It has now been a week since Germany were knocked out of the World Cup. After the initial denial period, German fans have now come to accept that while some international football tournament is still being played in Russia, Jogi Löw’s squad are all safely back home and rescheduling the summer holidays.
It is as if the world has been turned upside down. No Germany in the World Cup, and England making the quarter-finals. Courtesy of a penalty shootout, no less. According to the pre-written script, the Mannschaft would have been limbering up for yet another victory over the Three Lions. Instead, we are living in some dystopian nightmare. England versus Sweden for a place in the last four. What is that all about?
I will admit that it has taken me some time to put this together, though in the end I decided to wait until Jogi Löw had made a decision on his future as coach.
In 2014, Germany won the World Cup in Brazil. They were the first European team to triumph in the Americas, matching their hosts’ triumph in Sweden in 1958, when the teenage Pelé and friends became the first – and so far only – South American winners on European soil.
When four years feels like an eternity…
En route to their triumph in Rio, the Germans had provided the footballing world with one of its most amazing stories. That famous semi-final in Belo Horizonte, a match that will for ever be burned into the memory of every German fan. Where Brazil, unbeaten at home in major competition for over sixty years, had been subjected to a beating that both broke the record books and beggared belief.
Four years later in Russia, the Nationalmannschaft were expected by many to repeat that success. To become the first country, since Brazil in 1962, to retain the world crown. The statistics, and accumulation of success, provided the proof.
In 2016, the world champions had been edged out of the European Championships by hosts France. A couple of months later at the Olympic Games in Rio, a very young German team had pushed the hosts all the way, only losing the final after a tense penalty shootout.
After that, some necessary fine tuning. 2017 was a vintage year for the DFB. There were two major tournaments that summer: the European Under-21 Championship in Poland, and the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
With the talent at the DFB’s disposal, picking two first-choice teams would not have been a problem. But the selectors chose not to take this easy path. Instead, they took a risk. The decision was made to rest all of the big names for the senior tournament in Russia.
Only five of the Euro 2016 squad were selected for the Confederations Cup. The most senior was Julian Draxler, with just 30 caps. He was made captain. Of the 21 players that travelled to Russia in 2017, seventeen of them had ten caps or fewer. Three had been in the 2014 World Cup squad as fringe players: Shkodran Mustafi, Matthias Ginter and the 23 year old Draxler.
The decision to promote younger players into the senior squad not only meant that there would be a “B-Mannschaft” in Russia, but a second-string Under-21 squad in Poland as well. With many of the team that had qualified for the junior tournament being bumped up a level, coach Stefan Kuntz had to venture further into the talent factory.
Of the 23 players that were picked for the Under-21 Euros, all of them, including skipper Max Meyer, had made fewer than 20 appearances. Two were uncapped. With a large chunk of their big hitters in Russia, nobody had given Kuntz’s inexperienced skeleton squad much of a chance.
In fact, nobody had given the new-look senior squad much of a chance either. The mission for them was to gain valuable tournament experience. In the end, both squads earned a lot more than that.
Three days, two trophies
In Poland, the Under-21 squad, having battled their way through to the final, overturned pre-tournament favourites Spain. Three days later in Moscow, the youthful senior squad claimed Germany’s first-ever Confederations Cup with a matching 1-0 scoreline against Chile.
The German team that had lined up in the Luzhniki Stadium would have a total of just over 150 caps between them. Chile had would have a total of well over 800, including five centurions. It was a staggering achievement.
As the players looked to recharge their batteries for the domestic season ahead, the pundits were left amazed at what they had seen. Germany had claimed the European Under-21 title with an inexperienced squad. They had claimed the Confederations Cup, beating a number of full-strength sides along the way, with a squad with an average age of just under 24.
Russia 2017. The Confederations Cup dress rehearsal.
Meanwhile, the senior squad, including a battery of World Cup winners, were relaxing at home in Germany.
