This article was originally published on SchwarzUndWeiss.co.uk.
When the draw was made for the Euro 2016 qualifiers, nobody would be questioning Germany’s dominance. Even before their World Cup triumph in Brazil, their place in France would be more or less guaranteed. There would be little to fear in three opening matches against Scotland, Poland and the Republic of Ireland, and having won nineteen of their last twenty qualifying matches – the one blip being the bizarre 4-4 draw in Berlin against Sweden – there would naturally be talk of repeating the 100% record achieved during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
With those three matches now over, Joachim Löw’s side are a good distance from where everyone expected them to be. A closely-fought opening group win against Scotland would be followed by a catastrophic first international defeat at the hands of eastern neighbours Poland, and if just to rub it in a defensive Irish side would seize their opportunity with the last kick of the game in Gelsenkirchen to leave the Nationalmannschaft reeling with just four points from their three opening matches.
Never before has any German side held a negative goal difference three matches into the qualification group phase, and their points return is the worst in their history at this stage – a record that covers twenty-five previous qualification campaigns. The only other occasions where they would have a negative goal difference would be after opening match defeats – a 1-0 loss in Turkey during the Euro 2000 qualifiers and a defeat by the same score in Belfast against Northern Ireland at the start of the road to the Euro 1984 tournament.
Despite the patchy win-loss-draw start, all three matches have been carbon copies of each other. On each occasion the Nationalelf have dominated the possession and created the most opportunities, only to not have this reflected in the final scoreline. The scrappy win against the Scots would be followed by a display of attacking profligacy in Warsaw, and against the Irish their lack of ideas and inability to kill off the opposition would be duly punished right at the end of what had largely been a one-sided encounter.
Are there grounds for panic? Probably not, as it has been widely accepted that retirements and injuries have taken their toll. However, there are definite grounds for concern. With more than the usual top two places up for grabs the competition has become harder than ever, and there is no way Germany can look optimistically at the trips they will have to make to Glasgow and Dublin later on in the campaign. Both the Scots and Irish have always made things difficult for the Germans, and with the bit between their teeth and a place at the finals in France at stake the two Celtic tigers will almost certainly give everything they have and more. Of course we cannot forget Poland, while the trip to Tbilisi to face an unpredictable Georgian side may be less inviting than it might have been three months ago.
Against a German team lacking confidence in the final third, the rest of the group now know that anything is possible. Key players will no doubt return, but this is no guarantee that these matches will be any easier.
Of these key players, four names immediately come to mind. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, Marco Reus and Mesut Özil. While an injury would keep Reus out of the World Cup squad and the unpredictable Özil would be far from his brilliant best, both Schweinsteiger and Khedira would be carefully managed by the coach and the fitness team during the campaign in Brazil. Schweinsteiger would play a major role in guiding the Nationalmannschaft to their fourth world title, and following his heroic blood and guts performance in the final would for many be the face of the victorious German team. It is fair to say that with either one of these two in the team, the game against the Irish might have seen a different conclusion.
The eagle that soared so high in South America has clearly been wounded, and amidst all of the commentary there appears to be one constant refrain: Schweini, Sami Marco and Mesut will come back to rescue us. Then there is the other: once the team have had a little rest, it will all work out. At the risk of being pessimistic again, it may not be as simple as that. Schweinsteiger has over the last couple of years been plagued by injury, and at the age of thirty one has to wonder whether he will be the same player when he does come back. Khedira is a few years younger, but similarly has seen just as much time on the treatment table as on the pitch.
Reus should have many years in front of him, but his relatively short international career has exposed a fragility that does call into question his long-term viability. While one hopes that he is finally able to string more than two injury-free seasons together, fate has not been kind to the young Dortmunder. Özil meanwhile appears to have left his form of 2010 long behind him, with a questionable spell at Real Madrid being followed by a less than successful time in the English Premiership with Arsenal.
With all this in mind, it actually leaves the German team not much better off than it is right now. Even with the return of these players the issues with the defence remain. Following the retirement of Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker the coach has no real choice but to integrate more inexperienced players, and this will take time to perfect. Combined with the ongoing issues further up the field and the opposition starting to smell the blood from the eagle’s wounds, Germany could be just one more bad result away from a genuine struggle.
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