MOSCOW -- "We won't fall apart," said Joachim Low after presiding over his first-ever opening defeat at a big competition. If it sounded a tad dramatic, it was easy to see why the Bundestrainer would reach for such strong language. After all, his men, the World Cup holders, had shown themselves to be a fragmented team in the Luzhniki in a 1-0 defeat to Mexico on Sunday night.
For a side whose tournament success over the past decade has been rooted in a strong collective ethos, the process of disintegration they suffered at the hands of Mexico was more unsettling than the negative result itself. Juan Carlo Osorio's team shattered Germany with a succession of quick, counterattacking blows in the first half until their individual parts were scattered all over the grass like a broken pearl necklace.
Where was the cohesion in midfield? Where, in fact, was the midfield?
"We were, of course, completely alone at the back," lamented centre-back Jerome Boateng. "We left so many spaces for counterattacks. They came at us four or five times. People were just running through and nobody said anything."
Mats Hummels, Boateng's unwitting co-star in this 2018 version of "Home Alone," made the same points but with added spice, claiming that the lessons of the poor 2-1 friendly versus Saudi Arabia, when Germany's game had suffered similar defects, had not been heeded.
"We spoke about not giving away possession cheaply and about the provision of cover but unfortunately didn't get it right yet again." Seven or eight attacking players, Hummels added, had brought about an imbalance that "made it easy for Mexico."
Germany's last row of defenders were forced into haphazard one-on-ones near the centre-circle to stop the waves of Mexico players in their tracks. It was inevitable that one or two of those high-risk duels would be lost, and with grave consequences.
Hummels was careful not to discuss too many specifics in his assessment. The inference of what he said, however, was explosive in a number of ways. Either Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos, who were both nominally central midfielders but provided almost no protection for the defence, were simply not up the task or not committed enough to helping out, something the Bayern defender seemed to imply.
An overt criticism of Low could be read between the lines too. After all, the 57-year-old had done nothing to change his malfunctioning setup after the problems first surfaced a couple of weeks before the World Cup. Furthermore, it had taken him until the 60th minute to replace the huffing and puffing Khedira for Marco Reus and move Mesut Ozil into a deeper role, which finally brought a bit more composure and structure.
The best tactics in the world are useless without application and the players' willingness to run for their teammates. Against a razor-sharp El Tri, Germany's creative department spent more time remonstrating with the referee than focusing on denying their opponents' quick transitions.
The holders' game was riddled with lethargy and sloppiness, deficiencies that exposed the main flaw in Germany's setup: The sheer amount of forward-thinking players on the pitch left no room for mistakes in the buildup; or rather, it left far too much room. Time and again before half-time, Germany were lured into cul-de-sacs and then Mexico countered. The gigantic gap that opened up between the front line and the defensive duo swallowed Germany's control game like the biblical Leviathan.
Low will need to think hard about going back to 2014's slightly more conservative setup, with three midfielders, to make his side less vulnerable while they're trying to get their passing game going again. Khedira, a box-to-box player who can't really get around the pitch quickly enough anymore, is a liability as Kroos' sole colleague in the engine room. The more cultured Ilkay Gündogan, and perhaps the combative Leon Goretzka too, will have to come in and fill the vast empty space in the centre against Sweden. More movement, decisiveness and precision are badly needed, as well.
"I'm more angry than shocked," asserted team manager Oliver Bierhoff in reference to a "lack of pace, a lack of solutions" in the final third. Interestingly, Thomas Muller admitted that Mexico had outsmarted them with a vastly changed game plan. The players had been told Osorio's men would press high and keep possession, when, in fact, they pressed only deep in their own half and immediately went vertical. Call it a major intelligence flaw.
"That really hurt us," said the Bayern forward. "We lost the game in the first half."
The opposition playing differently was enough to make Germany fail to be themselves. They had repeatedly fallen into the same, simple trap, but the situation is still rectifiable. However, the pressure to make amends without the team getting torn apart by different views and personal agendas over the next few days in Sochi will be considerable.
"We have to keep our heads up," warned Boateng. "The game versus Sweden is already a final."
Except in Germany's mind, the only final was supposed to come in four weeks' time.