They say you can't afford to lose your opening World Cup game. Whatever happens, however poorly it goes, just grind out a draw at minimum.
It prevents you from being in a hole, one that you must then frantically clamber out of. It means you can calmly stick to your plan, approaching the next two games with an air or serenity and control. It stops you from glancing nervously at the big, red, glossy panic button, wondering whether to push it.
Avoiding defeat in the opening game is not something reigning champions Germany managed to do. It began their pathway to a shock group-stage elimination, as they followed in the footsteps of Italy (won 2006, group-stage exit in 2010) and Spain (won 2010, group-stage exit in 2014). It's a failure that's shocked the world.
They were terrible in their opener against Mexico, somehow losing only 1-0 as they capitulated defensively. The second game was better, though they put themselves through the ringer and only just scraped a win—from the very bottom of the barrel—against Sweden, a 95th-minute free-kick sealing a dramatic victory.
Many saw that as a turning point, a line in the sand. Germany had been poor, but champions find ways to win, and the 2014 victors were rolling through the gears. South Korea, yet to make a splash in this tournament, would be swept aside in game three and Die Mannschaft would march into the knockouts.
That didn't happen.
At different stages of the game, every issue that has haunted Joachim Low's team throughout this process reared its head, contributing to a remarkable 2-0 loss. It left Thomas Muller in tears, Mats Hummels speechless.
How on earth did this unfold?
Pre-tournament concerns unwisely dismissed
"It's pretty simple. We played like we did against Saudi Arabia, but against a better opponent," Hummels told ZDF (h/t Goal.com) after the loss to Mexico.
They won the game against Saudi Arabia 2-1 on June 8, but beneath the scoreline egregious issues had begun simmering. They got hammered over and over on counter-attacks, attacking with eight players and leaving just Hummels and Jerome Boateng on the halfway line to deal with them. If Manuel Neuer hadn't been sharp—and Saudi Arabia incredibly wasteful—the nature of the match may have been reflected accurately in the scoreline.
But Germany have quite often laboured through the pre-tournament process and then turned it on once the finals began. They hardly sparkled in June 2014 but won the World Cup a month later. No reason for concern, right? But structural and tactical concerns were ignored, and Die Mannschaft played exactly the same way against a very good counter-attacking side.
"We talked about a few things, such as not losing possession and protection, which unfortunately we did not put into action today," lamented Hummels after an afternoon of hard work, diving into high-risk challenges in bad areas and struggling with the Carlos Vela-Hirving Lozano axis.
Sami Khedira was the worst player on the pitch that day—something Low more or less acknowledged by withdrawing him after an hour and leaving him benched for game two. It's usually his job to stay behind the ball when Germany attack, allowing Toni Kroos to weave forward and the full-backs to push on, but he kept pushing on with Kroos, removing the layer of protection required when you play with such attacking full-backs.
When Lozano broke through and scored, who was it dangling a leg to try to stop him? Mesut Ozil. That is categorically not his job.
You're unlikely to see such recklessness from a top team again in some time. But once Mexico had taken the lead and decided to defend deep, Germany had no choice but to keep slinging players forward and search for a breakthrough. Low might point to the fact they struck the woodwork twice, but Mexico could and probably should have had two more having worked three-on-two situations regularly.
The attack didn't function either. Timo Werner found no space in the box, and Germany produced no early, longer passes for him to latch onto (a deep defensive block removed most opportunities to do this, in fairness). Thomas Muller drifted around aimlessly, and when he did receive the ball to feet in the box, he squandered the chance. Ozil ended up with Kroos in holding midfield. Any threat posed was from distance strikes.
False hope against Sweden
The performance against Sweden wasn't good either. It was better, but not good. Kroos' last-gasp winner papered over huge cracks.
Sweden have a significantly slower strike force than Mexico, with Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg classed as more "lumbering" than "dynamic." Still, their quick interchanges and telepathic understanding of one another's positions soon started ripping holes in Germany's new defensive line, where two new starters (Antonio Rudiger and Jonas Hector) were present.
Toivonen's wonderful chipped finish gave Sweden a lead, Neuer made two top saves to keep the deficit at one, and in the first half what looked like a certain penalty was bizarrely denied.
Most alarmingly, the player at fault for Toivonen's goal was Kroos; it was his poor pass in the build-up phase that was intercepted and converted into an opener. The large majority of this German side are not as good as they were in 2014, but Kroos' level has arguably been upped. When he's making mistakes, it's time to worry.
Low reacted promptly and firmly, sending Mario Gomez on at half-time and switching Werner to the left flank. It was Werner who really turned the tide in attack, his wide runs, dribbling and cut-backs causing Mikael Lustig a lot of issues. He assisted the equaliser and then won the free-kick that Kroos converted for the win.
At odds with the attacking turnaround was the continued defensive struggles. Rudiger cut a nervous figure on the halfway line, and Boateng got sent off for mistiming one too many challenges.
Germany had painted the front door while letting the back one rot. They got by via superior individual quality—a method that does not fare well over multiple games.
South Korea shambles
Germany began their third match with a third different defensive line, Niklas Sule coming in for Boateng and Hummels returning from injury. Khedira returned too, while Leon Goretzka—a powerful central midfielder—was fielded on the right.
It took Low's total of players used to 20, an astonishing statistic given they only played 270 minutes in Russia. Only the two reserve goalkeepers and Matthias Ginter didn't take to the pitch.
They left themselves wide open to the counter-attack. Again. For 90 minutes they waved South Korea through into space, only to watch them make the wrong choice, hesitate a little too much or force Neuer into a save. Hummels and Sule did well to stem as much as they did; they were subjected to extreme pressure due to structural issues yet again.
They also struggled to piece things together in attack. Again. Their best chances came from standard crosses into the box—most of which came from Kimmich—but Hummels and Goretzka missed them all. Not once did they carve through South Korea's defence, and they only hit the byline once, resulting in Werner sending a Reus cross wide.
Low threw attackers on at will. Gomez was followed by Muller, who in turn was followed by Brandt. By the 80th minute they were playing an unstructured 4-4-2 with a winger at left-back. No passing lanes forward, no presence between the lines. Just four men wide, two in the box, and Kroos stood in the middle with his arms stretched outward, quizzical.
South Korea's 91st-minute goal was messy, referred to VAR for offside, but deserved. Germany then had no choice but to pile into the box, and that led to a vivid image that summed up their dreadful campaign: Neuer in midfield, losing the ball to Ju Se-jong and watching as a long punt forward is tapped into an empty net by Son Heung-min.
"Our last outstanding performance was in the fall of 2017," Hummels told ZDF (h/t Get German Football News), frankly, after the loss. They've won two of their last seven games. Much of the squad came into the tournament either out of form or injured.
Low ignored the warning signs the Saudi Arabia match produced and allowed them to spill into the finals. On the backfoot from the off, he rung wild changes game by game to make up the ground. At no point was this remotely comfortable for Germany. At no point were they in control.
The writing was on the wall, but it was just difficult to believe the words.