Prolific Germany keeping the goals out now too
Joachim Löw appears to have finally sorted out the defence
His side was Europe’s most prolific in qualifying and if Joachim Löw was ever concerned about the fact they also conceded more than other group winner along the way he might take satisfaction now from the fact the best of those nine defences, Spain’s, will be on a plane home next week with their English rivals for the distinction now certain to follow 24 hours or so later.
Portugal beat Sweden and in their opening game Löw’s side gave Ronaldo and Co a bit of a thumping. Schoolyard logic suggests Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s lot would be in serious trouble now if the two were to meet again.
For all that, the German coach has done a serious remodelling job on his back four since arriving in Brazil. Per Mertesacker and the rest might have coasted against the likes of Ireland and Austria, but there are far tougher tests ahead here, Löw knows, and he has experimented with a line-up comprised entirely of centre backs.
It worked well enough against Portugal and so is set to be retained for today’s meeting with Ghana even if, as looks likely, Mats Hummels misses out through injury.
Löw’s change of approach may have been influenced by the difficulties he has had to deal with on the injury front.
Lars Bender and regular left back Marcel Schmelzer had to be left behind along with winger Marco Reus and amongst those who travelled, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm have all been struggling with or coming back from problems of one type or another.
Schweinsteiger’s form has been an issue anyway and so getting to use the other two of that three was seen as the priority. Löw’s approach has been to shift Lahm into central midfield, where he operates these days for Bayern Munich and now prefers to play, while deploying Khedira a little further up the field, where he doesn’t have to shoulder quite so much defensive responsibility.
In the full back berths there were, of course, more orthodox options available but Löw is mindful of the way Germany have started each of their last two tournaments – full of promise only to be very well beaten at the semi-final.
He certainly won’t read too much into the scoreline in Salvador for the Germans have scored a total of 19 goals and conceded just two while winning every one of their World Cup opening games since last winning the title back in 1990.
On each occasion, obviously, they’ve ultimately come up short.
And so he turned to Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Höwedes, who did their bit as Ronaldo and Co were comfortably contained – even if the coach would have preferred things to have been kept a little tighter in the second half.
“I think that we can only be partially satisfied with how we played,” said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer afterwards.
“In assessing this game, we have to be honest: we got a penalty, they got a red card; basically everything went our way in this game. In the second half we controlled things with a man advantage but we have to realise that the opponent had opportunities. It wasn’t all perfect.”
Winning, though, eases the pressure and if Hummels misses out the expectation is Löw will again be brave, switching Boateng back inside and starting Shkodran Mustafi, a 22-year-old graduate of the Under-17 European championship winning side of 2009.
It is quite an ascent for the Sampdoria defender, who left Everton for Italy two and a half years ago having barely had a sniff of the first team.
Scarcely six months ago there were reports he was considering declaring for Albania and even after making his senior debut against Chile a few months back, he was initially omitted from Löw’s squad of 23, only receiving a late call when Reus was forced to withdraw.
Mertesacker will be making his 100th appearance for the team, a feat made more remarkable by the fact he was quite peripheral two years ago at Euro 2012, which he insists was actually a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to go into pre-season training at Arsenal fresh and reminded him of the need to keep proving himself at the top level.
How severely he and the rest of the team is tested by this Ghana side remains to be seen but there is, of course, the usual interest in another prospective World Cup meeting of the Boateng brothers, with Kevin-Prince a possible starter for the Africans.
The former Portsmouth player, now at Schalke, has been winding the Germans up again, suggesting they lack real leaders and having a pop, in particular, at Schweinsteiger for just wanting to get on with his own game.
His real beef, though, may be with those players, Khedira and Mesut Özil amongst them, who appeared to back the coach, Hans Hrubesch, when he decided to throw him out of the Germany Under-21 squad for a succession of minor breaches of discipline in advance of the 2009 European Championships, which the team subsequently won.
‘Himself to blame’
“I was always a supporter of Kevin,” says Khedira. “I have known him since we were 15, but sometimes there are rules to be followed. You can cross the line once or twice but at some point it has to be enough as well. The coach at that time decided what was right, in my mind. Kevin had only himself to blame – but he knows it, I’m sure.”
Boateng may have new coach-related troubles to worry about, as it happens, with Ghana’s, James Appiah, opting to leave him on the bench for the first hour the other night and on the face of it, there is not an awful lot of incentive to change a team that played well and dominated the Americans for long stretches before eventually losing.
To make things worse, Boateng is reported to have led the players in criticising the manager and his tactics afterwards.
In fact, the Black Stars had 59 per cent of the possession and almost three times as many attempts on goal as Jürgen Klinsmann’s side but, critically, they did come away with nothing and now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing something from this game.
Four years ago, when they did not, they lost and having left out both Boateng and Michael Essien on Monday, Appiah has some big decisions to make. Despite the problems, one of them just might be to find room for Boateng today on the basis that the versatile 27-year-old will feel inclined to back up some of his talk on the field.
Still, it is not a good position to be in against a side that has always scored goals and might just have just figured out how to stop conceding them.