Germany are alive. Not just that, but their reward is one of the juiciest — in terms of history and hype — matches that the game has to offer: a Euro 2020 knockout game at Wembley against England. How about that?
Fundamentally, though, Germany are still alive because having been outplayed, out-thought and out-fought by Hungary, Jogi Low turned to the only tonic remaining in his medicine kit. It was the equivalent of pulling your goalie off the ice in hockey, or sending out five receivers and chucking a Hail Mary in American football: keep substituting defensive players for attacking players and pray that someone does something.
Essentially, cross your fingers and walk away a fool or a king. Or, more accurately in this case, a fallen sage, whose sophisticated plans turned to dust and who was ultimately saved by the bluntest of tactical instruments.
When Leon Goretzka‘s deflected shot skimmed off Hungary keeper Peter Gulacsi‘s foot and into the goal, there were six minutes to go. Six minutes until Germany made history: never before had they fallen at the first hurdle in two consecutive major tournaments. There were also six forwards on the pitch — twice the number Germany had begun the game with.
After the goal — when momentum did a 180-degree turn, as it so often does at this stage of tournament football, and Hungary were now the ones needing a score to avoid elimination — Germany finished with a back four that featured a winger (Leroy Sane) and a striker (Timo Werner) at full-back.
Rightly or wrongly, international football is a game of stereotypes: Brazil is creative, Italy is defensive, Colombia is flaky, Uruguay is tough as rusty nails. Germany’s label had always been one of staid solidity and reliability. Even when they transitioned to a more creative, high-energy style in the modern era, and even when they weren’t particularly good, there was always a plan: there was rarely desperation and hit-and-hope. Yet there was plenty of it in Munich on Wednesday night under the driving rain.
So much of what worked in the 4-2 win over Portugal was nowhere to be seen. The wingback duo of Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich, so devastating against Cristiano Ronaldo‘s crew, was largely silenced by an organised back five that ensured neither was afforded much space.
So much of what did not work was, again, painfully evident. Matthias Ginter and Mats Hummels will get the blame for letting Adam Szalai sneak between them and drive his header into the wet pitch and past Manuel Neuer after 11 minutes, but they’re not alone. Watch it again: there are eight German players behind the ball when Rolland Sallai hits his ball into the box. Hungary had just won the ball back in transition. There is no way that should have happened.
Germany went into the break stunned, having produced nothing other than a Hummels strike off the woodwork. It was as if they were sleep-walking, numbed by a Hungary side who will be going home early, but deserve a ton of credit. They were written off by everyone (including yours truly) in part because they were the 19th-ranked team in the tournament, in part because they were without their best player, the injured Dominik Szoboszlai, in part because they were in a group with the reigning European champions, Portugal, they reigning World Cup champions, France and yes, Germany, who rarely screw things up two tournaments in a row.
Instead this team, featuring just four guys who ply their trade in a “Big Five” European league, held Portugal to a 0-0 draw until six minutes from time, had held France to a 1-1 draw and were beating Germany in Germany. Their coach, Marco Rossi, an Italian globetrotter as a player — he was the first Italian to play in the Bundesliga and had played for Club America in Mexico, where he was managed by one Marcelo Bielsa — who had spent the past decade in Hungary, was working miracles.
Low needed a miracle of his own, because little was working. The back three creaked at every counterattack. Ilkay Gundogan was overrun in the middle of the park. The front three of Kai Havertz, Serge Gnabry and Sane (who was picked ahead of Thomas Muller) looked like they had met just before kickoff via one of those pick-up soccer apps. Instead, he got a spot of good fortune as Gulacsi flailed on an innocuous ball into the box, Hummels’ big head sent it goal-wards and Havertz was there to poke it in.
Normality restored? Yes, for about as long as it takes you to swipe twice on Instagram. Because Hungary manoeuvred the ball from the kickoff, Adam Szalai hooked a through ball to Andras Schaefer steaming in from deep and he beat Manuel Neuer to make it 2-1. Germany were going home (or rather, given that they were in Munich, staying home). Again.
Low must have felt like the guy who finds out his lottery scratch-off has won him $100,000, only to see it slip out of his hands and into a manhole just as he’s celebrating. There was nothing left to do at that point but bring the house. Leon Goretzka had come on a few minutes earlier; he’d be joined by Werner, Mueller, Jamal Musiala and Kevin Volland. The more, the merrier.
It worked. They won, and they live to fight another day, but this is a team that looked worse than anything Low had served up in a major tournament. And yes, that includes Russia 2018. Little worked and he had no answers until he chucked on everything he had on the bench and hoped that some combination of individual talent, randomness and luck would get the job done.
From here, Germany have six days to fix it. Six days until the clash with England at Wembley, when another chapter in the rivalry will be written. Six days in which Low will contemplate the fact that, right now, his team are underdogs and these could be his final days as coach of the national side.
Can he prolong it? Can he turn Germany’s Euros around?
History is full of teams that stunk it up in the group stage and went on to win. (Heck, it happened with Portugal in 2018.) But the sense is that one of two things needs to happen. Either Low has to come up with a game plan that works and that gets buy-in from his players, or he takes a back seat and prays that his talented (but ill-fitting) pieces somehow snap themselves into a coherent pattern, perhaps abdicating some level of control to his veterans on the pitch, whether it’s Toni Kroos or Muller or Neuer.
If his team serves up more of what we saw on Wednesday, the run — and Low’s career as Germany boss — will come to an end against England at Wembley. It won’t overly tarnish his legacy: he’ll still be the tactical architect who, in six consecutive major tournaments, reached three semifinals and three finals (winning the 2014 World Cup along the way). But he’ll also be remembered as the guy who stuck around for too long.