German football is like the German economy. Both are normally so strong that an upset can be magnified into a potential crisis, writes David Shonfield.
So when Germany sneezes the euro catches a cold and when the Germans lose a qualifying match for the first time in six years there is a tendency to look for complex explanations.
In fact their defeat in Warsaw was almost certainly just a blip and they are fully capable of wreaking havoc tomorrow night against Ireland.
Germany looked as good as ever in attack, but failed to turn chances into goals. Also, the Poles are tougher than they are usually given credit for, particularly at home and when national pride is involved. Poland’s win was historic, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals.
Germany are still the most powerful side in Europe. Their strength in depth, the abundance of young talent and their tactical coherence — clubs and national team alike — make them clear favourites for the European title, particularly with Spain stuttering like a car with a faulty fuel pump.
The German set-up — from their coaching and player development to the quality of the stadiums and the involvement of the fans — is admirable. Yet for all its familiar virtues there are one or two weaknesses.
One is the lack of real competition in the Bundesliga.
Of course, the biggest and wealthiest clubs are becoming bigger and more wealthy right across Europe. But in Germany one club really does hold sway almost unchallenged. Bayern Munich have such an advantage financially in the domestic game that no other club can resist them in the transfer market.
Bayern like to boast of their prowess in developing homegrown talent, but most of their star players are expensive imports, either from their rivals — such as Manuel Neuer from Schalke, Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze from Dortmund — or players such as Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez from abroad.
There’s a nice irony in the fact that Dortmund brought in and developed two of the Polish players most responsible for Germany’s defeat at the weekend — Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek — but it can’t disguise the stranglehold Bayern enjoy against their Bundesliga rivals.
For brief periods in the past eight years it seemed as if that stranglehold might be prised loose, and the Bundesliga was all the better for it. Now Bayern are if anything more dominant than before. This is not a healthy position.
The other, more surprising, weakness in German football is the lack of quality defenders.
The Bundesliga is not unique in that respect, but German sides often look vulnerable at the back, especially compared to the abundance of attacking talent. Look at the impact of Phillip Lahm’s retirement on the national team. Suddenly the defence seems both uncertain and unbalanced.
Granted Lahm is an exceptional player. There are not many who look equally comfortable at both left and right back, as well as in a holding role. But of the younger generation probably only Mats Hummels has Lahm’s potential: other promising youngsters such as Diego Contento and Holger Badstuber haven’t quite made it, at least as of yet. The lack of options in defensive positions has caused Joachim Low some obvious selection problems, compounded by a series of injuries.
Against Poland there was a weakness on the left side of Germany’s defence that played a part in both goals. Erik Durm has barely one year’s experience in the top flight and his hesitancy affected his colleagues. In attempting to compensate, Hummels — still not back to his best after injury and illness — left a gap that exposed Neuer. In turn Neuer’s uncharacteristic charge and punch into thin air was a sign of his own anxiety.
Not for the first time Germany looked vulnerable against pace. In the World Cup they came close to defeat against Ghana, whose speed and directness on the flanks forced them to reorganise at back, with Lahm having to cover for a struggling Benedikt Howedes.
So there could be chances for Ireland on the break. The problem will be getting enough of the ball to set up those breaks. And Germany’s attack is unlikely to be as wasteful as it was in Warsaw.
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