All sorts of theories abounded. If the Mannschaft could win the Confederations Cup with an inexperienced B team, one could only imagine what they could do the following year with a mix of these youngsters and the more seasoned champions. They could even draw up two squads, each of which would be capable of winning the famous golden trophy for the fifth time. When you threw in the raft of talented Under-21s, you had three talented squads that could go deep into any major tournament.
For the rest of the world, Germany’s successes in 2017 fuelled a sense of fear. The Germans were going to rule for ever. For German fans, it generated a genuine sense of confidence. A confidence that would soon turn into something bordering on arrogance.
This, among other things, would play a part in what happened this summer. And we were all a part of it.
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When the German team trudged off the Kazan Arena after their defeat by South Korea, it was a major shock to the system. The tremors were felt across the footballing world, even though things had not been quite right from the start.
This was Germany. They never go out in the first phase. Ever.
When Jogi Löw’s men were undone by a spirited Mexico in their opening match, the worries were quickly played down. The malaise from the poor pre-tournament preparation had spilled over by one match, but it was a problem that would surely be fixed by the time of the next match against Sweden. It’s OK, said the coach. Photos of him relaxing in the sun in Sochi helped reassure us. Yes. It was all under control.
As far as the numbers were concerned, this indeed was the case. Germany got themselves off the mark. The play was not much better that it had been against Mexico, and had fortune gone the other way they could have been finished off before half time. In the end, the Germans did what the Germans do best. They fought tooth and nail, winning the game with Toni Kroos’ stunning winner deep into injury time.
It had been a struggle, but the flame had been lit. The team would surely breeze through their final group match against South Korea, and prepare themselves for the proper knockout stuff. Well, that was the belief. That was the plan. Or so we all thought.
Even when the clock was ticking down in Kazan, many still believed. After all – repeating that now redundant mantra – Germany never get knocked out in the first round. Even when an unmarked Mats Hummels completely mistimed his header with just two minutes remaining, the belief remained. After all, we had seen similar missed chances just the game before.
Even when the Koreans were awarded their goal after the VAR drama, there was still something there. I felt it, and know that many others would have felt it too. Hummels will get one right. Timo Werner, who had misfired all afternoon, would find the top corner. Manuel Neuer, the world’s best sweeper-keeper, will surely score twice.
In the end, it was all nonsense. False hopes borne out of desperation and belief in the crumbling myth of German footballing superiority.
Tatort Kazan. The aftermath.
Germany had been beaten. They had lost at the World Cup. No such a big deal, as this had happened before. But not quite. Finals, yes. Four of them to be precise. Four semi-finals. Three quarter-finals. But this was the first round. The group phase. The part of the competition seen by past German teams as the warm-up bit. Three matches to get the team right before the proper stuff starts.
History repeating itself
The last time this happened was in 1938. Eight decades ago, a year before the onset of the Second World War. In 1938, Europe, and the world, was in flux. Political movements had snowballed, and there was a distinct sense that things were coming to a head. The World Cup of 1938, hosted in France, was played against that backdrop.
There are some who are making similar comparisons today. The febrile political situation in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The solidification of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. Brexit. Then, in Germany, the political uncertainty fuelled by the recent migration crisis.
While some comparisons can be made, to draw direct references back to the late 1930s is perhaps pushing it out a little too far. The world is a completely different place. But there are plenty of interesting connecting lines.
In 1938, Germany was ruled by a political movement driven by a racial agenda. Today, these old ghosts have been disturbed. Germany’s postwar political DNA has not really changed in the last decade, but many strands have been altered. Many will tell you that the Germany of 2018 is not the same Germany that gave us the glorious Sommermärchen of 2006.
In these moments, football is often seen as an escape. A safety valve. An opportunity for everybody to come together and forget the banalities of ordinary life. But when football starts to cross these lines, and when politics starts to seep into sport, we have a problem.
The Erdoğan Affair
In 2018, these boundaries were crossed with two German players of Turkish descent, Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, were seen together with Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was a moment that created waves on all sides of the political spectrum. Green Party leader Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish descent, was highly critical. Naturally, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland also had something to say.
