Low's lowdown: The key questions facing Germany at the World Cup
After an unconvincing qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, Germany upped their game to register a perfect 10 on the road to Russia. Winning all 10 matches, with a goal difference of +39, constitutes a new world record in the preliminaries.
Joachim Low's men narrowly beat Spain's qualifying numbers from the World Cup in 2010 but as Thomas Muller acknowledged, comfortable wins against Azerbaijan and San Marino "won't guarantee results in Russia."
But the competitive matches since the Euro 2016 semifinal defeat by France in Marseille have shown that Germany will be well positioned to defend their crown -- if Low can solve a few remaining conundrums.
The left-back problem
The national manager recently warned that Germany had strength in depth in all departments -- the full-back positions excluded.
Joshua Kimmich's steady progress on the right has alleviated a good portion of Low's concern -- the Bayern Munich player was given the armband on Sunday night against Azerbaijan, in recognition of his steady performances -- but there's no natural backup for him and no one who can play at a similar level on the other side. Jonas Hector of Cologne is dependable but doesn't offer much going forward. He's also injured for a few more months.
In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund's Marcel Schmelzer is the only experienced top class left-back but Low continues to overlook him. Unless new BVB recruit Jeremy Toljan can emerge as an option over the next few months -- his first few games on the left under Peter Bosz were unremarkable -- Low might have to consider playing centre-back Antonio Rudiger on the right, with Kimmich moving over. Sebastian Rudy and Emre Can have been tried in wide positions, too, but don't look comfortable there.
Perhaps a dearth of talent is best dealt with by leaving out the position altogether. In Kaiserslautern, Germany played without any full-backs, lining up in an experimental 3-3-3-1 formation. But that won't work against the better sides. Another idea might be to utilise Leroy Sane as a wing-back in a 3-4-3 system. Either way, Low will have to come up with an ingenious solution to a problem that has dogged him for the best part of the decade.
The No. 9 slot
Low needs to decide what kind of striker he wants to lead the line next summer -- if he wants one at all. Generally speaking, his preference since the World Cup in Brazil has been to use a "proper" centre-forward. Wolfsburg's Mario Gomez and the less-refined but more aggressive Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner both fit the bill without being quite up there with the rest of their teammates in terms of individual class. Right now, Wagner has a much better chance to make the travelling party in light of Gomez's injury.
Fielding a genuine target man works best against the deep, defensive sides the Germans will come up against in the early rounds in Russia but the pace of Leipzig's Timo Werner will make for a better fit once it comes to the big guns.
Werner, 21, offers something different, with his sharp, diagonal runs in the final third. He's done enough already in a handful of starts to warrant inclusion but Low will want to have a look at him in the November friendlies against England and France before making up his mind about whom and how he wants to play in June. Werner's disappointing start to the season with Leipzig has made it clear that the matter is far from settled.
Central midfield overload
There's only one Toni Kroos. No one will unseat the Real Madrid maestro in Germany's midfield. But next to him, there's a bewildering choice of different names and styles. You want box-to-box? Leon Goretzka, Can or Sami Khedira can do that for you. A second, deep-lying regista? Sebastian Rudy or Ilkay Gundogan would be happy to oblige.
Even if we discount additional possibilities, like Christoph Kramer, Low will have to squeeze in half a dozen players into a middle section, none of whom is a defensive, ball-winning specialist. The coach might not be too worried about that detail, and insist Germany can defend by keeping the ball and/or putting pressure on opposition teams further up the pitch but the almighty tussle to play alongside Kroos will certainly cause friction.
Relations between central players at the last World Cup were tense enough when there were only three of them (Philipp Lahm, Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger) vying for two positions.
Russia promises a much more intense competition. That's good for the quality but possibly bad for team morale.
The Bayern -- Dortmund nexus
The German champions are five points adrift in the league and don't look serious contenders to win the Champions League either. The last time Bayern players arrived at a big tournament empty-handed, at Euro 2012, the centre of power seemed to have shifted to double winners Dortmund.
Neither camp dealt well with the new dynamic, and Germany's team in Poland and Ukraine had a serious problem with social cohesion. History might not repeat itself -- BVB's former chief spokesperson Mats Hummels has changed sides, for starters -- but Low would undoubtedly prefer his many, important representatives from Bavaria to go to Russia in a confident, buoyant mood, rather than spend the first six months of 2018 facing intense pressure and the turmoil that any season without silverware at Sabener Strasse necessary entails.
The Bundestrainer can't influence things there. He can only hope that Bayern's travails won't be too horrific to spill over into the national team.
Germany won in Brazil because they had strength in depth and excellent application. But they also benefitted from a "now or never" mentality, driven by big dressing room personalities who realised the 2014 World Cup represented their last shot at glory.
Now that Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose and Schweinsteiger have moved on, only the perennially injury prone Marco Reus and Gundogan will feel the same existential urge. Everyone else has either already won it or can look forward to at least one more attempt.
You would think the opportunity to play at the World Cup as one of the favourites will be all the motivation Low's men need but Brazil showed how important that extra little push can be. Lahm and Mertesacker prepared tactical talks in conjunction with chief scout Urs Siegenthaler, and together with some of the other aforementioned veterans, ensured that a lot of time was spent on team-building and self-directed match game preparation. In other words: they took responsibility.
Whether there'll be enough big names in Russia who will show similar levels of dedication is one of the questions only the tournament itself can answer.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein