“These two games will give us a clue as to where we are,” said Julian Brandt ahead of Germany’s EURO 2020 qualifiers against the Netherlands and Northern Ireland this weekend.
From a purely mathematical point of view, Friday night’s 4-2 defeat to the Netherlands left Germany three points behind the group leaders from the United Kingdom and only three points clear of the Dutch, having played a game more.
But as precarious as Germany’s position now is, Brandt wasn’t talking about the Group C table; he was referring more to the general development of Joachim Löw’s latest – and surely final – team.
In his analysis of that development, Brandt had referred to Germany’s three previous meetings with the Netherlands: a 3-0 drubbing in Amsterdam which laid bare the pressing need for a major shake-up, a 2-2 draw in Gelsenkirchen which suggested progress, and most recently a 3-2 win at the Johan Cruyff Arena to complete the turnaround.
By that logic, Germany were on the right track. “From Hamburg to London via Munich!” proclaimed the clumsy choreography pre-match, officially commissioned by the German FA, the DFB. But despite a half-time lead at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburgon Friday night – courtesy of Serge Gnabry who repaid Löw’s public expression of confidence in him – it hadn’t been convincing.
“I never felt we had a grip on the game,” admitted Löw. “Especially going forward where we lost possession too many times. We didn’t get into dangerous areas often enough.”
Indeed, while Kimmich’s ball over the top into the path of Lukas Klostermann in the build-up to Gnabry’s opener was inch-perfect, other German counter-attacks were far less precise; twice Gnabry failed to spot Timo Werner in promising positions as the in-form RB Leipzig man endured a frustrating evening.
Since the World Cup and Nations League debacles of 2018, Löw has made a conscious effort to move away from the heavily possession-based style with which Germany won the 2014 World Cup. But he surely never envisaged allowing the Netherlands to enjoy up to 70 percent of the ball at times.
“We were far too passive for the whole ninety minutes,” analyzed Joshua Kimmich, reprising his midfield role, albeit to little defensive effect. “We didn’t win the ball enough and spent too much time chasing it.”
“It’s not acceptable to have such little possession in a home game,” added Niklas Süle, although the center-back would also be the first to admit that his defensive colleagues hardly covered themselves in glory either, Jonathan Tah at fault for the Netherlands’ first two goals.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah endured a difficult night in Hamburg
After Frankie de Jong’s second-half equalizer, Löw replaced Werner and Marco Reus with Ilkay Gündogan and Kai Havertz. “We wanted more control of the ball in midfield,” explained Löw, but it had only the effect of narrowing the play, clogging up the center of the pitch and robbing Germany of pace and attacking flare. Here, at the least, Germany missed Leroy Sane.
At the other end, the Netherlands demonstrated precisely what that looks like. Just minutes after Toni Kroos had pulled Germany level from the spot – resulting from a harsh handball decision against Matthijs de Ligt – Matthias Ginter lost possession and the Dutch broke. Memphis Depay fed Georginio Wijnaldum in the area and he squared for Donyell Malen to tap home. Totaalvoetbal at its finest.
“We had the ball and lost it,” lamented Löw. “And that wasn’t the only time that happened tonight. We played well short of our technical abilities.”
So where does this humbling defeat leave Die Mannschaft? After spending 84 minutes on the bench, perhaps Julian Brandt will have observed enough to answer his own pre-match question. Perhaps he’ll harbor doubts over Löw’s substitutions, or maybe more general concerns about Löw’s tactical set-up.
Or he might put it down to youth and inexperience, as Oliver Bierhoff did. “We can’t change everything overnight, we need time, our young players need time,” said the sporting director. “We’ve seen that with the Dutch too in recent years.”
That’s understandable in the long-term. In the short term however, the Group C table is what matters, and there is serious work to be done yet if Germany are to fulfil the promise of that pre-match display and make it a potential EURO 2020 final in London via a semifinal in Munich. They didn’t even make it out of Hamburg unscathed.