Germany's big questions include shaky defence, Ozil's role, Muller's form
Turniermannschaft. It's the word you'll be hearing most in Germany this week, by way of boasts and prayers, as Joachim Low's squad gets closer to its Euro 2016 opening game against Ukraine on Sunday. Turniermannschaft ("tournament team") has been the unofficial nickname of the Nationalmannschaft for decades now, a moniker that describes their uncanny ability to get results in big competitions, no matter how good or bad their form coming into a tournament may be.
(Granted, Germany weren't quite such a Turniermannschaft when they crashed out in the group stage at Euro 2000 and Euro 2004, but those exceptions merely served to prove the rule.)
The flip side of being a team for tournaments, however, is that you often have little idea about your true strengths or biggest problems before a ball is kicked in earnest. Since the World Cup win in Brazil, Low has taken the Turniermannschaft ethos to its logical extreme, experimenting with personnel and formations so vigorously that, more often than not, Germany ceased to be a team altogether.
Will things now magically come together the way they have largely done over the last five competitions? Or will their deficiencies drag the side down? Germany are world champions but they're also world champions of worrying about their own flaws. Here are the five key questions still to be resolved ahead of "mission Euro win," as tabloid Bild would have it.
1. Who's playing at the back?
Concerns about a lack of balance and the fitness of midfield stalwarts Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger made Low adopt a very pragmatic set-up for the opening games at the last World Cup. Four centre-backs (Jerome Boateng, Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes) made up the defence, Philipp Lahm was stationed in front of them as a guard. But out of those five, only Howedes is both still playing for Germany and fully fit for selection on Sunday.
Boateng is doubtful (muscle problems); Hummels (hamstring) isn't quite ready. The unfortunate Antonio Rüdiger is out of the Euros after rupturing his cruciate ligament in training. That leaves... well, not a lot. Low will be forced to field Valencia's Shkodran Mustafi or move Howedes inside, leaving Emre Can forced to play as an unhappy right-back again, with Jonas Hector on the left.
Bayern Munich's talented Joshua Kimmich might be an alternative, on the right side of a back three or even as a centre-back, but in its totality, the defensive corps does not inspire a lot of confidence. The one bit of good news, perhaps, is that the need for extra security will increase the chances of Julian Weigl, the 20-year-old Dortmund midfielder destined for greatness, seeing action in the holding role.
2. Can Mesut Ozil make this his Euros?
Ozil only starred in a supporting role at the last World Cup, toiling on the right and the left as his successor at Real Madrid, Toni Kroos, shined as the de facto playmaker. For the Euros, however, the Arsenal midfielder has been once again earmarked in his favourite position: the central creative role.
"I'm very, very happy to enjoy the confidence of the national [team] manager," Ozil told SID this week. "I can be most effective as a 10." Kroos is most likely needed further down the pitch, an area where Ozil himself has been tried out with a surprising degree of success in the national team. (The calm, classy influence of Ilkay Gundogan will be sorely missed.)
Whether Ozil will play behind the striker(s) or in front of the defence is less important than the fact that Low trusts him to dictate the game once more. The Bundestrainer insisted that Ozil was "as good as 2012 or 2013" this season. It's up to the former Schalke 04 player to justify that verdict and win over his few remaining doubters back home.
3. Gotze or Gomez up front?
Following his career resurrection in Turkey, the return of Mario Gomez (26 goals for league champions Besiktas) to the fold has given Low the valuable option to make Germany less dependent on game combinations. In theory, the orthodox and physically imposing striker is an ideal weapon against deep-lying defences, but Poland and the Ukraine might well defend by squeezing the space further up the pitch, which would render the 30-year-old pretty ineffective: he can't play on the shoulder of the last man given his lack of pace.
Despite coming off a pretty poor season with Bayern, Mario Gotze looks like the more natural fit for a team that's learned to make the most of the freedom to interchange that playing without a target man provides. A nod to the scorer of the World Cup-winning goal in Rio would suggest that Low will stick to his aesthetic principles in attack rather adopting than a more direct approach.
4. Will Thomas Muller do his Muller shtick?
The 26-year-old Bayern forward has been in strangely ineffective form of late, looking like a man in dire need of some inspiration. While Muller can score at any given moment and doesn't need to play well at all in order for his famous goal instinct to kick in, his confidence on the ball seems to have suffered a bit.
Is he still haunted by that tragic penalty miss against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semifinal, the first real personal setback of his career? A coolly converted spot kick in the DFB Pokal win over Dortmund in Berlin would suggest otherwise but Müller isn't quite playing with his usual, clunky and charming verve right now. The problem could become more prominent if Low shunts him out to the right side of the attack, where he's more involved in build-up play.
Germany are not reliant on a single player but without Muller's goals and joyful anarchic streak up front, they will struggle to fulfil their potential this summer. The son of a BMW engineer needs to re-discover his drive, urgently.
5. What about Schweinsteiger?
A captain that doesn't command authority by virtue of his performances is always a potential problem for any team. Without his history and heroics at the Maracana, the 31-year-old presumably would not have been picked by his country after the season he's just had at Manchester United. But Schweinsteiger cannot live off past glories in France, nor can he rely on the goodwill and patience that have gone his way as he battles back from yet another injury.
Two years ago, the gamble Low took on him (he entered the competition with a knee complaint) paid off but at Euro 2012, it certainly didn't. Beset by a ankle complaint at that tournament, Schweinsteiger wasn't able to get his team past Italy in the semifinal. He's been written off before. Can the ultimate Turnierspieler (tournament player) come back one final time?
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.