We all know it’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door. But sometimes you pay even more when you ignore the door that was right there.
It was obvious in the last World Cup that Germany had reached the end of their cycle. They were made to look pretty damn plodding and basic, as both South Korea and Mexico ran around, over, and through a lineup that had aged more than the four years between their triumph in Brazil and their pratfall in Russia would suggest. Even their one win over Sweden was last-gasp, needing a Toni Kroos freekick to save them.
Joachim Löw had already been the coach for 11 years by that point, which for a national team manager is equivalent to 300. Perhaps in a bid to save his own ass, he booted Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, and Jerome Boateng from the team and tried to pivot to younger talent. And Germany is, at first glance, awash in young talent. But what kind of sign is it that before this tournament Löw went back to Müller and Hummels, and, with hat in hand, asked them to come back to the national team?
Some of that must be attributed to Müller’s form the past two seasons for Munich, which was essentially a fuck you world tour to both Löw and Niko Kovač, who had frozen him out of the Munich team. Müller has racked up 40 assists the past two seasons, an ungodly number, though it helps when a lot of those passes are going to Robert Lewandowski. And Hummels doesn’t look like he’s a starter for Germany.
There probably is a young, dynamic team within this Germany squad, but there are enough old heads around for worry. This is the same Germany team that got blitzed at home by the Dutch in qualifying and just lost to North Macedonia at home. Something very well may have gone stale with Löw’s reign three years ago, and yet he’s still here. Kroos is still in the midfield, and N’Golo Kante Tazmanian Devil’d him in the Champions League just a month ago. And would you look who’s first up for Kroos and his freunde next week?
Another problem area is that Müller isn’t going to be passing to Lewandowski for the national team. Germany might not have a striker at all. Timo Werner is on the squad, but after spending a season doing this for Chelsea, it’s unlikely he’s going to start. And if he does, he’s a safer bet to run into the post or swallow his shirt than to score. And it’s one thing for Müller to rack up all those assists for Munich when they always have the ball against most Bundesliga opponents. The water is much deeper here.
Still, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich, Kai Havertz, Ilkay Gündogan, Antonio Rüdiger, with the still colossal Manuel Neuer in net is just about enough to make a more than representative team. The problem is that they’ve landed in a group with two teams who are going to be a whole lot more than just “representative.”
We’ve been over France and its status as ultra-favorites before. This was a team that won the World Cup without its central striker scoring a goal (a feat they’ve achieved twice somehow) and then they went ahead and added one of the best central strikers in the world. Which gives it probably the most terrifying attack in the world with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann. It also might have the most terrifying midfield in the world, with N’Golo Kante freeing Paul Pogba from having to do all the stuff he doesn’t like to do with all the stuff he does. And Adrien Rabiot is around to connect the two.
Oh, and the French probably have the best defense too. So yeah, this is France’s tournament until they say it’s not.
This group just so happens to also have the defending champs in Portugal. Because you’ll have wiped it from your memory to maintain any form of sanity or happiness, you probably don’t remember that Portugal was probably more boring and dour in 2016 than Greece when they won it in 2004. Two penalty shootouts, a win over Wales in the semis (what?), and then catching France in the final when it came down with a fatal case of stagefright. Portugal didn’t even win a game in the group stage, and basically won one game in 90 minutes to claim the trophy. Honestly, The Hague should have investigated this. I will maintain until my death that Portugal-Croatia in the round of 16 was by far the worst soccer game I’ve ever watched, and likely the worst sporting event of any kind, too.
Thankfully for all of us, this Portugal team is not that one. There is the slight issue of Christiano Ronaldo hanging over this team much like it does Juventus, in that he can’t or doesn’t move anymore and is basically only a goal-poacher now. But he’s still exceedingly good at doing that, and Portugal can surround him with enough mobile and creative players to make up for it. Andre Silva, Joao Felix, Diego Jota can all play in the spots next to Ronaldo and be a handful (Silva just pumped in 28 goals for Frankfurt this season). And behind them there’s the only reason Manchester United isn’t a complete embarrassment in Bruno Fernandes. The defense contains half of the back four that just steamrolled the Premier League with Manchester City in Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias. Jose Fonte just backstopped Lille’s upset win of Ligue 1. So not only are the Portugese likely to be a flavorful dish up front, they’re likely to be pretty damn miserly in the back too.
Which makes Germany’s road all the tougher, as they get France and Portugal first. Lose those, and their last game against Hungary might not even matter. Hungary didn’t just escape its group in the last Euros, which included Portugal, it won it. But then it got thrashed by Belgium in the second round, and it hasn’t been much prettier since — missing out on the World Cup, including losing to Andorra in the qualifying process. Their Euro qualifying campaign was pretty morose as well, but they found salvation in the playoffs thanks to it being based on the Nations League, and they were able to overcome Bulgaria and Iceland (making them the world’s villain). Sadly for them, their most promising player Dominik Szoboszlai, who came to light under Jesse Marsch at Salzburg before a move to Leipzig, will miss the tourney through injury.
So yeah, Joachim Löw might yet be another cautionary tale of how you always want to leave ‘em wanting more.
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Euro 2021 kicks off Friday, June 11