Rebuilding begins as Germans suffer from World Cup hangover
The German FA's official Twitter feed has been adding #4gefuhl to its tweets since July 13. It's a play on words, substituting the "Wir" (we) in "Wir-Gefuhl" (we-feeling, feeling united) with "vier," the number four, as in the golden stars that represented the World Cup wins over the FA badge.
Wednesday night at the Esprit-Arena in Dusseldorf, Germany, brought a different kind of #4gefuhl, however.
Fifty minutes into a mildly entertaining evening, Joachim Low's world champions found themselves four goals down against Argentina, and heading for total disaster.
Goals from Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze made the final result a bit more palatable, but this wasn't the start Low would have wanted to the new season.
Let's not overdramatise things though. Neither the game itself -- against an opposition with a point to prove and new Manchester United signing Angel Di Maria in riotous form (three assists, one wonderful goal) -- nor the scoreline will have unduly worried the Germany manager ahead of the first qualification match at home to Scotland on Sunday.
Fresh from accepting his "manager of the season" award before kickoff, the 54-year-old could legitimately point to injuries at the back (Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng), in the centre (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira) and in attacking midfield (Mesut Ozil), as well as the lack of understanding among a back four that have never played together before.
Schalke's Benedikt Howedes had slotted in as centre-back amidst the Borussia Dortmund trio of Kevin Grosskreutz, Mathias Ginter and Erik Durm, and the upshot wasn't pretty.
The absence of any meaningful protection from central midfield made it even easier for Tata Martino's team to exploit the countless weak spots. Meanwhile, Fiorentina striker Mario Gomez, back from a one-year hiatus, spurned three good chances to complete a thoroughly miserable first half for the hosts.
"We made simple mistakes at the back and didn't take our chances at the other end," lamented Borussia midfielder Marco Reus.
Low took essentially the same view, with a slightly different angle. "The way the game went didn't go for us today," he said.
He waved away all talk of "revenge" for the final at the Maracana and bullishly insisted that Di Maria's involvement in the final in Brazil would have made no difference -- "nobody could have stopped us that day" -- but otherwise came across as a good-natured head teacher willing to forgive his pupils for a certain lack of concentration on the first day back at school. "Sometimes, you have to accept [such a defeat]," he said, with a philosophical shrug.
When you win the game that really counts, you can afford to lose a few that don't. But the mood could well turn a bit darker over the next few days, as the injuries and doubts about available replacements mount up.
Schalke's Julian Draxler is the latest casualty set to miss out on the Scotland game; the attacking midfielder had to come off with a hamstring complaint midway through the opening half.
Hummels is unlikely to recover in time either, Low said, so reinforcements could well be drafted in before Sunday.
"I'm thinking about calling up some [new] players," he added, without forwarding any names.
Gomez's lack of sharpness in front of goal is the least of his problems. There's a strong suspicion that Low is no longer sold on the idea of an orthodox centre-forward anyway. Neither is the German public, it seems. The crowd was quick to jump on the former Bayern striker's back with plenty of jeering at the half-time whistle, much to Low's dismay.
Gomez will probably get yet another opportunity against Scotland or in the coming months to win over his detractors (and Low). And if he doesn't, it's his loss, not Germany's.
The successful World Cup qualification without a recognised striker has shown that the team have more than enough midfielders who can find the net from deeper positions, if need be.
The much bigger worry is defence. Durm, 22, had a particularly poor time on the left against Di Maria. Grosskreutz looked marginally more assured on the right, but neither performed in a way that would have convinced Low that they could solve the long-standing problem in the full-back positions.
VfB Stuttgart's Antonio Rudiger had a decent 13-minute cameo before the end, but he's very much a converted centre-back. The 21-year-old offers little going forward.
Lars Bender (Bayer Leverkusen) might provide some relief and resume his role as a makeshift right-back, but he hasn't played since the end of May. A call-up would probably come too early for Bayern's Holger Badstuber as well.
Whatever way you slice it, Low will have to put out a back four that either forces some of his stronger centre-backs (Howedes, Boateng) to move out wide or burdens them with relatively weak full-backs. The two central midfielders, Christoph Kramer and Toni Kroos, are part of the problem as well, at least on the evidence of Wednesday night. They need to offer a lot more protection.
None of these issues should prove insurmountable ahead of the Scotland game in Dortmund, but Germany need to improve considerably if they are to avoid a post-World Cup party comedown against Gordon Strachan's obdurate side.
All the pride and joy that the #4gefuhl has brought to the country will dissipate all too quickly if Low's men somehow slip up in coming weeks.
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.