There was a moment, right at the end of the 90 minutes of their last-16 meeting with Algeria on Monday, that seemed to sum up Germany’s evening to that point.
With 87 minutes gone and the game still goalless, Joachim Low’s side had won a free-kick on the edge of the box. Five players crowded around the ball to take the free-kick, with four more in the box awaiting the delivery.
The referee blew his whistle, and Bastian Schweinsteiger dummied to take the free-kick before running over the ball. Then Thomas Mueller ran up to the ball, comically tripping over just before the moment of impact. As he regained his feet, the forward, like Schweinsteiger, opted to run over it and make his way sheepishly toward his team-mates in the box.
Then, almost immediately, Toni Kroos—standing right next to the ball—tried to flick the ball over the wall to his moving team-mate, who had slipped into the area unmarked. Except the ball was underhit, and Algeria’s wall cleared it easily.
It looked, at first glance, to be a botched routine. And so it proved to be, even if Mueller’s fall was actually part of a choreographed set-piece.
"We practiced that free-kick in training,” defender Benedikt Hoewedes told reporters afterward, per Raphael Honigstein. “The final chip wasn't right."
This was Germany’s problem throughout the game against Algeria, a side who were just a cutting edge in front of goal away from both playing to their maximum potential and quite possibly winning the match.
Low opted to start four centre-backs in his defence, a move that restricted their fluency in possession without really adding to their defensive resolve in the way that might have been anticipated. In contrast, Algeria looked organised and dangerous, with the likes of Sofiane Feghouli, Faouzi Ghoulam and Islam Slimani looking threatening any time they got in or around the box.
If it had not been for goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, willing to rush from his line at the first sign of danger, Algeria could well have been at least a goal ahead by half-time.
During the break, Low, realising his initial lineup was not working, swapped Andre Schurrle in for Mario Goetze, changing the dimensions of the side’s attack and improving the balance of the midfield, especially once Sami Khedira also replaced Shkodran Mustafi.
It did not result in a goal in normal time, however, with the sight of Mueller on his knees prior to that late free-kick providing an easy shorthand for what had gone before it.
Germany could not score in the 90 minutes of regulation, but it took barely 90 seconds of extra time for Schurrle to flick his side into a belated lead. Germany had not been good, but they were ahead. Then, nearly half an hour later, Mesut Ozil thumped home another to secure Germany’s victory, rendering Abdelmoumene Djabou’s strike soon after little more than a consolation.
Germany were through, albeit without impressing anyone who watched them. Indeed, such had been the draining nature of their performance, most neutrals left the game bemoaning Algeria’s exit from the competition.
This has been a growing theme of this tournament. Earlier, France, having been so impressive for much of the group stages, were similarly lacklustre in a draining last-16 meeting with Nigeria. They won in the end, but it wasn't until coach Didier Deschamps rectified his own selection mistake—removing the uncomfortable Olivier Giroud for the pace and width of Antoine Griezmann—that they found the recipe.
They still needed some luck, however, as Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama inadvertently flapped a corner straight into the path of Paul Pogba for the game’s first goal.
Prior to that, France had been more stilted than we have seen previously at the tournament, with their defence being regularly opened up by Nigerian forwards and their attack struggling to create chances of note.
"We had a very strong last half an hour with more dynamism and more speed," Deschamps told reporters, per Reuters, via Eurosport. "We had space to create chances and we could have scored quite a few times.”
Germany and France will now meet in the quarter-finals on Friday, with both sides just two wins from reaching the final. If they are going to hit their best form while in Brazil, now would be a great time to do it.
They are not alone in that regard, however. The same goes for Brazil, along with Argentina (although they have a last-16 tie to negotiate first). Both of the South American favourites have struggled to produce cohesive team performances so far, relying instead on the individual brilliance of their respective superstars, Neymar and Lionel Messi.
Once upon a time, that was a viable way to win a World Cup. It remains to be seen whether that is still the case.
Germany and France, however, are not blessed with individual attacking brilliance. Their threat lies in the collective, in their ability to fashion a formidable unit out of a group of players who all have experience at the very highest levels of European football.
It is perhaps worth noting, of course, that the last time Germany failed to reach at least the quarter-finals of the World Cup was over 60 years ago. Pragmatism has its perks.
If you can get to this stage without playing your best, then at least it would seem there is an extra gear somewhere to switch into—right when it might most come in handy.
“Would you rather we played beautiful football but got knocked out?” as defender Per Mertesacker told German television (via The Guardian).
“I don’t know what you want from me – do you think that just Mickey Mouse teams are involved in the last 16? All that matters is we’re in the quarter-finals.”
That is true. But Germany are one of a number of contenders who need to find a way to improve their performances if they are to progress further than that.