Germany come of age with glory in sight
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Wolfgang Niersbach had a straightforward explanation for Germany's 1-0 win over France at the Maracana. "More important than any [tactical] set-up is the mindset," the German FA chairman insisted after Joachim Low's team had secured a fourth consecutive semifinal appearance at a World Cup.
Most observers will balk at such a simplistic assessment. But Thomas Muller, a player who can come up with interesting answers to even the most banal questions, took the same line. Quizzed about Germany's solid defensive game, the 24-year-old didn't discuss the national manager reverting back to the Schweinsteiger-Khedira partnership in the middle, Low's preference for Jerome Boateng over Per Mertesacker at the heart of the defence or the much-vaunted decision to put Philipp Lahm back into his customary right-back role.
Instead, Muller said the key had been his team's "good mentality."
"Everybody made the runs that are necessary to be in the right position defensively," he explained.
"That's maybe something that is often missing in qualifiers and friendlies, because you don't toil as much when there's less at stake. But under pressure, we are extremely strong in the head. As long as we all fight this well, we will be very hard to beat."
If Muller and Niersbach are right, this shines a new light on the team's struggles for defensive assuredness over the last couple of years (as well as in the games against Ghana and Algeria at this World Cup).
Forget the Schweini-Khedira conundrum (and Low's solution -- Lahm's midfield role); forget the absence of the Bender twins; forget the high defensive line. The real flaw, Muller and Niersbach seemed to suggest, wasn't so much in Germany's tactical blueprint but the team's willingness or lack thereof to go the extra mile in its implementation.
You'd expect this kind of assessment from a workhorse like Muller, who had once again been an indefatigable runner in subtropical conditions. "It felt like playing in a grill shack today," he joked. "But you don't contest a World Cup quarterfinal every day. One should use the opportunity to get a bit of exercise."
The stats bear him out. Germany ran a combined 7.5 km more than the French despite being in front for 78 minutes and restricting themselves to sporadic attacks in the second half. You could say that Germany ran so much, the fact that Schweinsteiger and Khedira were underwhelming didn't matter.
The former won only one of six duels, the latter two of eight -- poor returns for defensive midfielders. Those numbers belie the most important aspect of their task on Friday, however. By simply occupying the decisive space on the pitch, they forced Les Bleus to play long balls over the top, back or sideways or to lose the ball in vain efforts to power through that congested middle.
When you defend in such a disciplined manner, and in numbers -- Schweinsteiger and Khedira were both able to sit in the second half because France were chasing the lead -- you don't need a defensive midfield specialist.
Oliver Bierhoff, one of only three members of the delegation who have been part of a trophy-winning team (the others are goalkeeping coach Andreas Kopke who, like Bierhoff, won Euro 96; and team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt) recognised the pressure game against the French had brought the best, traditional traits out of the players.
"We were very organised and filled in each for each other," said the general manager. "That has been always the strength of German teams."
Those so-called German virtues had become a bit of dirty word during the Klinsmann/Low era but they have now made a comeback at a very opportune time, along with the extremely useful ability to score from dead balls. Low used to almost sneer at practising them. He was more concerned with using the time to implement his passing game.
The 54-year-old has changed his mind, though. "We have practised them more than in the past, and the players appreciate it," said Bierhoff. "They know how important these situations can be."
Indeed. Mats Hummels' goal had come from Toni Kroos' free kick. It's all part of a return back to the basics ("the most crucial bit is knowing how to see out a game," said Muller), but without abandoning the progress of the last few years.
"Compared to 2010, we are much less reliant on the counterattack; we have many more options and ways to play in attack." Muller said. "We can still improve in that respect."
Germany had also found a new maturity, said Bierhoff. "We have many players who have won the Champions League. They know what needs to be done, they know how stay calm before and during important matches."
The complete absence of euphoria after the France game in the bowels of the Maracana told its own story in that regard. The 2006 and 2010 teams had been incredibly pleased to get to the semifinals. The current crop aim much higher.
No, they're not an Ubermannschaft -- "we haven't seen any yet," said Bierhoff -- but against France, they at last looked like a team that was coming of age, a team comfortable with themselves. And that might just be enough in this year's competition.
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.