Germany put their minds to world success: Joachim Löw is adding steel to team's strong foundations
Sunday 13 October 2013
The mood may be relaxed, but Per Mertesacker is all of a sudden surprisingly frank. It's around 11pm in the mixed zone of Cologne's RheinEnergieStadion and, although Germany have just clinched World Cup qualification, there is nothing really celebratory beyond a few laughs and high-fives. That is no surprise. The easy 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland was the squad's 26th victory in the last 29 qualifiers. This was all rather expected, something they have experienced before.
So, Mertesacker is posed a question he has been asked before. This time, however, the answer is expected to be different. Is this generation finally ready to win a trophy?
"I'm not sure," Mertesacker states. "A lot of things can happen during a tournament. We know that quite well because we have reached every semi-final in the last three big tournaments so we know how it feels to be ready for the title but that we didn't get it so far."
His reason why is revelatory.
"I think it was always a lack of focus or something at the end of the [tournament]. One thing we learned in the last couple of years is that we have to stay focused until the end. We haven't proven yet we are ready for the tournament so something [has been] missing."
It is a remarkable admission, and touches on the big question surrounding Germany right now. For all their excellence and thoroughly modern football, Mertesacker is effectively acknowledging that they have lacked the cast-iron mentality that defined less talented German teams of the past. The issue is whether they can finally develop it.
Joachim Löw, the Germany manager, has at least been consciously attempting to develop the team's approach over the 15 months since the 2-1 defeat to Italy in the Euro 2012 semi-final, and he accepts there are problems to solve. This qualification group has seen the manager experiment with different modes of attack, most notably Mesut Özil as a false nine, and try to solidify a suspect defence.
"I used this campaign to make my team more stable," Löw said after the Irish game. "I feel we have made progress and this team is more solid and stable than it was in the Euro 2012 finals.
"Of course we do have some things to tackle. Defensively, there is room for improvement, but this is all trying to reach perfection."
Some of their attacking play certainly came close to it on Friday night. "It's an experience," Kevin Doyle, the Ireland striker said after the game. "They keep going, they keep going, they are relentless," added Darron Gibson, the Everton and Ireland midfielder.
At the same time, even this easy match against the Irish seemed to indicate how far Germany still have to go. With the score at 1-0, and Löw's team appearing to indulge themselves rather than just finish the job, Ireland created three real chances that a tournament side might have taken. There is this remaining slackness to the Germans, which was most conspicuously revealed when they led 4-0 at home to Sweden, only to draw 4-4.
Germany might reasonably point to the unusually easy position in both games, and there were periods against Ireland when the players seemed to be just goading each other into the most audacious effort on goal. "We came close to perfection in our games against Austria in this qualifying group," Löw countered, mentioning September's 3-0 win. "That is encouraging."
Mertesacker agreed, looking to the immense strength in depth the team enjoys. "I just know our squad is getting better and better," the Arsenal defender said. "We have nearly every position [so well covered]. We are in a good way to represent Germany in South America, so let's focus on that not that we may lift the trophy."
That kind of statement is something else that has developed over the past year. Before Euro 2012, many of the German squad were speaking very bullishly about winning the tournament. Now, talk of the trophy is only coming from the outside and a media and public so desperate to see this team fulfil their talent. The players, like Mertesacker, are still assured but much less outspoken.
It remains to be seen whether that points to the lack of that winning mentality or, by contrast, a new maturity. Many around the squad noted a similar shift in mindset among the Bayern Munich players before they finally ended a 12-year wait to win the Champions' League last season.
Six from the Bavarian club fill the national team, of which Bastien Schweinsteiger is the most vocal presence. "You really take a lot out of that," he said of Bayern's treble. "Now you know how you can reach such success." That is what Germany really expects.
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