The signs were there.
Germany had a five-match winless run heading into their final pre-World Cup friendly against Saudi Arabia – their worst run since 1931. A narrow, unconvincing win against the Saudis did not mask the deficiencies that had been laid bare. Losing to Mexico in their tournament opener may be the shock result of the World Cup so far, but it was coming.
They may have dominated the game – 66% possession, 20 chances created to Mexico’s 12, 26 shots to 13 – but in truth, Mexico, who created the more gilt-edged opportunities to score, should have won this game more handily, by a scoreline that could have matched Spain’s embarrassing 5-1 loss in their opening game as reigning champions at the last World Cup.
At the moment, Die Mannschaft are playing like a self-indulgent side, drunk on its own excesses. It was difficult not to see an air of complacency in their loss. Forward Thomas Muller confirmed as much, saying earlier this week that he and his teammates “took things a bit too lightly” after their warm-up games, assuming that they’d be able to flip the proverbial switch once the tournament proper came.
Well, the tournament proper came, and the switch wasn’t flipped. Now Germany are in danger of becoming the third straight reigning champions to get knocked out in the group stages, after Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.
Spain are a troubling blueprint for Germany. In 2014 it seemed that Germans had mastered the Spanish plan, mirroring the dominant, suffocating possession and passing that had led the Spaniards to the 2010 title but adding a level of thrust and attacking impetus that Spain had missed. Vicente del Bosque’s side infamously won each of their knockout games in 2010 by a 1-0 scoreline.
But 2018 Germany are looking more like 2014 Spain. Heavy favourites to repeat, expecting that the exact same plan that made them champions four years earlier will work again, that whatever other teams have done in response, they’ll be good enough to beat it.
Mexico put paid to that notion, and in all too predictable a way.
The loss bore far too many similarities to Spain’s against the Netherlands from four years ago, notably in how easily Germany were torn apart on the counter, but also in how shellshocked a champion team were by what was happening to them. It was as if they couldn’t believe that they were losing, or that they weren’t able to turn things around.
Spain would follow up their 5-1 reverse to the Dutch with a 2-0 loss to Chile that knocked them out – which offers another parallel that Germany won’t find comforting.
Their next opponents are Sweden, a side with a sense of unity and a battling spirit that harks back to Chile’s from 2014. The Swedes may not have the sprinkling of stardust that Alexis Sanchez provided for Chile – although in Emil Forsberg, they certainly have a player capable of doing Germany damage – but their path to the World Cup should be enough of an indication that they will not be easy to beat.
They beat Italy to qualify for this summer’s tournament – and beating a side of the Azzurri’s pedigree over a two-legged playoff, not just a one-off knockout game, is a sign that this team has what it takes to beat Germany.
Thomas Muller has urged Germany to stop losing the ball: "They often come from being over-motivated and thinking too well. The mix of patience and determination is extremely important. Against Sweden we expect a defensive block. We must not get too impatient." #GER #SWE— Ronan Murphy (@swearimnotpaul) June 20, 2018
Manager Joachim Low has a lot to do to ensure his champions avoid that fate, starting with getting the players who make his side such a feared squad on paper to step up. Foremost among them is Toni Kroos, who against Mexico was not the player who ran Germany’s midfield in 2014, nor the star who has been such a crucial part of Real Madrid‘s recent successes.
Perhaps bringing in Ilkay Gundogan in for Sami Khedira, who offered nothing in attack and was poor defensively, would add more incisiveness to the side as a whole, as well as bringing the best out of Kroos, similar to how Croatia’s Luka Modric does at Madrid.
Playing Muller as a striker ahead of Timo Werner, who looked out of his depth on his World Cup debut, is another potential solution. Up front, Muller can pull defenders out of position in a way that he can’t when deployed as a winger. That in turn will lead to more space for Marco Reus, who could come in for Werner, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler – who at times was the only player who looked like making an impact against Mexico.
Ozil is the other player who needs to find his best. Some of the criticism the Arsenal man receives is unfair – it went unnoticed, for example, that he was the only attacking player who got back to help defend during Mexico’s goal, even if he was then beaten too easily by goalscorer Hirving Lozano. But there’s no arguing that it has been far too long since he dazzled in a high-stakes game. There have even been calls for him to be dropped.
It’s unlikely that Low heeds those calls. But he needs his star players to live up to their billing on Saturday against Sweden.
Otherwise, like Spain and Italy before them, Germany are close to bidding an unexpectedly early farewell to their World Cup.
Aleksandar Mitrovic came into the World Cup on the back of a strong season on loan at Fulham from Newcastle, leading the Cottagers’ promotion campaign.