The two players had not just been photographed with Erdoğan, but had also presented him with signed club shirts. Gündoğan, in a monumental act of foolishness that he would later defend as “respect”, had even dedicated his Manchester City shirt to “My President”. This was not a case of the two players being caught out. The visit had been arranged long before. A third German international of Turkish descent, Emre Can, had also been invited. He politely declined.
İlkay Gündoğan and Mesut Özil with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The German football authorities responded quickly, but the reaction was at best fudged. DFB president Reinhard Grindel immediately disassociated his organisation from unsavoury political figures like Erdoğan, but little was done to address the conduct of the players themselves. No proper apology from either player was suggested or sought, which confused matters even further.
Gündoğan, to his credit, did stand up and make a statement. Özil, on the other hand, did not. What has not been mentioned was that this not the first time he had been photograped with the Turkish president. He had met Erdoğan in 2011, when he was at Real Madrid. The gift? A shirt signed by all of the Madrid players. The following year, there was another photo moment.
It was hoped that the storm would just blow over. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Gündoğan was barracked by the crowd in the match against Saudi Arabia. Özil, not everybody’s favourite even before this unnecessary situation blew up, was the target of even more public opprobrium. It cannot have been any good for the morale of a squad preparing for a major international tournament.
The coach, of course, was caught in a quandary. He could have dropped the two players, and risk causing a rift in the squad. Or he could do his own wallpapering, hoping that the cracks would disappear.
When the team departed for Russia, the Erdoğan incident was still rumbling in the German media. Many discontented fans suddenly found it hard to support the team unconditionally. The problems were no doubt taken to Russia too, with all of the other baggage. There were plenty of public statements, but nobody really knew what the players really thought about the whole messy affair.
In 2017, Germany could have turned out two, even three, high-quality squads. In working towards the 2018 World Cup, the coach would have the perfect opportunity to start blending the mix. To begin a gradual process of building the perfect squad to take to Russia the following year. He chose to let it go.
There were moments. TSG Hoffenheim’s Serge Gnabry was picked to make his debut in the qualifying match against San Marino in Serrevalle at the end of 2016, and responded by scoring a hat-trick – the first time this had been done since Dieter Müller at the Euros in 1976. Gnabry got a start off the bench against Italy in the next match, only to see no action after that.
Gnabry had been injured when the World Cup squad was selected, so perhaps this discussion is moot. But one can also argue that he might not have made the original cut anyway, even if he was fit. For that to happen, he would have to have been in the coach’s mind to start with. The records tell the story. He wasn’t given a whiff of a chance in 2017.
Leverkusen defender Benjamin Henrichs is another. Given his debut at the Confederations Cup, and nothing after that. There was no attempt whatsoever to integrate him with the senior squad.
In addition to those who had not been integrated at all, there were those who were not meshed in thoroughly enough. Leon Goretzka, one of the stars of the 2017 campaign in Russia, was never really given an opportunity to compete properly for a place in the team. Every time there was an important match, the coach turned to Sami Khedira. Even when it was obvious that Khedira was no longer at his best.
The opportunity was there for Löw to widen his scope during the qualifying campaign, and give these younger players the chance to play some proper meaningful football. To give them a genuine chance of pushing themselves into the reckoning come 2018. Instead, the coach chose to eschew this opportunity.
The net result was that the squad that went to Russia this summer was not one cogent squad, but a pick and mix of two. A group of younger players with limited experience on the one hand, and the core of seasoned veterans on the other. A situation that would see a younger and fitter player like Goretzka on the bench, and the creaking Khedira on the pitch.
Missed warning signs
When interviewed after the team’s elimination in Russia, Mats Hummels had suggested that the malaise had set in back in the autumn of 2017. Looking at things now and with the added benefit of hindsight, this becomes increasingly obvious. At the time, there was no reason to be concerned. After all, the team were right in the middle of a long unbeaten sequence.
