Form, not reputation, should guide Germany
There's always a danger of over-interpreting performances in pre-tournament friendlies. Think about the two "winners" in the 2-2 draw with Cameroon on Sunday night. By common consensus in the German media, second-half substitutes André Schürrle (scorer of the second goal) and Lukas Podolski (assisted on Schürrle's finish, albeit from an offside position) made convincing cases for a starting place in Brazil with their decisive interventions. Their energy and ability to make penetrative runs contrasted well with the non-impact from Mesut Özil -- "it was not his best day," national manager Joachim Löw said in a rare instance of public criticism of his playmaker -- and Mario Götze.
Dortmund's Marco Reus had done only marginally better. Löw praised Podolski after the final whistle for his "sharpness in training" and his willingness to take on defenders. All of a sudden, the argument for the 28-year-old's inclusion seemed incredibly persuasive. The Arsenal forward has the experience (it'll be his third World Cup), he's the numbers (he's scored 46 times for Germany) and he has a direct style to counter this team's tendency to over-elaborate on the ball.
So "Poldi" (and Schürrle) in, Özil (and Götze) out? It's not that simple.
For a start, one cannot disregard the specific circumstances. The freshness and sharpness of the two London-based players was relative to the increasingly tired-looking legs of their teammates. Löw made the point that hard training sessions had slowed his men down; an excuse, no doubt, but also probably a valid point. When fitness levels drop, so does concentration. Reus giving the ball away repeatedly was a good indication of his fatigue. Özil and Götze, too, looked worse for wear the longer the game in Mönchengladbach went on. The preparation in South Tyrol has been designed to see the players peak in 10 days' time, not right now.
And there's an additional caveat. Volker Finke's Cameroon played a high defensive line throughout the game, a formation that made them vulnerable to pacy, direct players. If this had been a World Cup game, Löw and his chief tactical scout, Urs Siegenthaler, would surely have tweaked the lineup before the start of the game to exploit that weakness. Schürrle and Podolski looked like the right answer because they would have been the right players for that opposition to begin with.
Neither Portugal nor Ghana are likely to defend in that manner, however; they'll be sitting much deeper. (It remains to be seen how Jürgen Klinsmann's United States team will shape up in the last group game). Thus, the chances of Podolski and Schürrle starting in the first two games cannot have truly improved at all. The former lost his regular place for Germany when the opposition started playing deeper and deeper in response to their technical game, while the latter mostly features for Chelsea away from home when there is more room for counterattacks.
What about the rest of the team?
"I know we can do things better," Löw said, or, as the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put it, "sounding like a doctor trying to reassure his patient." It's an apt metaphor. At the heart of the team, Sami Khedira is a man hoping for a speedy recovery. His fellow patients, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, didn't even make it onto the pitch. Khedira, who's not a natural holding midfielder to begin with, is still woefully short of match fitness. Toni Kroos, his partner, struggles to do a thorough defensive job even when he's not tired from training. Cameroon found acres of space ahead of the German back four, who were left to carry the can and looked sluggish as a result.
Löw again insisted that Khedira would improve sufficiently before the first game, but it's not an overreaction to fear that time is running out for the 27-year-old. The "everything will be fine" line may work on a philosophical level as they prepare for the vagaries of a tournament in Brazil, but it goes against all the statements of "no compromise" that have been promoted during the past two years.
The national manager would do well to remember his own convictions and go with form -- not reputation -- when it comes to the first group game, against Portugal in Salvador on June 16. If there were any lessons from the botched competition that was Euro 2012, it surely must be the realisation that the best players at any given moment should play-- not those who did well in the past and might perhaps play well again in the near future.
Löw's loyalty to the patently not-fully-fit Schweinsteiger vs. Italy in Warsaw was admirable in principle but severely misguided in practice. This is not an argument made with the benefit of hindsight. Everyone had seen the Bayern Munich midfielder's problems to come up to speed in the quarterfinal win against Greece in Gdansk. Half of the questions posed to his teammates in the mixed zone inquired after the fragile state of Schweinsteiger's ankle, but Löw wanted to believe that everything would be OK. It wasn't.
Just as Löw won't let a few good minutes vs. Cameroon sway his judgment and suddenly favour Podolski and Schürrle, it would be wise not to automatically fear the worst after the disappointing performance on Sunday. There is still time to make the necessary changes and improvements. But on the evidence against Cameroon, the danger of reading too much into the game seems relatively small compared to that of under-reacting to the realities at hand.