Germany showing signs of recovery despite relegation from UEFA Nations League
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- Timo Werner's wry smile after the final whistle at the Veltins-Arena betrayed a flurry of conflicting emotions, encompassing anger, optimism and regret.
First of all, though, there was a sense of pride. The RB Leipzig striker had ample reason to be pleased with his own performance, having scored a fine opening goal after eight minutes and combined well throughout the evening with his equally pacy and impressive teammates -- Bayern flyer Serge Gnabry and Manchester City's Leroy Sane, who found the net not long after Werner.
The young, dazzling trio's mazy runs and high work-rate were key factors in Germany playing their best competitive game against decent opposition since winning the World Cup in Brazil four years ago.
"We were great, had plenty of chances and didn't give them a single shot at goal," Werner said after the match.
But 85 minutes of nigh-complete dominance against arch rivals Netherlands were rendered all but absurd when the hosts inexplicably failed to put the game to bed and contrived to give away "two stupid goals" to make it 2-2 by the final whistle -- "a fitting end to the year," as the 22-year-old forward lamented sarcastically.
Four wins, three draws, six defeats: No Germany team has indeed done worse over the course of 12 horrible months which saw them both crash out in the group stage in Russia and get relegated in their inaugural Nations League campaign. Should Poland avoid defeat on Tuesday night against Portugal, Joachim Low's men will have made it the most unwanted of hat tricks -- they'd no longer be among the 10 top seeds for the Euro 2020 qualification draw, either.
Team manager Oliver Bierhoff professed himself hugely "annoyed" by the missed chance to embark on their four-month winter break with a bit more tailwind. He felt that "psychological aspects" had been at play when Germany threw away the lead late on.
"You could feel that the series of negative results were weighing on the young team's mind," he said. "We could have done with a positive experience to gain a bit of confidence."
Midfielder Toni Kroos put forward a slightly different theory. He thought the team had made the mistake of not holding on to the ball enough "in the last 25, 20 minutes to manage the game."
"We have to get to the point where the opponent feels there is no point trying anymore," the 28-year-old demanded, implying that a mixture of Germany's relative inexperience and rather direct tactical setup had cost them the win.
Low's second-half substitutions of his razor-sharp trident for the freshly-baked centurion Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Leon Goretzka ultimately proved detrimental, and both Dutch goals came after individual errors in defensive midfield.
Irrespective of the game's painful denouement, this was not an evening for public criticism or recriminations, however. Every single player who stopped to talk to the media next to the triumphant visitors holding court in their orange shorts and matching plastic sandals preferred to see the result as an unfortunate accident and their overall performance as a sign of undeniable improvement.
"The positives clearly outweigh the negatives," Muller declared. "The last three games have shown that we've learned our lessons from the World Cup and are on the right path to get to the top again. We're working towards that."
Just like Bierhoff, who warned that talk of "old and young players" was overblown, the 29-year-old Bayern forward felt it'd be counter-productive to concentrate on the individual fate of team members -- such as himself -- who might lose out as Low's reshuffle will gather pace in spring.
"We all want to play and throw our hat in the ring [for starting places] but we won't get anywhere debating those who won't play as much," he said.
"We are here as a unit, as a team. That's what it's all about."
Listening to Muller, one got the sense that the dressing room had collectively decided that there was no point looking back at the mistakes of the past now that the shoots of a revival had so clearly become visible.
"Playing football together again, turning up as a team again," was far more important after the disastrous outing in Russia, than the results, he insisted.
Low, Muller added, had "a good case" for claiming that he was best placed to make both happen.
The German FA feel the same way, incidentally. Monday night's largely encouraging showing has only deepened the confidence in the 58-year-old's abilities to steer the team back on course. Having initially put pressure on the manager to do well in the Nations League, a competition that has remained poorly understood and rather cooly received, the federation has come around to the view that the embarrassment of relegation was ultimately irrelevant to Low overseeing a successful transition of his side. He would even be forgiven for dropping into Pot 2 for the Euro 2020 preliminaries, too, since the Nationalmannschaft's chances to make the finals are very unlikely to be negatively impacted in a serious way.
Werner, to be sure, seemed certain that the recovery is already well under way.
"It doesn't matter who we will get in the qualifiers in 2019," he said. "There will be a different Germany than the one we saw in 2018."