The stumble had started with the friendly against England at Wembley, where a disjointed German team were somehow able to escape with a goalless draw against a young and vibrant home side. That was followed by a 2-2 draw in Köln against France, which was salvaged right at the death. Despite being second best for most of the contest, Germany had ended the year unbeaten, and all was good with the world. The team still needed some fine tuning, but everything was still on track.
In March 2018, the Mannschaft took on 2010 world champions Spain in Düsseldorf. It was arguably the first genuine test, in what was seen as the start of the final approach before the World Cup. Again, it was not a great performance. Sporting their new green Trikot, the home side fell behind early, and had looked distinctly second best before Thomas Müller scored a stunning equaliser.
Thomas Müller celebrates his equaliser against Spain in Düsseldorf. It was the Mannschaft’s 22nd game unbeaten.
Had Germany been well beaten, the warning signs could well have been identified sooner. Instead, we all looked at the records. The draw against Spain meant that Germany had extended their unbeaten run. Jogi Löw’s team had not been on the wrong end of a result since their defeat in the Euro 2016 semi-final, a run of 22 matches that equalled the all-time unbeaten record set by Jupp Derwall’s side between 1979 and 1981.
It was also Müller’s first goal in the Nationaltrikot for almost a year. Had Der Raumdeuter, so badly out of form in the Euros, turned the corner? Was he building up towards another goal-filled World Cup? This is what we all chose to believe. It was all part of a very subtle exercise in self-delusion.
“Only a friendly”
The long unbeaten record was brought to an end in the following match, a single-goal defeat in Berlin against Brazil. Once again, the performance was far from stellar, but was quickly written off as “only a friendly” against a decent opponent. The problem was that there were only two warm up matches left before the World Cup. This was the sort of match that Germany had to win, if just to send out a signal to the rest of the world.
Everybody, including the coach, expected the magical Turniermannschaft switch to be turned on at the start of the tournament. Nearly every other commentator and pundit was repeating the mantra “it was only a friendly” after the dismal defeat against Austria, the first in over 30 years. The same line was churned out less than a week later, when a first choice German team just about held on to record a 2-1 win against a low-quality Saudi Arabian side in Leverkusen.
This final warmup had been scripted as the fond farewell before the team set off for Russia, but it was anything but. An early goal threatened to fire a spark, but a sluggish German team struggled to break down the Saudi defence. A messy own goal doubled their advantage, leaving the crowd hoping for a second-half goal fest. It never came. Instead, a wobbly defence was given the runaround by their lively opponents. If anything, it was the booing of İlkay Gündoğan that created the biggest headlines.
The second half against the Saudis would set the tone for Germany’s miserable tournament fortnight in Russia. The defence was full of holes and the forward line looked impotent, but Löw continued to stick to the his guns. “I have no concerns after this game,” he said. “We will improve, and once the tournament starts we will be ready.”
Was this one more in a long line of miscalculations? A genuine false belief? An attempt to keep the media at bay? Simple bloody-mindedness? In hindsight, the continued denials reminded me of a quote from General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett in the British comedy show Blackadder Goes Forth.
“If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”
To support the “only a friendly” theory, some commentators went back to 2014, and the 2-2 draw with Cameroon in Mönchengladbach. Yes, it was a scratchy performance, and by itself would provide no obvious indication that the squad were going to triumph in Rio just over a month later. But those commentators are lining up a straw man. The German team that played Cameroon was an experimental one; when the first choice team played their final warmup against Armenia five days later in Mainz, they rolled to a comfortable 6-1 win.
Before the Cameroon game in 2014, Germany had not been beaten for the best part of a year. In fact, their only defeat in almost two years before the 2014 World Cup had been a 3-4 reverse against the United States, where they had fielded a B-team. There had been nothing wrong with their pre-tournament preparation, or the results.
In stark contrast, when the 2018 team took to the field against Saudi Arabia, they had not won any of their five previous matches. Their scratchy 2-1 win could therefore not be simply described as “only a friendly”, but one more example of an ongoing problem. A problem that would carry over into the tournament.
