Germany's split personality


4-0 against Portugal. Thomas Müller runs riot over Pepe and company, scoring a hattrick in the process. Mats Hummels chips in with a goal. Cristiano Ronaldo is left both limp-haired and bemused, his most notable contribution to the game coming when he decided to take a shot on goal with a 40-yard free kick and succeeded only in passing (at speed) into the foot of the wall. Germany resplendent.

2-2 against Ghana. Bailed out by a 36-year-old who remains the only true striker on the squad, the Germans look distinctly second-best for long periods of the second half, and are perhaps lucky not to lose outright when they give up a five-on-three Black Stars break in injury time. The fullbacks are overwhelmed. The centre of midfield lacks a certain dynamism. The forwards aren't given enough time on the ball. Germany vulnerable.

There has been a tendency to look at Germany's performance against the Black Stars as a blip, a symptom of their historical weakness in the second round of the group stages rather than reflective of the actual abilities of Joachim Löw's team. And, in fairness, Saturday's draw could indeed be a mere slip on the way to bigger and better things for Germany, one of the major pre-tournament favourites. Their deconstruction of Portugal in the opening round looms large for anyone tempted to write them off.

But in truth, the Germany side that thrashed Portugal had the seeds of the Ghana display as well. They're two sides of the same coin: Germany are both capable of both brilliance and stodginess in equal measure, a team simultaneously vulnerable and able to beat whoever stands in their path.

And it all comes down to the midfield.

If the combination of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira had been fully fit and firing on all cylinders, Germany would be in perfect shape. If Ilkay Gundogan's career hadn't been derailed, if the Bender twins were fit enough to help ... well, there are quite a few ifs here. What Germany actually have is a trio of Khedira -- who still doesn't look quite right following his ACL injury from the 2013/14 season -- Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos.

Lahm, of course, has anchored the German defence for years before being moved to central midfield by Pep Guardiola this year, and while he's superb on the ball, displaying the sort of intelligence that would allow him to play pretty much anywhere, the physical demands on a central midfielder are significantly higher than those on a right back -- he's a good defender, but a lightweight against the power of some of the world's top midfielders. The same goes for Kroos, only without the 'good defender' bit. Germany's current midfield setup is excellent at keeping the ball and building attacks. It's markedly less excellent at containing them.

And using Lahm as a defensive midfielder means that Germany are playing without fullbacks. Löw has used Benedikt Höwedes, Jerome Boateng and Shkodran Mustafi out wide, none of whom are naturals there. Only Boateng is particularly comfortable (or competent) at fullback, and none have the speed or tactical awareness to both support the attack and conduct their defensive duties.

Even against Portugal, it was obvious in the opening stages that Germany was both soft through the middle and extremely vulnerable to counterattacks down the flank. One game later, Ghana would exploit those weaknesses in a way Portugal simply did not. What the Portugal game tells us is how Germany can overcome their flaws: by blowing away their opponents.

Müller's opening goal allowed the Germans to sit deep and play on the counterattack, closing up the space behind their fullbacks, keeping their midfielders closer together and allowing their astonishing array of attacking talent to slice their opposition apart whenever they make a mistake. Although the Germans look for all the world like a possession team, they remain at their best when they can break forward at speed -- all four of their attacking players know exactly how to take advantage of an open defence, and that's how they demolished Portugal.

But when the game is tight, Germany struggle. When they commit players forward, they're vulnerable in midfield and out wide, and they'll have trouble finding a team willing to let them play on the counterattack at 0-0. And that's what happened with Ghana, who replied so fast to Mario Götze's opener that the Germans didn't even have time to switch gears.

Germany aren't a complete side without their first-choice midfield pairing working effectively, and they're unlikely to be consistently excellent for the rest of the World Cup. We're more likely to see a boom and bust cycle -- when they can use their excellent attack to score an early, unanswered goal, they can snowball it into a rout, and when they can't, they're going to struggle to put in good performances.

That's not the Germany we all wanted to see, but it looks like the Germany we've got. But that might actually make them more fun -- Germany and 'flawed but brilliant attacking side' aren't things that normally go hand in hand, and the novelty of the whole situation is going to make this World Cup that much more enjoyable.

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