Class of '06, Muller lead Germany, but the young guns need to pitch in
After the hefty bout of the 2006 nostalgia that had engulfed much of the media coverage ahead of the Joachim Low/Jurgen Klinsmann faceoff in Recife, Brazil, it was only fitting that all five survivors from that World Cup in Germany eight years ago were in action in the 1-0 win over the U.S. on Thursday afternoon.
Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (as a second-half substitute) helped Low's side edge out a U.S. team that seemed caught between defending the draw (or, as it turned out, the narrow defeat) and going for an equaliser. The Americans' passivity surprised Low -- "I had expected them to be more aggressive, defending higher up the pitch" -- but made life relatively straightforward for the Nationalmannschaft. Judging from the postmatch comments, the rain-soaked pitch proved the biggest problem. Especially for Low's hair.
In his first start at the World Cup, Arsenal forward Podolski didn't make a convincing case for more regular playing time. The 29-year-old put in some decent, trademark low crosses but was frequently isolated on the left. Having the one-pace Benedikt Howedes behind him didn't help, naturally. "He didn't find into the game properly. That's why he went off later," Low explained without much sympathy. Klose cut a peripheral figure after his second-half introduction, too.
The remaining trio of the class of 2006 fared much better. Mertesacker came up with another performance so low key it was almost silent. That's how you want it to be as a central defender. Lahm played without flaw in central midfield and prevented an equaliser from Alejandro Bedoya with a great sliding tackle.
In the final analysis, Low's cool head -- he kept faith with the Bayern Munich and Germany captain in the centre despite overblown criticism following the 2-2 draw with Ghana -- was thoroughly vindicated. There's simply no viable alternative to Lahm in the "Sechser" role, as Germans call the defensive midfielder. Real Madrid's Sami Khedira is too box-to-box and not fully fit. Christoph Kramer is a rookie with zero competitive experience at the international level, and, barring injury or suspension, Lahm will remain at the heart of Germany's midfield. Further discussion: futile.
The best news of the night came courtesy of another 2006 hero, however. Schweinsteiger returned to the starting XI (in place of Khedira) with a performance that could be described only as authoritative. The Bayern midfielder kept the ball well, thrived on the physical challenge of Jermaine Jones and played some beautiful cross-field balls. The overall effect the 29-year-old had on Germany's game wasn't spectacular, but he brought balance and control to the middle of the park.
"We played good stuff," said goal scorer Thomas muller. "You could also see today that we had some changes compared to the Ghana [match] and that were better in the buildup, especially." The low pace of the match undoubtedly suited Schweinsteiger, who's not as mobile as Khedira and is less likely to ghost into the box to link up with the forwards. But Low would have been hugely encouraged by what he saw. From being the No. 1 "Sorgenkind" -- the player who everybody worries about -- "Schweini" has gone back to being a real starting XI option again.
Ironically, both Schweinsteiger and Lahm controlled the game so efficiently that the deficiencies in other areas were painfully exposed. Germany saw a lot of the ball but were low on inspiration in the final third. Moves frequently broke down when it came time to play the penultimate pass.
Mesut Ozil didn't play badly, but the Arsenal midfielder is yet to make a telling contribution at this World Cup. Mario Gotze didn't get into the game while the German management were privately scathing about Podolski. WAZ newspaper summed it up well with their headline: "One Müller is not enough." Germany need the younger players to step up offensively. The class of 2006 (plus Muller) won't be able to carry this side through the tournament by themselves.
U.S. INTO THE ROUND OF 16
- Doug McIntyre: Battered, bruised, through
- Jeff Carlisle: U.S. grades
- Chris Jones: U.S. ride their luck
- Klinsmann: "Now we really get started"
- Will the perception of U.S. soccer change?
- Tactics Board: Organized U.S. restrict Germany
- Social media: Reaction to U.S. progress
Muller's goal -- "actually a beautiful one, for a change," he laughed after the match -- saw him join Lionel Messi and Neymar at the top of the Golden Boot chart with four strikes in total. Spot the odd one out. Not only is Muller technically not quite on the same level as the two South Americans, but Germany are also not like Brazil and Argentina. They cannot function as a one-man team.
The key concern, as was obvious once more, is the lack of attacking full-backs in the side. Jérôme Boateng and Howedes betrayed their true calling as central defenders throughout the 90 minutes. They found themselves with plenty of space at the edge of the U.S. box but failed to take advantage, repeatedly, due to poor technique or insufficient pace. Can a team win the World Cup with such limited wide defenders? Low himself must have grave doubts.
Unfortunately, the German youth system has produced plenty of attacking midfielders but not one top-class full-back over the past decade. Low only has Dortmund's makeshift full-back Kevin Grosskreutz, a midfielder by trade, and the inexperienced Erik Durm, 22, at his disposal. Neither enjoys his confidence.
Germany should get past Algeria in the round of 16 on Monday, but after that, it's probably France in the quarterfinals. The 2006 guys and Muller will need a lot more help from the younger players if they are to progress further in spite of their full-back problems. If only Low could bring back another hero from eight years ago, a tricky little fellow who excelled on the left of defence.
Sadly, Philipp Lahm is needed elsewhere these days.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.