From the hunter to the hunted
One of the many reasons that have been cited for Germany’s failure in Russia was a lack of desire, the result of their long run of success. A number of former German players would make their feelings known, including 1990 World Cup winning captain Lothar Matthäus and former striker and coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
This is only natural. After you have caught your prey and your belly is full, the hunger disappears, as does the very desire to hunt. There was evidence of a genuine passion in the closing stages of the Sweden game, and many had hoped that this would carry over into the final match. It never happened.
Hunger and desire are predatory instincts. The World Champions had become fat on the spoils of Brazil 2014, and had even acquired the sense of arrogance and self-entitlement that goes with it. It takes a special team win a competition like the World Cup, and a very special team to it. Only one team has ever achieved the feat, and the last two winners had also fallen at the first hurdle.
After their victory in Brazil, Germany were always going to be looked at more seriously by opponents. Smaller teams have always pushed themselves that little bit more when playing bigger opponents, and the world champions were always going to be the biggest targets of them all. Jogi Löw himself admitted that Germany, once among the hunters, had become the hunted. In order to retain their crown, they would have to up their game even further.
If anything, the Mannschaft had truly taken on the mantle of the hunted. The focus and aggression that had defined the 2014 campaign was slowly replaced by a creeping fear and timidity. The inexperienced squad that had triumphed at the Confederations Cup had shown none of this; they knew nothing of it. However, once they had started to play alongside more senior players, they too would start to contract the disease.
The fear of being hunted, and with it the fear of failure, had become internalised. It had almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This sense of fear may explain why some players, who had been so impressive for their club sides, may have not reciprocated this form in the Nationaltrikot.
Perhaps one of the best examples was young Timo Werner. In 2017, the RB Leipzig striker was part of an inexperienced squad that was there to learn. Nothing massive was expected of him, save him doing his best. As a result, he ended up as the highest scorer at the Confederations Cup.
A year later when he returned to Russia, he was not the same player. His domestic form had dropped dramatically, and apart from a few bright moments against Sweden, there was something missing. If Werner had been a hungry wolf in 2017, he was a frightened lamb in 2018. At times, and with every missed opportunity, it looked like the weight of the world was resting on his young shoulders.
Another example was Leroy Sané, who unlike Werner would be spared the agony of Russia 2018. More by the twisting vicissitudes of fate rather than anything else, as it would turn out.
The Essen-born youngster had been catapulted into the national reckoning while at Schalke 04, and a move to the English Premier League with Manchester City had made him even better. Yet, when he pulled on the white German shirt, he looked like a completely different player. The potential was always there, but the final product was always lacking.
Whether it was a case of trying too hard or his simply not being suited to the national team setup, Sané never really clicked. With a record of a dozen matches, zero goals and just the one assist, it was always going to be difficult to justify his place in the World Cup squad, certainly above those who had done more. Then there was the fact of his being selected the previous summer, only to pull out to have a nose operation.
The Sané non-selection
The non-selection of Leroy Sané was one of the biggest stories in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, although the majority of the headlines were in England. For many commentators, the decision not to take a player who had just been made the PFA Young Player of the Year was inexplicable. Following Germany’s group phase elimination, many of these same voices were amplified.
The simple truth is that Sané’s selection would not have made any difference to the final outcome. There were some who have suggested that he was more worthy of a place than Julian Draxler, but the simple fact was that Draxler, though only 23, was already a veteran of two major international tournaments. He had been a non-playing traveller in Brazil in 2014 as a teenager, but had captained the team in the Confederations Cup, winning the golden ball in the process. There was no way that he was not going to be one of the first on the coach’s list.
The same applied to Marco Reus, who had missed both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros through injury. Having already played over 30 internationals and scored nine goals, a fit Reus, like Draxler, was always going to make the final cut.
Leroy Sané in action against Austria in Klagenfurt. Again, he failed to impress.
The key decision, in the end, was between Sané and Julian Brandt. The choice was not made against Sané, but for Brandt. In the end, it was the most sensible decision, no matter what Premier League enthusiasts may have had to say about it. Brandt had proved himself, not just on the pitch but as a better team player. Sané had been given his chance, and was not up to scratch. In the warmup match against Austria, a ticket to Russia had been there for him to take.
