Germany suffered systematic failure against Mexico's high-speed counter

Updated: June 17, 2018

It’s not fun being a defending World Cup champion these days.

Italy was held to an unfashionable draw in its 2010 opener, Spain was throttled by the Netherlands in 2014, and now Germany has fallen at the first step.

Much more than complacency was at fault in Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Mexico. It was a systematic failure. Joachim Low’s midfield was torn apart by Juan Carlos Osario’s well-prepared counter-attack. Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos did little to protect their defenders, their lack of movement allowing playmaker Carlos Vela and El Tri’s wingers acres of space.

Related: World Cup holder Germany stunned by Mexico in Group F opener

But it wasn’t just a slow midfield that cost Germany. Joshua Kimmich – lionised for his adventurousness and playmaking ability at the right-back position – was equally culpable in the loss. Kimmich was caught too far up the pitch on numerous occasions, and against an opposing winger of Hirving Lozano‘s match-winning quality, the 23-year-old was more of a liability than an inspiration.

The combination of errors put too much pressure on the shoulders of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, who couldn’t cope with the pace of Mexico’s high-octane attackers. They were often outnumbered when defending – a futile proposition even for centre-backs with so much familiarity. Usually so composed for Bayern Munich, they were left reeling at the Luzhniki Stadium. There was no cohesion at the back, only haphazard clearances and desperate blocks. It was a little too improvised for a team that prides itself on its structure.

And as Germany struggled to recover, Mexico kept on forcing the issue, winning second balls and gunning for goal at every opportunity.

Joachim Low was left with a puzzled look on his face throughout. His loyalty to the players who served him so well over the past decade – Khedira, Thomas Muller, and Mesut Ozil – appeared to betray him. None of them looked comfortable in Low’s 4-2-3-1 formation. He insisted with Khedira in a two-man midfield despite the 31-year-old’s heavy legs. It was his giveaway in the centre of the pitch that allowed Mexico to score and his miscalculated runs that made Germany so susceptible to the counter.

Muller and Ozil, meanwhile, were denied space of their own because of Mexico’s compact backline. And the additional pressure on Kroos – who is used to playing as one of three midfielders at Real Madrid – forced the 28-year-old to play quicker than he likes and take shots he clearly didn’t want to take.

By the end of the match, Osorio fielded blocks of four and five with centre-backs as full-backs and strikers on the flanks. Goal scored, mission accomplished.

“For the players today the phrase was to play for the love of winning not the fear of losing. And that is exactly what they did,” Osorio told reporters, including the Guardian’s Barney Ronay. “They played with real bravery.”

It was a brilliant plan from Osorio. It’s clear he asked his players not only to strike on the break, but to move the ball up the pitch as quickly as possible and win the foot races. Mexico favoured the long pass – both on the grass and in the air – to cut out the middleman. The counter that led to Lozano’s goal required just four passes, ensuring Germany didn’t have enough time to recuperate and regain shape.

And yet, Low admitted after the match he knew what to expect.

The issue at the heart of Germany’s lethargy isn’t fatigue or the absence of Leroy Sane. Given the Bundesliga’s extended winter break and the excellence of Germany’s attacking players, neither can be considered a viable excuse. Sunday’s upset was a result of tactical shortcomings.

The question is whether Germany can kick on from here. This isn’t nearly as debilitating a defeat as Spain’s to the Netherlands in Brazil. It has more the feel of disappointment like Italy’s 1-1 stalemate against Paraguay in South Africa. Because this team, if given the right platform, can do so much more.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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