On Friday, he continued that good form, scoring Serbia’s first goal in their crucial Group E encounter against Switzerland. Unfortunately for the Serbs, they would succumb to a Swiss comeback to lose 2-1.
Here’s a closer look at Mitrovic’s performance.
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 6
Shots on target – 2
Passing accuracy – 55%
Aerial Duels won – 73%
It was a mixed performance from Mitrovic, who scored a towering header to put Serbia ahead in the fifth minute. His strength made him a thorn in the side of the Swiss defence, but he misplaced his passes often, killing Serbia’s attacks after he’d done the hard part of holding the ball up.
He also should have had a penalty, with the referee choosing not to consult VAR when Mitrovic was wrestled to the ground in the second half.
His physicality made him a handful for Switzerland’s defence, as he used his strength to dominate in the air. The striker won eight out of his 11 aerial duels. He should have had a penalty in the second half – when Switzerland’s defenders decided the only way to deal with him was to wrestle him to the ground. It took two of them.
The goal Mitrovic scored was another display of strength – beating his defender on a cross to power home the opener.
His link-up play left a lot to be desired. Often, Mitrovic would use his prodigious strength to hold the ball up, only to give the ball away far too easily. Some of that was down to his teammates not being in the right position, but Mitrovic’s pass accuracy, 55% – was shockingly poor. Better link-up play could have led to more chances for Serbia on a night they needed a win to seal qualification into the Round of 16.
It was a bruising display from the striker, who will have wished for better performances from this teammates. He was left to do too much on his own, isolated up top and not getting enough opportunities to link up with his teammates.
When his chance came, he took it well, scoring the goal that seemed to have set Serbia on their way to the Round of 16. Instead, they became the first team to lose after taking a lead at this World Cup.
RATING – 7/10
Xherdan Shaqiri responded by saying “it’s just emotion” when he was questioned about the way he celebrated his late winner in Switzerland’s 2-1 victory over Serbia.
Stoke winger Shaqiri and Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, who netted Switzerland’s equaliser in the World Cup Group E contest in Kaliningrad, each celebrated their goals by making a gesture with their hands that was an apparent nod to the Albanian flag.
Both are among the players in the Switzerland team who have links to Kosovo – Shaqiri wears boots with the Kosovo flag displayed on one heel and the Swiss one on the other.
When asked about the way he had celebrated, Shaqiri said in a post-match press conference streamed on FIFA’s website: “I think in football you have always emotions.
“You can see what I did and I think it’s just emotion. I’m very happy to score this goal. It’s not more. I think we don’t have to speak about this now.”
When Switzerland boss Vladimir Petkovic was questioned about the gestures, he said: “I can only repeat what I already said yesterday – you should never mix politics and football.
“It’s clear that emotions show up and that’s how things happen. I think we all together need to steer away from politics in football and we should focus on this sport as a beautiful game and something that brings people together.
“I think we should not talk that much about politics but show our mettle on the pitch.”
Serbia boss Mladen Krstajic said when asked if he had any comment to make about the celebrations: “I don’t have any comment. I don’t deal with these things. I am a man of sports and this is what I am going to stay. I have no comment.”
Having fallen behind in the fifth minute via Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header, Petkovic’s men drew level in the 52nd minute when Shaqiri’s shot was blocked and Xhaka blasted the loose ball into the net.
Shaqiri, who sent a fine effort against the post shortly after the equaliser, then completed the turnaround in the 90th minute as a Swiss counter-attack saw him receive the ball from substitute Mario Gavranovic, burst forward and slot coolly past Vladimir Stojkovic.
Newcastle striker Mitrovic, so impressive on loan at Fulham last season, was aggrieved that Serbia were not awarded a penalty in the 66th minute after he was caught in a tangle with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schar.
Switzerland are up into second place in the group, level on four points from two games with Brazil. Serbia are a point behind in third, with pointless fourth-placed Costa Rica eliminated after their 2-0 loss to the Brazilians earlier on Friday.
The final round of fixtures sees Serbia play Brazil and Switzerland face Costa Rica.
Petkovic, whose side came from behind to draw 1-1 with Brazil on Sunday, said: “What is important is we have developed a winning mentality. Even if we are down, we try to be positive and win each game. We always find a reaction and this is a positive characteristic of our team.”
Krstajic said of the second-half incident involving Mitrovic: “Whether this was a penalty or not, that is something I won’t comment on.”
He added: “We’re in a situation where we need a win against Brazil and we will focus and do whatever we can to try to win. Nothing is impossible in life.
“We respect their status as the favourites to win, but we are going to prepare. They have some weak spots that we are going to try to exploit.”