Team selection worries for France quater-final
4 July ~ "When Italy win like this, you call them wily old dogs" was how Thomas Müller reacted to the mainly negative reports on the German team's performance in their extra-time victory over Algeria. Interviewed on ZDF immediately after the last-16 match, Per Mertesacker reacted irritably to questions about the performance and the YouTube clips of his responses have gone viral in the days since the match: "What do you want? A successful World Cup? Or us to get knocked out and everyone to say what nice football we played?"
Perhaps it is a mark of just how high the nation's expectations are that this hard-fought win elicited so much criticism but, every four years, Germany becomes a nation of football experts. Everyone is anxious to give national team trainer Jogi Löw some advice, including Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and a host of minor celebrities who felt the urge to share their tactical tips on Twitter – but André Schürrle has so far refrained from commenting on the kisses tweeted to him by singer Lena Meyer-Landrut after his backheeled goal put Germany ahead against Algeria.
Despite their unbeaten progress through the tournament to date, there are some serious questions being posed about the tactical set-up of this Germany team. Many commentators have questioned whether Löw is certain of his strongest defence and some of the performances during this World Cup have done little to assuage those fears. A display of fast and fluid attacking football against Portugal in the opening match got pulses racing but many have been disappointed by the individual errors that have littered the subsequent games.
Müller has impressed once again, but Mario Götze has struggled at times and Mesut Özil seems unable to shake off the sluggish form that has dogged him since missing that Champions League penalty against Bayern Munich. However, Toni Kroos has provided stability in midfield and Manuel Neuer has cemented his reputation as a keeper, and as a sweeper, after his frequent interventions outside of the box.
Having started the tournament with four central defenders spread out across the back, injuries and question marks over the form of some players have been forcing changes that seem to have destabilised this set-up. However, Mats Hummels is due to resume his partnership with Mertesacker in the centre, which should restore solidity and provide more attacking options from the back.
It is the right- and left-back positions that are most questionable: Jérôme Boateng loses concentration too often, relying on his pace to get himself out of trouble, and now that Shkodran Mustafi is injured and will miss the rest of the tournament, Löw has a major decision to make. Will he stick to his oft-quoted principles and insist that Philipp Lahm continues to play in the holding position in front of the back four, or will he bow to the mounting pressure to return his captain to the right-back position where he has performed so admirably in the past? Löw has so far been unwilling to place his trust in Kevin Grosskreutz, Erik Durm or Matthias Ginter – which begs the question, why are they in the squad if the coach is unwilling to select them for this match?
Löw has demanded a major improvement from his players and is well aware that France will pose a different, and more difficult challenge than Ghana, Algeria or the US – but also that Germany struggled to impose their game on all three of those opponents. Müller is confident that it will be "a different game against France" and that he and his colleagues will perform better under pressure but, for once, Germany's 82 million experts are not so sure. John Van Laer