Germany win but questions remain
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- "Don't analyze this." That was the message a visibly tired Per Mertesacker put out after the final whistle in the Estadio Beira-Rio. The Arsenal defender was not in the mood to delve too deep into a round of 16 game in which little had gone right for Germany, apart from the result.
"I'm not going to look at this game and tell you what we need and who we need," he told ESPN FC. "I stand here [and] I'm saying: the decisive factor was how we fought for each other, how we stood up for each other. All those who complained about us failing with beautiful football now start complaining that we didn't play well. I don't care about all of that. All games [in the knockout round] have been tight. We're through."
The time for introspection will surely come, but on Monday night, the centre-back's sense of relief and achievement outweighed the need to take critical account of a game that could have easily gone wrong.
"It's not what we wanted," Mertesacker admitted when asked about the game's open nature. His team had created more chances -- "enough to finish the game in 90 minutes," as Toni Kroos said -- but the combination of a high defensive line and some very slack passing in the opposition half created far too many scares in an encounter that Joachim Low's team could not afford to lose under any circumstances.
Manuel Neuer had a superb game as a gloved sweeper, but every one of his last-ditch interventions brought a sharp intake in the stadium. Germany were playing a very dangerous game against a very dangerous opponent without much of a safety net. There was widespread agreement in the German press corps: Low would not have been able to survive in the job after an upset here.
"You have to take a deep breath after such a game," the manager said after the final whistle. His team had nearly choked.
"Yes, you start thinking [about going out], and there were moments when we looked at each other," Mertesacker said.
But "job done" was the bottom line for him, and the strong sense of pride his words conveyed was understandable. He'd done a lot of defending and come through with flying colours, Abdelmoumene Djabou's goal in the final minute of extra time notwithstanding.
But the 29-year-old wasn't simply overcome with emotion; it was easy to see that his not addressing the negatives was a deliberate choice. The clue was in the "what and who" line. He knew that any statement about the failings in midfield and defence would only fan the flames of the critics.
The inevitable debates could fill 100 talk shows before the quarterfinal against France kicks off Friday in Rio de Janeiro. Germany left Porto Alegre victorious but with a trail of question marks that will stretch the 2,500 kilometres back to their base camp in Bahia.
Should Philipp Lahm, who excelled in his customary position in the right side of defence after Shkodran Mustafi's substitution in the second half (the Sampdoria player will miss the rest of the World Cup with a serious hamstring injury) -- go back to his natural role?
Can Low persist with Bastian Schweinsteiger ahead of Sami Khedira? The Bayern Munich midfielder, one of seven players from the double winners in the starting lineup, was exhausted after 110 minutes. Khedira, meanwhile, didn't seem happy at all about being relegated to the bench again. "Ask Mehmet," he scoffed at reporters in the mixed zone, then left without another word. Mehmet Scholl, the former Bayern midfielder turned TV expert, had criticised Khedira for implicitly criticising Schweinsteiger's role in the USA win.
Borussia Monchengladbach's Christoph Kramer, Schweinsteiger's replacement, joked that "Schweini won't have cramps for the next four days," but the fact that the game had become a physical battle doesn't bode well for the veteran's chances to start the game against the French.
For the third game in a row, the lack of full-backs who can help the attack was painfully obvious. It's a mystery why Low hasn't given Erik Durm or Kevin Großkreutz a chance in this tournament; both showed in the Champions League that they're up to the task. But if they can't get a game versus Algeria, it's unlikely Low will put them in against France.
Up front, Thomas Muller was the only starter who played reasonably well. Mesut Ozil, despite his goal, still looks lost, bereft of his playmaker role, and Mario Gotze put in 45 minutes so devoid of any effort and effect that he's beginning to make everyone wonder why he's wasting all his talent.
Low, like Mertesacker, was not prepared to address any of these points specifically (perhaps he knows he'll have time for little else in the next few days). He was happier to talk about his team's strong mentality -- "You have to fight yourself through such games. It was victory of willpower in the end" -- and strong subs to make the difference.
One of them, Andre Schurrle, set Germany on the road to victory with his fine, back-heeled goal that broke the deadlock in extra time. "Of course we would have liked to do it differently," the Chelsea player said, adding "We should have scored earlier." The 23-year-old did concede that Germany would have to play a lot better to beat France.
At the end of his passionate defence of his team, Mertesacker too ventured that "safety and lightness" were missing in Germany's game. Toni Kroos, the one player who never seems too perturbed by emotions or size of task, explained that "too many mistakes in the final third, in the decisive areas" led to Germany stuttering through the game. "We had possession, but we didn't use it well in the first half," the Bayern midfielder said.
He disagreed, however, that Germany had lost control. "Sometimes when you pass the ball a lot it looks like it's ineffective, but the Algerians had to run a lot," he said, "And in the end, they were spent. Every three minutes, another one of them was on the floor."
That was one way to look at it. But one couldn't escape the feeling that this Germany almost managed to floor themselves. They backed themselves into a corner, than valiantly battled their way out of it again. That was enough to keep the dream alive, but the performance won't have won them many plaudits at home, nor too much respect from Les Bleus.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.