As Germany leaves its World Cup base camp in Santo Andre for its next match with Ghana, Manual Neuer and Per Mertesacker reflect on why a 4-0 start in the group stage is nothing to get excited about.
Manual Neuer held a clean sheet against one of the strongest teams – Portugal – and one of the best strikers – Cristiano Ronaldo – in the entire World Cup. No one would hold it against him to show a little pride after Germany's excellent 4-0 start to the tournament. But the keeper was critical of his team's performance on Thursday as the players prepared to leave for their next match in Fortaleza.
"I think that we can only be partially satisfied with how we played," said Neuer in an interview on the website of Germany's DFB football association. "In assessing this game, we have to be honest: we got a penalty, they got a red card – basically everything went our way in this game. In the second half we controlled things with a man advantage, but we have to realize that the opponent had opportunities. It wasn't all perfect."
Perhaps this is the critique of a man who witnessed Germany go up against the wall in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. Following a strong 4-0 win in the first group game against Australia, Germany lost to Serbia 1-0 and was in a must-win situation against Ghana in the final game.
"It was on a knife's edge the entire time," defender Per Mertesacker said of that match in Johannesburg during a press conference on Thursday, "but then we were saved thanks to Mesut Özil's goal."
Germany face Ghana again on Saturday in Fortaleza, and will do everything they can to avoid the lapse of form they suffered in the second match against Serbia in four year ago. Mertesacker called that game "a warning" for this year, and added that Germany wants to "make sure we leave Ghana far behind us this time."
Neuer is preparing for the Black Stars' "confident individual players" who try "crazy stuff and shoot from anywhere." He says the team needs to close down open space better than they did against Portugal, and can't fall too far back.
Start for Hummels still uncertain
While Neuer's analysis is quite astute, credit should be given where it's due following the win against Portugal. In front of Neuer was a four-man back line with a few changes to the norm for Germany. Jerome Boateng, Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels and Benedikt Höwedes – all central defenders by trade – formed Germany's defense. Long-time right back Philipp Lahm played as a central holding midfielder.
Neuer was satisfied with the arrangement, complimenting his back line on their ability to play aggressively.
"It was new for me to have four defenders in front of me who are basically all central defenders," he said. "For this reason we had a very strong back line when it came to fighting for the ball. That helped mainly in situations where we had to break up counterattacks. We disrupted them early, we sought out challenges and won them often."
There may be a change to Germany's back line against Ghana on Saturday as Mats Hummels struggles with a bruised thigh sustained in the opening game against Portugal. It's an unwelcome disruption for the German defense, which has proved to be the least stable part of the team since the 2010 World Cup but has recently found cohesion.
"We were just really starting to find ourselves, to find trust in each other," said Mertesacker of Germany's gelling back line. "I think he'll be able to play."
Shkodran Mustafi would be a likely option to replace Hummels if he can't play. Mustafi came on for Hummels after his injury near the end of the match against Portugal.
"A change always involves a bit of a question mark," said Mertesacker, who will earn his 100th cap for Germany on Saturday. "But everyone who comes on knows what he has to do. We have clear roles. If Shkodran comes in, he'll bring his game right away."
In an interview with Germany's ZDF public broadcaster on Thursday, Germany coach Joachim Löw said Hummels's participation against Ghana would depend on if he is able to take part in the final practice session 24 hours before kickoff. If he can practice, he can play, Löw said.