Germany's second string pass their test -- but only just -- vs. Australia
SOCHI, Russia -- The clock at Sochi's Fisht Olympic stadium read 89:41 when Australia went up to take a corner. Germany were leading 3-2, and Joachim Low was more touchy and fidgety than usual in his technical area. The Socceroos' fans -- sparse but noisy -- howled in anticipation. They were joined by the Russian neutrals, at least those who weren't spending the last 20 minutes of the second half trying (unsuccessfully) to start a wave.
The corner was cleared away, but the moment was in itself emblematic. The fact of the matter is that Germany were one Bernd Leno fumble away from drawing against Australia. And this after a first half that saw the defending world champions -- OK, let's rephrase for accuracy: Shkodran Mustafi, Julian Draxler and nine other guys -- pummel the Socceroos at will.
It was a reminder not only of that age-old footballing archetype -- it's a low-scoring sport and if you don't convert your chances, you can pay a dear price -- but also that teams aren't built overnight. Talent and good coaching can take you far, but it's chemistry that creates teams.
"That's why not everything is going to work when you've only had 10 days or so training together as a team," Low said after Monday's win. "We are a work in progress. Some concepts we've already assimilated, others will come in time."
That was Low's challenge ahead of this Confederations Cup. There are at least a dozen German players who are pretty much dead certainties to be part of the Russia 2018 squad. They stayed home: some due to injury, most due to the fact that Low really doesn't need to see them again because he knows what they can do. Rather, this was about the transition: integrating newcomers into the squad, getting them used to the Low way and figuring out who will be back here next summer and who will be watching on TV.
The standard trope when describing this group has been to call them "young guns" or "Germany 2.0," except they're not particularly young -- more than half are 25 or older -- and one of those who isn't, captain Draxler, is in his sixth season as a professional and already has 31 full caps. A more apt description might be that this is a mixture of seasoned supporting actors (Draxler, Jonas Hector, Mustafi) and up-and-comers (Julian Brandt, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich).
In the first half, they blew Australia away. (Or, as Low put it: "We really dominated them, I must say this.") Brandt was rampaging down the Socceroos' left flank: his acceleration for the first goal looked like a video game power-up. Goretzka was bossing the midfield: "He has such a physical presence defensively but is so dangerous timing his forward runs," waxed Low. "He is so difficult to defend against!" Other than a mistake in the build-up to the Australian goal, Draxler was dispensing magic.
Germany went in 2-1 up at half-time, but it could have been far more. They added a third early in the second half and everything looked rosy ... until it wasn't.
"We lost the thread; we didn't manage the lead well," Low said.
Part of it had to do with Australia kicking it up a notch. In the first half, Ange Postecoglou's marauding style gave the Germans way too much space. After the break, with a runner like Robbie Kruse coming on for Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy taking over playmaker duties and the wide men pinning the German full-backs in their own half, the Socceroos made it far tougher.
That's the knife edge on which Postecoglou plays. Australia fear nobody: "They're brave, they're cheeky, they're courageous. Even if they're playing Brazil or Germany, they attack boldly and do it early on," said Loew.
But it can be a double-edged sword. Mistakes are punished severely, especially by more gifted opponents, which is what happened in the first half. When you get the right combination, however, it can also frustrate the opposition to high heaven, as Germany discovered after the break.
A Leno blunder -- really, his second of the game, prompting Loew to go all diplomatic, saying, "I think he could have hung on to those shots ... because he's a good keeper" -- closed the gap to 3-2. Germany teetered.
With the right chemistry and cohesion, you felt they would have been comfortable in the lead, adjusting to Australia's aggression and picking their spots on the break. But this version of Germany aren't there yet. They suffered more than you would expect from a team with four stars on its crest and playing in white. This was especially true at the back, where they struggled at times to emerge in an orderly fashion.
"That's going to take more time," said Draxler. "They haven't worked together long, and it requires fine-tuning. In these situations, it's easier for attacking players to settle in quickly."
Draxler already looked the part. Low made him captain because of his experience and "positive energy," and he showed plenty of personality to go with his usual quality. You wonder, given the competition up front for Germany, how this will translate next summer, particularly given how Low describes him.
"You need to give Draxler freedom, he said. "He's a player who may start wide but who moves towards the ball, who will pop up in midfield, who will create for you. He's not a simple winger." It suggests that if you're Mesut Ozil, you may well be looking over your shoulder.
As for Australia, Postecoglou took defeat as hard as ever.
"I'm bitterly disappointed," he said, looking like a guy who had left his wallet in the washing machine. "We didn't come here to lose games. We came here to play a certain way against the very best, we stuck to our principles, and they were just too good for us."
Then again, when you set the bar as high as he does, it's going to take more than simply having a chance at a late equalizer for you to be satisfied.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.