It was telling how Germany ended its final Euro 2020 group stage game against Hungary.
After winning a corner in the final minutes, playmakers Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller patted the ball back and forth to each other at the corner flag to eat up valuable seconds. It was calculated and cynical stuff, but also symbolic of a side petrified of risking another slip-up.
In the end, Germany did go through to the knockout stages and will now take on England at Wembley next Tuesday.
But it didn’t look certain until the very last minutes of their 2-2 draw with Hungary, a team that battled hard against strong opposition in the tournament’s toughest group.
On a rainy night in Munich, the spirited Hungarians went ahead twice through the skill of their veteran attacker Ádám Szalai, who scored one goal and provided one assist, and the home side had to scramble to play catch-up on both occasions.
That Germany did manage a draw is testament to their desperation, but it seems the rest of the competition’s big guns have little to fear from Joachim Löw’s side.
While Hungary put in a strong defensive-driven performance, Germany’s problems were as numerous as they were familiar.
Highly-paid stars like Ilkay Gündogan, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sané had scores of ball touches, but failed to create more than a handful of decent chances. The side’s defensive line, which loves to push high, was caught napping in the second half directly after Germany scored, as goalkeeper Manuel Neuer again made the wrong call to charge out.
Even Robin Gosens, so celebrated for his man of the match performance against Portugal, was suddenly missing in action, a new example of Germany players’ individual battles with inconsistency.
Germany’s underwhelming year
The off-colour performance from Die Mannschaft shouldn’t come as a surprise of course. After the highs of their 2014 World Cup win, the team has been up and down like a yo-yo since their early exit from the 2018 World Cup. This last 12 months it has been going through an annus horribilis of sorts.
It all started back in September of last year, when the side resumed play following a COVID-19 hiatus.
First there was a 1-1 draw with Spain in the Nations League, no embarrassment of course, but it was the 1-1 draw with Switzerland that got fans concerned. Then came a 3-3 draw with Turkey in Cologne, an opponent with added meaning due to the high number of Turkish migrants in Germany.
A 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Spain in November in Seville led to coach Joachim Löw being called in to explain himself to the German FA. Some underwhelming victories followed, before a highly embarrassing 2-1 loss to North Macedonia in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in March of this year.
It was no surprise then that 15-year stalwart Löw, criticised by many in recent years for a lack of flexibility, eventually took the hint and announced the European Championships would be his final tournament in charge.
After banning them in 2019, he also reinstated Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels to the side, two experienced campaigners who have both played in every game so far at this year’s tournament.
‘We’re just relieved’
Despite the fact that Germany was less than convincing against Hungary, the team was trying to put a positive spin on it after the match.
“Hungary were so compact … We were not great at finding a solution to the problem, but we showed great morale,” said Bayern defender Joshua Kimmich at the post-match press conference.
Löw was similarly results oriented in his assessment, saying it was “great” that his side got through in a tough group. “Now we can look forward to a match against England.”
But Germany’s press, who seemed preoccupied with the fate of Munich stadium’s lighting protest before the game, were critical of the team after the final whistle. Former national team player Mehmet Scholl said that while Die Mannschaft’s effort levels were good, the team “lacked structure.”
“We played too wide and just didn’t cut through at all,” he said after Germany’s goalless first half. “We haven’t managed to get our key players into the right positions.”
While Scholl reckons the team can improve for its match against England, he doubts the side has what it takes to win the tournament for a fourth time.
Germany’s main football website, Kicker, wrote that Löw’s side remains, even at the end of the group stage, “a work in progress”, adding that the team’s performance was a major dip from its effort against Portugal on the weekend.
“In terms of play and tactics, Löw and his team treated themselves and the crowd to the opposite of last Saturday’s 4-2 show,” it said.
Next stop, Wembley
Despite the team’s obvious shortcomings, German fans and players will remain quietly confident ahead of the side’s game against England on Tuesday at Wembley. While England has not let in a goal so far at the tournament, they have only scored two of their own – and there’s the historical significance of the location too.
There have been some dramatic matches at the ground between the two arch rivals over the years.
In 1966, England claimed their first and only World Cup against Germany at Wembley, after a controversial goal from Geoff Hurst which the linesman deemed to have crossed the line, but which German players disputed. Ever since, German football fans have used the term “Wembley Tor” to mean a goal that may (or may not) have gone in after hitting the crossbar.
More recently, the stadium has held more happy memories for Germany, after it defeated England in a penalty shoot-out there in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championships. They went on to win the tournament, also at Wembley, against Czech Republic.
In fact, Germany hasn’t lost at the north-west London stadium in a FIFA-sanctioned match since 1975.
Despite his side’s patchy form going into the round of 16 tie, captain Manuel Neuer is looking forward to the showdown at England’s home of football.