A more pragmatic setup in midfield as well as a new defensively minded defence, replete with "safety-first full-backs," has helped Joachim Low's Germany find a semblance of stability after the chaos of the World Cup. But the 0-0 draw against France and a 2-1 win against Peru also showed that the job is at best two-thirds done.
Solid improvements at the back and in the centre have sadly not been matched in the final third, where problems predate the embarrassment in Russia. A mere 10 goals in 11 games since the World Cup qualifiers, "the record of a minnow nation," as Suddeutsche Zeitung put it a little unkindly, point to a more deep-seated lack of quality in the opposition box.
There are three interconnected explanations for the drought, starting with insufficient mental sharpness and not enough determination to score at all cost. "We were missing a bit of callousness," Thomas Muller lamented after the Peru game, echoing concerns that were first raised before the World Cup in Brazil. Back then, team manager Oliver Bierhoff had warned that the team were too careless in front of goal, squandering chances in the belief that more would naturally come their way.
Special training sessions that concentrated on finishing under extreme pressure were devised to impress on players' minds that more efficiency was vital. Having mostly worked on defensive organisation last week, Low would do well to put similar emphasis on finding the net next month, even if his suggestion that players missing chances would be "punished with sit-ups" was meant as a joke.
A different theory was put forward by Bayer Leverkusen forward Julian Brandt, the scorer of Germany's first goal against Peru on Sunday. The 22-year-old felt that his team didn't so much lack the right attitude as the right type of striker, "a real No. 9 bombing goals, like Sandro [Wagner], Mario [Gomez] or [Miroslav] Klose used to be."
It's true that Low has struggled to find a replacement for Klose, Germany's record goal scorer at World Cups. Neither Wagner nor Gomez, who both recently retired from the national team, did quite enough to suggest that he might be the answer to the question at hand. But Horst Hrubesch, the former West Germany centre-forward and German FA youth coach now in charge of the women's team, believes the clamour for a big, strong target man might be misplaced in any case.
"We have always had very different kind of strikers in German football, not just the big man up front," the 67-year-old told ESPN. "Very few of the best teams play with classic poachers. And those who do, like France with [Olivier] Giroud, rely on others for goals. I don't agree that there's a flaw in youth development when it comes to producing strikers. We produce plenty of them, but they often don't play through the middle, as coaches want them to be versatile and able to do a job in different positions."
Seen in this light, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Low's idea of playing Muller, Marco Reus and Timo Werner as a flexible trident. The perception that the latter two are weak finishers isn't borne out by the facts either, with Werner scoring broadly in line with expected goals stats in the course of the last Bundesliga campaign, and Reus doing a little better than expected. (Contrary to popular belief, even the very best strikers don't consistently outperform their own xG in the fulness of time)
But that still doesn't explain their awful World Cup performances. Germany's combined expected goals was seven for the three games in Russia, but they scored only two goals in total from 73 shots. Needless to say, no team underperformed this key metric to a worse degree in the entire tournament. Surely the poor quality of their finishing was the key reason for their early exit in Russia?
But dig deeper into the numbers, kindly provided by StatsBomb, and a more nuanced picture emerges. Low's men indeed created a lot of chances, but they were mostly low probability, with an expected goals per shot of 0.096 -- a far worse value than those mustered by elite teams such as Belgium and Brazil and only 13th-best of the competition.
If you add those poor chances, a combination of bad decisions and an inability to get through to goal against very defensive teams, with the more conservative approach post-World Cup that has naturally resulted in fewer chances altogether, you're left with the worst of both worlds.
Harking back to some perceived golden age of German strikers won't help Low. He'd be wise to ignore the nostalgia and calls for "bombers" of questionable quality and instead concentrate on curing a malaise whose root causes are in tactical shortcomings, not personnel. After learning to defend the goal and control the space in midfield, his men will now have to learn how to combine more effectively in attack again.