It has been an incredibly tough year for German football, and what was one seen as a bastion of innovation and stability has threatened to turn into a basket case. In days gone by, one would have expected to see such things happening in Italy, France or Cameroon. With many things still up in the air, it is fair to say that the Nationalmannschaft will start 2019 in a state of flux.
In the summer of 2018, Germany crashed out of the World Cup in the group phase. It was the country’s worst result in the global tournament in eight decades. In the messy aftermath, all of the dirty laundry came out, including the long drawn-out saga resulting in the retirement of Mesut Özil.
Things would get no better after that. The team crashed out of the inaugural UEFA Nations League without a win to their name, suffering a humiliating defeat against the Netherlands before blowing a two-goal lead at home against the same opponents. We all could not wait for 2018 to end.
The reputation of the 2014 World Champions was in tatters. It truly was an annus horribilis.
A new Löw
Things could only improve in 2019, but the year would not get off to the best of starts. The decision by coach Joachim Löw to effectively sack three of the team’s stalwarts was met with a mix of confusion and incredulity. Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller were all jettisoned without ceremony, in what was arguably the coach’s most theatrical move during his just over twelve years in charge.
It was bizarre, unprecedented and, dare I say it, bordering on the spiteful. If Jogi’s classless treatment of former captain Michael Ballack was not distasteful enough, his decision to throw three experienced World Cup winners onto the international funeral pyre simply beggared belief.
Yes, there are solid arguments that the three senior professionals were not in great form. There is always a time when the old has to make way for the new, but all three could have turned things around, if just to give themselves a deserved opportunity to sign off in front of the fans. To still remain in the reckoning, and have the opportunity to fight back. Müller is not even thirty.
Even when I take my FC Bayern München fan cap off, I cannot help but feel insulted. Insulted that we will never see these players in the Nationaltrikot again, for no other reason than Löw’s theatrical fit of pique and the subsequent stitch-up job by the DFB.
It is just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga, where the “Maharishi Jogi” has put himself on the centre stage. Truth be told, this latest incident has dampened my enthusiasm for the team somewhat. At least while Löw is still in charge.
I have followed the Nationalmannschaft for four decades, and have experienced both the highs and the lows (no pun intended) as a supporter. We have had to wade through the gloop of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but nothing feels quite as bad as this. At least Erich Ribbeck could argue that he had one of the weakest squads in the long and storied history of the German national team to work with.
No such excuses can be offered for Löw, whose star has plummeted dramatically in the space of four years. While his statistics, although battered in 2018, will surely stand the test of time, the current coach will never be seen as one who was ever loved by the fans. My own relationship with the coach, as a fan, has blown hot and cold over the years. The problem was that as soon as I decided to cut him a break, he often spun in the opposite direction.
The next mission is to qualify for Euro 2020, and a poor start to the campaign could see Löw’s tenure cut short. While I have previously disagreed with taking such dramatic action, my position has changed. Personally, I cannot see anything worse than having such a narcissist in charge.
The transformation of the coach has been astonishing. The mop-haired tactical analyst with the quirky manner has been replaced by a man who demands the centre stage. A casting director who would shamelessly cast himself in the lead role.
The international year begins with a friendly against Serbia in Wolfsburg, followed by a trip across the border to take on the Netherlands in the opening Euro 2020 qualifier in Amsterdam. After the two matches last year, I would have rather avoided them for a bit. But the draw is what it is.
With Boateng, Hummels and Müller all no longer a factor, the 23-man squad has a whole new look to it. There are three fresh faces, with Hertha BSC’s Niklas Stark, RB Leipzig’s Lukas Klostermann and Werder Bremen’s Maximilian Eggestein all called up for the first time.
Two of the new boys are part of a defensive cadre that looks terrifyingly short of experience. With Boateng and Hummels out, the most experienced among the nine Verteidiger is Antonio Rüdiger with 29 caps. Only two others, Matthias Ginter and Niklas Süle, have more than four international appearances to their name.
Jonas Hector, one of those who was always on the fringe after some sketchy recent showings, is replaced by a fit-again Marcel Halstenberg.
None of these players have ever been bracketed as world class. Let’s just say that it is, well, a major concern.
Further up the pitch, the injured Julian Draxler is replaced by the resurgent and in-form İlkay Gündoğan, while the selection of Eggestein is well overdue. Others that miss out are Schalke duo Mark Uth and Sebastian Rudy, both of whose form have followed the dismal trajectory of their club.
With the loss of three of Germany’s most capped active players, this new-look squad only has two who have over fifty caps: goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and the now most experienced man in the Kader, Toni Kroos. None of the remaining 21 have more than 40 caps.
Germany have played Serbia three times, including a 1-0 win in Bremen in 2003 before the divorce with Montenegro. In 2008 the Nationalmannschaft beat the Оrlovi (“The Eagles”) 2-1 in Gelselkirchen, and suffered defeat two years later in group phase of the 2010 World Cup in Port Elizabeth.
As friendlies go, it is not the easiest of fixtures. Mladen Krstajić’s team will certainly be confident of taking something away from the Volkswagen Arena.
I do not think that we can say too much more about the Netherlands, who took a miserable German team to the cleaners in Amsterdam before coming back from two goals down to draw 2-2 in Gelsenkirchen in November last year to qualify for the last four of the UEFA Nations League – leaving the Germans rock-bottom of the three-team group.
Having endured a torrid few years that saw them miss out on qualification for the last two major tournaments, the Oranje are once again a team to be feared.
Manuel Neuer (FC Bayern München, 84/0)
Marc-André ter Stegen (FC Barecelona, 21/0)
Kevin Trapp (Eintracht Frankfurt, 3/0)
Matthias Ginter (Borussia Mönchengladbach, 23/0)
Marcel Halstenberg (RB Leipzig, 1/0)
Thilo Kehrer (Paris Saint-Germain, 4/0)
Lukas Klostermann (RB Leipzig, 0/0)
Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea FC, 29/1)
Nico Schulz (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, 4/1)
Niklas Stark (Hertha BSC, 0/0)
Niklas Süle (FC Bayern München, 16/1)
Jonathan Tah (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 4/0)
Julian Brandt (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 23/2)
Maximilian Eggestein (Werder Bremen, 0/0)
Serge Gnabry (FC Bayern München, 5/4)
Leon Goretzka (FC Bayern München, 19/6)
İlkay Gündoğan (Manchester City, 29/4)
Kai Havertz (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 2/0)
Joshua Kimmich (FC Bayern München, 38/3)
Toni Kroos (Real Madrid CF, 91/14)
Marco Reus (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 37/10)
Leroy Sané (Manchester City, 17/2)
Timo Werner (RB Leipzig, 23/9)