Hungary stake Nations League finals claim as Szalai strike stuns Germany
If Hansi Flick was perturbed, he was doing a fairly good job of hiding it. As he watched his side toil in their last home fixture before the World Cup, he simply paced down the sideline, hands in pockets, as if taking a stroll in a park. Is there a word for the intense, borderline-irrational calm that overcomes German teams in the buildup to major tournaments? If so, it is probably German.
The irony, perhaps, was that Germany were beaten by the one thing they do not possess, the one thing they have arguably never won a major tournament without: a seasoned old-school No 9. The veteran Hungarian Adam Szalai is 34 years old and could probably try to recreate his winning goal for 34 more without finding the net. Still, his flash of inspiration was enough to give his side the win and keep them on course for unlikely Nations League glory.
What of Germany? Do we start worrying yet? Certainly they improved and created enough in the second half to suggest that there are still extra gears to be found. But there was a lack of killer instinct, a curious absence of purpose, the sense that they are still somehow less than the sum of their parts. The England game on Monday should give us a better idea of their progress.
Of course they do not really do introspection here, and certainly nothing on the scale of panic. Even Szalai’s early goal was met not with tantrums and mutinies from the Leipzig crowd but the sort of disinterested shrug with which one might greet a pitch invader. Unexpected, sure. Unwelcome, certainly. But ultimately no more than a wrinkle in the time-fabric, a minor inconvenience before normal service would inevitably be resumed.
This kind of self-assurance has clear advantages. It protects German sides from the sort of shrieking, reactionary, often tabloid-driven mood swings that are a common feature of life in other countries, shall we say. The downside comes when assurance bleeds into overconfidence, and clear flaws go unheeded. Such was the case in 2018 and 2021, when Joachim Löw’s rusting machine sleepwalked to consecutive meek exits.
Löw’s replacement with Flick was supposed to fix that: a likeable, level-headed coach with a track record of getting star players to produce sophisticated modern attacking football. He started with eight straight wins, albeit none of them against an opposition of any repute. Then followed four straight draws against tougher opposition. Then, finally, a rollicking 5-2 demolition of a gasping, fed-up Italy. The conclusion: inconclusive.
What we never doubted was the talent. The Covid-enforced absence of Manuel Neuer aside, this was close to Flick’s strongest lineup. He seems to prefer Ilkay Gündogan to Leon Goretzka in midfield, and Timo Werner to Kai Havertz up front. Jamal Musiala had to settle for a bench berth here, although Flick may be tempted to let him loose at Wembley on Monday. The front four rotate and roam relentlessly. The full-backs Jonas Hofmann and David Raum provide the width. Gündogan and Joshua Kimmich cover the gaps they leave behind.
When it works, Germany can slice teams before they even know they have been sliced. Here something was a little off. It was all just a bit slow, a bit narrow. Hungary are brilliantly organised, many of their players know the Bundesliga intimately and so they simply lay in wait. Szalai’s goal, a brilliantly improvised heel-flick volley from a near-post corner, was little more than they deserved and Daniel Gazdag might even have made it 2-0 later in the first half.
Flick made an interesting change at the break. Off came the intermittent Serge Gnabry, with Thilo Kehrer slotting into right-back and Jonas Hofmann, the previous occupant of that position, moving to left-wing. Hofmann is one of those players that international coaches just adore: technically gifted, defensively disciplined, effortlessly versatile and with an engine that could drive you to Minsk.
The Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder has already been virtually guaranteed his World Cup place by Flick, and moving him further forward immediately gave Germany greater elasticity and unpredictability, even if Werner was still there to miss his customary chance from eight yards.
The inevitable siege arrived – Musiala and Havertz up top, an incremental increase in volume – but it was Hungary’s Laszlo Kleinheisler who passed up the best chance of the game, clean through on goal with five minutes left. And aside from a couple of shots for Kimmich, Germany were still all gab and no jab. They will still probably be fine. But then we have been saying that for a while.