toy with the idea of benching him. He is lost on the right, and his failure at Euro 2016 showed that it never really worked for him in the number nine role either.
There are two scenarios to the Müller-less lineup. The first is straightforward enough, with Julian Brandt coming in as a straight swap. The second is arguably more controversial: Werner on the left, Reus on the right and Gómez up top – the old-school approach with a traditional number nine playing the traditional number nine role. More play down the flanks, and more height and physicality in the opposition box.
The compromise, of course, would be to have one of Müller or Brandt, with Gómez on the bench as an impact sub, providing the same disruption as he did against Sweden. The problem here, of course, is the number of minutes one might hope to get from Gómez, who in recent seasons has been particularly injury-prone. What is certain he is that he is a player who puts himself on the line. I am not going to mention Sandro Wagner. Oh. I just did.
More by accident than design, we may slowly be moving towards the eleven that we all want. The second half changes resulted in a far more positive looking setup, with Werner charging down the wing rather than being left isolated. The striker has not yet found the back of the net, but his assist for the first goal and the run that led to the crucial free-kick clearly altered both the face of the match as well as Germany’s fortunes.
With Reus on the right, Werner on the left and the awkward Gómez causing chaos in the box, Germany truly looked dangerous, even after being reduced to ten men. More so, even. Were it not for the brilliant save from Olsen and the pesky upright, the result would have been settled without the drama. But then, it would not have been anywhere near as memorable.
The impact of Werner also unearthed that other bugbear, the omission of Leroy Sané from the squad. Many were quick to conclude that if Werner could be so effective, Sané would have been doubly so. It is easy to fall for this line of argument, but Sané was omitted on his poor record in the Nationaltrikot, as well as his dire performance in the pre-tournament friendly against Austria. He had been given his opportunity, and had failed to pass muster.
The coach instead decided on Julian Brandt, which has proved to be the more prudent choice. The Leverkusen winger was picked for his being more of a team man, but his two cameos off the bench have proved that the decision was the correct one from a footballing perspective too. Yes, Sané could have skinned both opponents alive and set up half a dozen goals. But he could have just as easily spent all his time running into brick walls like a headless chicken.
Perhaps one of most telling moments came right after the final whistle. Kroos, long seen as the king of ice-cool nonchalance bordering on lofty indifference, was on his knees in the middle of the pitch, banging his fists on the ground. It was a telling display of emotion, a raw moment that showed that there may be more steel in this team than anybody thought.
It did not end there. In a strongly-worded and candid statement to the media after the match, Kroos declared that the team were determined not be sidelined, and that they were “not going to make it easy” for those in Germany who might have been hoping for an early exit, just to prove a point. Kroos was determined to make his point, too. For a player known more for retreating to the sidelines and letting others get on with this sort of thing, it could prove to be a watershed moment.
.@ToniKroos: "Man muss die Eier haben, um in der zweiten Halbzeit so zurückzukommen. Wir haben gekämpft und uns den Sieg verdient. Wir haben jetzt nicht ganz so viel Zeit bis zum nächsten Spiel – und dann müssen wir Südkorea schlagen." #ZSMMN #DieMannschaft #WM2018 pic.twitter.com/uEX01x4NQX
— Die Mannschaft (@DFB_Team) June 24, 2018
One has to have the balls to come back in the second half. We fought and deserved the victory. We do not have that much time until the next game, where we have to beat South Korea.
Was this the moment that Kroos decided that he was going to be the new leader of the team? Having made the error in the first half, he had done everything in his power to turn things around. The pass to set up the equaliser. Taking the game by the scruff of the neck after Boateng’s red card. That free-kick. The unabashed display of emotion. Then, when things had finally started to cool down, the declaration that sounded like something that Lothar Matthäus, Michael Ballack or Bastian Schweinsteiger might have said.
Things have not been fixed. Far from it. There are still problems to address. But it might just be that this German team have turned a very important corner.
An excellent evening for the German skipper, who once again showed the difference that he makes between the sticks. Could do nothing for the Swedish goal, but pulled off a special save just before half time to keep his team in the contest. Was never really threatened in the second half.
