MANUEL Neuer and Thomas Müller could scarcely look more different on the football pitch.
The former is a thoroughly 21st-century ball-playing goalkeeper, never flustered, always commanding; the latter is an old-fashioned forward, socks rolled down, his flailing legs never seemingly in total control of the ball.
But Germany’s fourth World Cup triumph owed an equal debt to both men.
Die Nationalmannschaft stopped Lionel Messi and Argentina in the final at the Maracana to land the trophy for the first time as a unified country as the world’s best team trumped the world’s best individual.
It was their 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in the semi-final, though, that provided the defining moment for Joachim Löw’s progressive side, many of whom had been together since winning the 2009 European Under-21 Championship. That victory was perhaps the greatest result in Germany’s history. Certainly it was the biggest humiliation in the hosts’.
The best midfield in the tournament by a country mile was irresistible. Three goals in 179 seconds, four in seven minutes, 5-0 up inside half-an-hour. Germany’s brilliance was matched only by the staggering incompetence of their opponents. Wolfgang Niersbach, the president of the German Football Federation, hailed the performance as “football from another galaxy”.
It may have looked easy that night in Belo Horizonte, but Germany did things the hard way. They topped the toughest group in the tournament and conquered the harsh conditions which were supposed to dent the European challenge. At the end, they battled through 120 minutes against Argentina, finishing battered and bruised but, crucially, victorious.
Progress, though, was not always smooth. They trailed to Ghana before nicking a draw, were taken to extra-time by Algeria and almost by France the following match.
Neuer and Müller got them through when the going got tough. Neuer made up for a back four which, Mats Hummels apart, could be a liability. Especially when the excellent captain Philipp Lahm was deployed in midfield rather than at full-back, as he was early in the tournament, the defence was often painfully slow to react to danger and always thoroughly uncomfortable on the ball.
Ghana almost embarrassed them in the group stages with two second-half goals in a 2-2 draw, while against Algeria in the last 16, only the brilliance of Neuer saved them.
The keeper’s reading of the game – and awareness of the frailties of the men in front of him – allowed him to race off his line time and again to save his side’s blushes.
Löw knew the value of his number one. He said: “Manuel Neuer has the same technical skills as the others, he could play in the midfield. He also has great awareness and that’s why we are happy for him to take these risks and that’s why he’s so valuable.”
Müller’s worth was also difficult to overstate. Germany’s midfield was dominated by skilful attacking talent – Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was immense in the final, André Schurrle, Toni Kroos – but Müller offered something entirely different. His hat-trick in the opening game against Portugal got the Germans off to a flying start and he netted the winner against the United States which booked their spot in the last 16 as group winners.
With a lack of recognised strikers in the squad, Müller’s poacher’s instinct was key.
With 36-year-old Miroslav Klose the only out-and-out striker in Löw’s group, and used early in the tournament as an impact player off the bench, Müller, who won the Golden Boot in South Africa four years ago, carried the weight of getting the goals again.
He delivered. Ten goals in two World Cups aged 24. The World Cup scoring record Klose broke in Brazil may not be his for long. Müller describes himself as a ‘Raumdeuter’ – it roughly translates as ‘space investigator’ – and he is the best at it in the world, a tireless runner, always finding, and creating, space.
Müller is not fussed about aesthetics. He may be untidy, but he is clever, direct and efficient. He gets the job done.
Stereotypically German perhaps, but not necessarily typical of their current team.
Germany’s class of 2014 oozed flair and ruthlessness in equal measure and, above all, had an unwavering self-belief. It was not misplaced.