The first thing Timo Werner saw when the difficult time was apparently finally behind him was a maliciously laughing Thomas Müller. His teammate came stumping up to him, his upper body bent a little, as he often does, his mouth wide open and he clutched his head in mock horror.
At this point at the latest, Werner was no longer able to keep up the façade of his bad mood. He smiled.
Timo Werner, suffering striker of the German national soccer team, had just scored 5-0 against European champions Italy in Mönchengladbach’s Borussia Park, it was his second goal in this game, his second in just 90 seconds – after he had previously in hadn’t even scored for the German team this year. “I’m happy for Timo that he scored two goals,” said national coach Hansi Flick. “It’s important to him. Very important.”
Werner has not had an easy season, not in the national team and especially not in the club. At Chelsea, with whom he won the Champions League a year ago, he is heavily criticized. Werner has scored four goals in the Premier League, and for the time being he no longer has a regular place at his club. Something like that quickly gets on the mind of a striker. And a sensitive striker like Timo Werner even more.
“Goals are always good for a striker, in my case double and triple if you are counted and criticized after every game,” said Werner after the 5-2 win against the Italians. “It’s also clear after the past few weeks and months at the club that I’m not exactly who I was some time ago.”
After four draws in a row, after the slowly returning doubts and the latent criticism, the national team was actually not in a position to pay special attention to individual fates before the last game of the season. It was about the big picture, about a good feeling, about self-assurance and a positive end of the year. The clear victory against the Italians, for many decades the worst specter of German football ever, came at just the right time.
But after the most urgent problem had been solved to everyone’s satisfaction, the national team turned to the next with just as much zeal: their two problem children, Timo Werner and Leroy Sané, the offensive players who have been in trouble for some time now. One problem is probably related to the other. Without a functioning offensive, the national team will not be successful in the long term.
“We have good players, we have a good attitude towards the whole thing, we have a good process going,” said Thomas Müller. “But you have to be honest: We still have all sorts of deficits.” Especially at the World Cup you have to pack a little more, “I see that especially on the offensive”.
On a night when the offensive had scored five goals against defensive world champions Italy, that might sound a bit odd. But Mueller was right. “Today we could have done even more offensively,” he said.
Such lawsuits are not new. And the doubts about Werner and Sané are not new either.
Less than 30 seconds had passed in Mönchengladbach before these doubts were revived. Müller released Werner with a good pass to the Italian penalty area, but the striker failed to accept. The promising chance was lost.
It continued in this style, both with Werner and with Sané. It wasn’t all bad at all. Both were involved in Germany’s finest attack, when goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s ball landed eight times, each with just one touch, in the Italian penalty area at Jonas Hofmann, who was ultimately denied by Italy’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. But one good action by Werner and Sané felt like there were two bad ones.
Especially the Munich Sané became more and more the knight of the sad figure. He missed the ball in the penalty area, got tangled up in his dribbling, played passes to the opponent instead of to his team-mate, although he was unchallenged, lost the ball and stopped while everyone else started to press against. And when he shot from a promising position, he caused little trouble for Italy goalkeeper Donnarumma.
Sané last scored in the Bundesliga at the end of February, in the Champions League he added another goal and two assists in the 7-1 win over Salzburg at the beginning of March, and he has gone empty-handed in the national team since the 9-0 win against Liechtenstein. National debates about the Munich player, his state of mind and his body language are now part of the standard program at international matches, as is the opening ceremony, which is always the same. “We help him, but he also has to help himself,” Oliver Bierhoff, manager of the national team, said before the game against Italy. “In the end you have to fight your way out of it as a player.”
Flick again helped people to help themselves. Despite modest performances, both attackers were in the starting XI against Italy. “It’s important that the players feel a sense of trust. That’s how we conveyed it to them,” said the national coach. He only took Werner off the field after he had scored both goals. Sané was allowed to stay on the pitch until the end. “I had hoped that he would also score a goal,” said Flick. But even on such an evening, not everything can work out.