Compared to his performance against Mexico, this was a much better effort from the young FC Bayern right-back. Ventured forward with purpose, and was a lot better in getting back to plug the holes at the back. The system does not really allow him to maximise his attacking potential, and only the coach can fix that.
A poor evening for the experienced central defender, who looked off the pace while trying to play like a libero. Could easily have given away a penalty and been sent off early in the piece, and was eventually dismissed eight minutes from time for a badly-timed challenge and a second yellow card.
Has a very shaky start, and a poor pass early on could have easily turned the Chelsea man’s evening into a nightmare. Improved as the match went on, and was looking far more settled by the end.
A so-so game for the 1. FC Köln left back, who returned to the starting eleven after missing the Mexico game with flu. Tracked back effectively enough, without risking too much going forward. Had one scuffed shot at goal at the start of the match and one near the end, and was replaced by Julian Brandt with three minutes remaining.
Came into the starting lineup in place of Khedira, and looked for the time that he was on the pitch. Unfortunately, his evening ended early following an accidental boot to the face, leaving him with a broken nose. Tried his best to come back onto the pitch after lengthy treatment, but made way for İlkay Gündoğan just after the half hour mark.
A roller coaster of a match for the Real Madrid man. Played the poor pass to create the opening for Sweden’s goal, but after that was nothing short of outstanding. Was accurate with his passing, upping the ante in the second half as the Mannschaft piled the pressure on their opponents. Helped create the equaliser with a smart pass to Timo Werner, then capped off the evening that that magnificent free-kick.
Another poor outing for Müller, who must be wondering where his World Cup form has gone. Was largely ineffective in the first half, and it sometimes it felt like he was not even there. Was more involved in the second half after the coach had rejigged the personnel, but there was not much to write home about.
Starting in his first World Cup finals match in place of the benched Mesut Özil, Reus was the most involved German player. Was unable to do much in what was a stodgy first half, but came into his own in the second. Scored a well-taken goal to take his international tally into double figures, and was always a threat.
It could have been so different for the PSG winger. A shot at goal after just two minutes, and after that a gradual disappearing act. With Reus out on the wing and Özil on the bench, Draxler was employed as the midfield playmaker. He failed to take the opportunity, and it was no great surprise when he was replaced at half time by Mario Gómez.
Like many others, it was game of two halves for Werner. Hardly got a sniff in the first half, but was far more involved after moving out onto the left wing in the second. Created the equaliser for Reus with a sharp cross, and drew the foul that would result in the last-gasp, tournament-saving winner.
Came on for the unfortunate Rudy just after the half-hour mark, and never really made an impression on the game. In contrast to the combative Rudy, Gündoğan was unable to impose himself. If anything, the enforced change took the sting out of the game. Had his moments in the second half, including a deflected shot on goal.
Replaced Draxler at the start of the secind half, and immediately made an impact with his physicality. His disruptive presence in the box was crucial for the equaliser. Could have won the match one one chance that he blazed over the target, and came close with a firm header that was brilliantly saved by Swedish ‘keeper Robin Olsen.
Replaced Hector with just three minutes of the 90 to play, and produced plenty of attacking spark with another cameo. After his shot against Mexico that grazed the side of the left post, Brandt would get a little closer against Sweden, crashing a lovely shot clean against the upright.
Die Welt Ratings:
Neuer (3), Kimmich (3), Boateng (4), Rüdiger (4), Hector (4), Rudy (3), Kroos (3), Müller (5), Reus (2), Draxler (5), Werner (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Gündoğan (5), Gómez (5)
Neuer (2), Kimmich (3), Boateng (3.5), Rüdiger (4), Hector (3), Rudy (3), Kroos (3), Müller (4.5), Reus (2), Draxler (4.5), Werner (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Gündoğan (5), Gómez (4)
Neuer (2), Kimmich (3), Boateng (5), Rüdiger (4), Hector (4), Rudy (3), Kroos (2.5), Müller (5), Reus (2), Draxler (5), Werner (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Gündoğan (4.5), Gómez (4)