Joachim Low took a stroll along the beach in Sochi’s blazing sunshine on Wednesday but the heat will have felt a lot less intense for the coach than the inquest that has followed the dismal start to Germany’s defence of the World Cup.
From a crisis meeting between players and staff to growing questions over their controversial choice of training base and mounting calls for Mesut Ozil to be dropped, the fall-out from Sunday’s shock 1-0 defeat to Mexico has been brutal.
Indeed, for all the relief felt in the German squad at finally escaping their much maligned base camp in Vatutinki, 25 miles south west of central Moscow, for the tranquility of the Russian Riviera, there was simply no escaping the recriminations from the Mexico debacle.
No punches were pulled during a crisis meeting between the players, Low and Oliver Bierhoff, Germany’s general manager, on Tuesday, as they probed for answers ahead of Saturday’s crucial clash with Sweden at the Fisht Stadium on the banks of the Black Sea.
Manuel Neuer was honest enough to admit that he had never heard so many frank words exchanged during his nine years with the national team, with the prolonged internal inquiry prompting him to turn up 50 minutes late for a scheduled press conference.
“We didn’t mince words, because we want to make things better against Sweden,” the Germany goalkeeper said. “We talked a lot. We’re our harshest critics. It was a wake-up call - there has never been such strong words within the team.”
The disconnect on the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was alarming, even if Mats Hummels had hinted at pre-match concerns about an imbalance in the team by decrying a lack of defensive cover that left huge spaces for Mexico to ruthlessly expose.
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The conclusion was that the experienced players, in particular, needed to demonstrate far greater responsibility, although whether some get the chance to atone against Sweden remains to be seen.
Sami Khedira could make way for Ilkay Gundogan or Leon Goretzka in central midfield and Marco Reus seems likely to come in, probably for Julian Draxler.
Striker Timo Werner is also sweating on his place but there was little doubting the main source of German anger. Ozil could yet be granted a reprieve by Low, who has long been a staunch supporter of his, but there were former German players lining up to take potshots at the mercurial Arsenal playmaker on Wednesday.
“Ozil’s body language is like that of a dead frog, it’s pathetic,” Mario Basler, a Euro 96 winner with Die Mannschaft, told German television. Basler is known for being deliberately outspoken so Lothar Matthaus’s criticism in his column with Sport Bild was considered more damning.
“For a year or two, Özil has played much weaker and at a level that does not justify Jogi Löw's free ticket,” said Matthaus, who played in five World Cups for Germany and won the tournament in 1990. “With Özil on the pitch I often have the feeling that he does not feel comfortable in the German jersey, almost as if he does not want to play. There is no heart, no joy, no passion.”
Stefan Effenburg struck a similar tone and accused Low of making a “completely misjudgement” by starting Ozil over Reus against Mexico.
The problems are not confined to the pitch, though. Sochi was Germany’s base for their Confederations Cup triumph last summer and Bierhoff has been forced to defend calls over why he opted to break with a tried and tested formula by instead picking Vatutinki, which has been likened to a “boarding school”, as their World Cup HQ. Brazil and Poland are both based in Sochi and there are suspicions Bierhoff was slow off the mark in making arrangements.
“I continue to believe that Moscow is the right choice,” he said on Wednesday, although it is doubtful the players would agree. There was more than a hint of sarcasm in Toni Kroos’ voice when asked for his assessment of the Vatutinki Hotel. “I had water in my shower, so I was happy,” the midfielder said.
Yet much like Thomas Muller, who was busy urging Germans to get behind the team, Neuer had opted for a more upbeat tone on Wednesday and seemed to imply that their troubles were being blown out of proportion. “It’s probably something anchored in the German mentality to always look for problems and negative aspects,” he said. “Whether before the Olympics or a tournament - hair is always sought in the soup.”