If no major tournament is truly christened until a giant is humbled, World Cup 2018 is here. Three of the last seven defending champions had lost their first match of the following World Cup. If we assumed that Joachim Loew’s Germany were too well-oiled to make such a mistake, we had neither accounted for their ineptitude nor Mexico’s counter-attacking brilliance. Suddenly one half of the World Cup draw has opened up. This is quickly becoming an excellent group stage.
Loew, who has never failed to take Germany to the semi-final of a tournament during his tenure, looked on helplessly as his desperate measures failed to turn the tide of the match. His second-half changes resembled a child playing his first games of Football Manager, throwing on forwards for defenders and hoping all-out attack would pay.
Loew repeatedly signalled his players to push on with the waving of one arm, like a conductor interested only in hearing the string section. By the end the German formation was 3-2-5 with nine outfielders constantly in Mexico’s half. It was hard to compute Mesut Ozil playing as the most defensive midfielder, like seeing one of your teachers outside of school.
If you hadn’t watched Germany over the last five, 10, 15, 20 or 50 years, you would have struggled to take talk of their recent dominance seriously. They pushed central midfielders and full-backs forward with gay abandon during the first half, as if this were a training exercise with goalscoring as the only aim, leaving vast gaps in behind. Every time possession was turned over, Mexico surged forward like a group of fighter jets in formation. The world champions were overrun.
There is plenty to enjoy in head coaches pitting well-matched tactical systems against one another, but football is at its most enthralling when chaos reigns supreme. In Hirving Lozano, almost as likely to be sent off as be the game’s star performer, Mexico have chaos incarnate. His dribbling speed is extraordinary, zig-zagging his way towards danger as teammates endeavour to keep up and opponents generally fail to. If the World Cup can turn boy wonders into men, this might be Lozano’s time.
The only regret from the first half, if Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio was to be ultra-greedy, is that his team did not take a two or three-goal lead into the break. Four, five, six times they streamed forward and yet failed to provide the final pass that would have created yet another clear opportunity.
But if Germany’s defensive structure was shaky, their attacking cohesion was absent without leave. More balls were passed straight out of play or left for a non-existent teammate in the first half against Mexico than during the entirety of their 2014 campaign. After recent friendly defeat to Austria and laboured win over Saudi Arabia, this has been coming.
This was the type of performance that can put international careers in jeopardy, particularly when you have the depth of talent of Germany. Sami Khedira, now 31 and not a guaranteed starter for Juventus, looked laboured and leggy. He resembled the half-fit Gareth Barry in the 2010 last-16 game between England and Germany, running in sand while his opponents sprinted past on grass. Khedira was fortunate to last beyond half-time.
The only thing that threatened to thwart Mexico was their own self-awareness, and appreciation of the magnitude of this victory. Off came Lozano, and later on came Rafael Marquez for an appearance at a fifth World Cup. There are few more emphatic declarations of your intention to shut up shop than that. But shut up shop they did, despite Timo Werner and Thomas Muller trying to pick the lock and Mario Gomez attempting to ram-raid.
For a team that has failed to make it beyond the last-16 in the last six World Cups, a giant step towards breaking that hoodoo. No team in this tournament has played with the same attacking fluency as Osorio’s front three. Mexico started with chaos and ended with order, and beat the world champions at both.
For Germany and Loew, untrodden ground. It is hard to see this careering quite so quickly towards the debacles of France in 2002 or Spain in 2014, but they have now removed all margin for error. In Moscow, Germany took more backward steps in 90 minutes than they had in the previous six years.