A week after supplying the winning goalscorer and manager in a Champions League final, German football limbered up for Euro 2020 by becoming European U-21 champions again with victory over Portugal.
Strange, then, that when Joachim Löw’s senior team jogged out for a final warm-up match in Dusseldorf on Monday, Sky’s commentator noted: “Never has there been so much pessimism surrounding the German team on its way to a major tournament.”
The road to hell is scattered with pundits who examined Die Mannscahft between tournaments and thought: 'Germany - no chance.' England will be tickled to see doubt gnaw at a country that’s built a self-fulfilling reputation for tournament know-how and peaking when it counts. For decades Germany have been a mirror England can’t bare to look at.
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The comparison felt less daunting after Germany’s crash at the group stage in Russia three years ago and the comical 6-0 defeat to Spain in November, when Löw’s men fell into a trance. The recent World Cup qualifying defeat to North Macedonia was another culture shock.
Spain 6-0 Germany: Ilkay Gundogan, Robin Koch, Florian Neuhaus, Toni Kroos look dejected
Image credit: Getty Images
In Seville in the 6-0 pummelling, Spain had 22 shots to Germany's two. In their heaviest defeat since 1931 Löw’s somnambulists posted 32% possession and woke to the headline in Cologne’s Express newspaper: "Pathetic! A lifeless team full of total failures." All hope for Euro 2020 was dropped as Die Welt sifted the "numbers of horror” from Seville.
But Germany tend to confine their turmoil to the gaps between tournaments, and while Latvia (ranked 138) were as ambitious as training ground cones, a 7-1 win brightened the mood for the group of death, where France, Portugal and Hungary complete the quartet (not that superpower death is likely with the group stage removing only eight of the 24 contestants).
It was very ‘German football’ for the country’s U-21s to win the European Championship six days before the senior tournament kicks off: an implied threat to the long-term job prospects of Löw’s men.
Das Reboot - from the rock bottom of Euro 2000 - held out the promise of an eternal bounty of young German talent, much as the earlier Clairefontaine has stayed true to its manifesto in France.
Mischievous types will say Germany is now better at manufacturing coaches than players. Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool), Hansi Flick (Bayern Munich), who takes over from Löw in August, and Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea) are the last three Champions League winning managers.
Yet France and even England could claim to have a steadier flow of starlets. From Germany’s winning Euro 2017 U-21 side, only Serge Gnabry has progressed to the Euro 2020 squad. Kai Havertz’s winning goal for Chelsea against Manchester City in Porto affirmed not only his own potential but Germany’s success in finding the next Mesut Ozil. In an emergency though Löw suspended his faith in youth and called the old guard.
Germany celebrate their win
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The European champions of 1972, 1980 and 1996 fell down a transition hole when they abandoned Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller - the last two now restored, and starters against Latvia in a 3-4-3 formation. The return of Müller and Hummels has steadied the mood, revived an older tradition of wisdom and cunning. In the core of leaders mentioned by Löw in a recent interview are Manuel Neuer (who reached 100 caps against Latvia), Hummels, Rüdiger, Gündoğan, Goretzka, Kroos and Muller, a throwback to the age of awkward, angular, nagging German strikers.
With Hummels and Müller back for the earlier friendly against Denmark, Löw noticed "it was louder on the pitch than before." Against Latvia, Müller scored his first international goal since March 2018 as Sané and Werner also came on to score. "The result was not the most important thing but the way we played football was," Müller said. "But when I think back it was a long time since we got a big win so it feels good."
In Group F, Germany face the 2016 European champions Portugal and 2018 world champions France, who attempt to become the first double-double winners. Their World Cup and European Championship wins in 1998-2000 were a catalyst to Germany’s ‘Reboot.’
When they play slowly, Germany look lateral and ponderous. When their play quickens they radiate threat and speed of thought. Confidence rises. But no team - not even Germany - can pretend the form book has lied for three years. Nor can they drown out pessimism back home. The DFB’s social media crew has been on a mission this week to project the win over Latvia as the German sun bursting back out.
The authors of German legend are never slow to argue that this is a ship with an enviable history of self-righting.
In a column in The Times during the 2010 World Cup, Michael Ballack wrote: “Much of our success is down to a positive mental attitude, which has enabled us to create a winning culture over a number of years. German strengths are our concentration, discipline and self-belief, which come from our preparation and the hard work we put in before tournaments start. We draw confidence from our history, the older players know they've done it before and have passed on their experiences to the younger players. German teams approach every competition expecting to do well.”
For the first superpower clash of the tournament - France v Germany on Tuesday - Löw has found comfort in the older virtues of experience, unity, pedigree and…talking a good game.
Germany’s 26-man squad
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern), Bernd Leno (Arsenal), Kevin Trapp (Frankfurt)
Defenders: Emre Can (Dortmund), Matthias Ginter (Mönchengladbach), Robin Gosens (Atalanta), Christian Günter (Freiburg), Marcel Halstenberg (Leipzig), Mats Hummels (Dortmund), Lukas Klostermann (Leipzig), Robin Koch (Leeds), Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), Niklas Süle (Bayern)
Midfielders: Serge Gnabry (Bayern), Leon Goretzka (Bayern), İlkay Gündoğan (Manchester City), Jonas Hofmann (Mönchengladbach), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Jamal Musiala (Bayern), Florian Neuhaus (Mönchengladbach), Leroy Sané (Bayern)
Forwards: Kai Havertz (Chelsea), Thomas Müller (Bayern), Kevin Volland (Monaco), Timo Werner (Chelsea)
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