Had the Manchester City version of Sané turned up on that soggy afternoon in Klagenfurt, it would have been he, not Brandt, who would have been in the World Cup squad. Instead, we got to see the same Sané who had flopped in his previous eleven internationals. Charging down blind alleys, running into opponents, and generally going nowhere like a sprinting headless chicken.
The Old Guard
The exclusion of Sané was also seen by some as symptomatic of Löw’s determination to stick with his established old guard, to the detriment of the younger up and coming players. As had been suggested already, there are solid grounds for this claim. The coach had clearly failed to integrate a number of younger players properly, and this was something that would come back to haunt him. But is not that simple.
For the World Cup in 2010, Löw had been bold enough to name seven members of the squad that had won the Under-21 Euros the year before. Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Dennis Aogo and Marko Marin. An eighth, Andreas Beck, would just miss the final cut. Five of these players are still part of the setup, the established old guard.
In stark contrast, none of the winning Euro Under-21 squad were even in the picture.
The difference, of course, is that in 2010 the great transition – or as described by Raphael Honigstein, Das Reboot – had just started to kick in. The class of 2009 were the first in the long line of talented young players. In picking his team for 2018, the abundance of existing riches was always going to make the task more difficult.
The simple fact is that any good coach is always going to look for experience first. Many of the 2014 veterans were still only in their late twenties or early thirties, for a long time seen as the upper peak age for a professional footballer. The days of having more than half the squad over 30 has long gone. It is easy to say that somebody like Manuel Neuer, at 32, is “old”. I remember the times when most experienced goalkeepers were well on their way to hitting 40.
It is true that Jogi Löw has been more comfortable sticking with the old guard. We cannot criticise him for that. What we can criticise him for however, is his dependence on players that were out of form, some badly so. Sami Khedira is clearly not the same player as he was in 2014, yet he still made the starting lineup against Mexico. Even more inexplicably, having been dropped for the Sweden game, the coach saw fit to recall him for the match against South Korea.
It was the same story with Mesut Özil. In addition to his off-field woes, the Arsenal playmaker was not fully fit, and had spent much of the time before the tournament recovering from an ongoing back injury. As with Khedira, Löw had dropped Özil for the Sweden match – the first time he had been dropped at a major tournament since 2010 – but restored him to the starting lineup again, just as everybody thought the right note had been struck.
The problem was not so much about Löw sticking with the old guard, but tinkering with team selection in a manner that could best be described as haphazard, even desperate. The issue was not just about the coach’s attachment to the old guard, but players than could be best described as his pets.
With the array of younger and fitter players in the squad, there was no justification in starting with Khedira and Özil against South Korea. If the decision to drop them against Sweden had been sound, their being restored for no obvious reason was fatally flawed.
The Neuer conundrum
One of the biggest selection stories was that concerning Manuel Neuer. Having suffered from a foot injury in September 2017, the FC Bayern München ‘keeper would have to sit the entire Bundesliga season. In his absence, Bayern reserve Sven Ulreich took the responsibility in Munich, while Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen, who had starred in the Confed Cup triumph, assumed the role of number one for the Mannschaft.
Some have suggested that Löw’s decision to field Neuer in Russia was a mistake. Not only was it a huge risk to have a player come back with so little game time, it was also a slap in the face for ter Stegen, who had made the role his own for the best part of a year.
There are merits to these arguments, but it was made clear that Neuer was the German number one. The coach trusted him, and his team mates trusted him. The only issue was if Neuer could trust Neuer. If he could prove his fitness, he would be not just in the squad, but the designated first choice. If he could not, then he was not going to be going to Russia at all.
This was accepted by everybody, including ter Stegen. Neuer was able to show that he was fit to compete, and the result was that he led the team out against Mexico.
In the three games Germany played, there was nothing obvious that Neuer could be criticised for. He could nothing to prevent the goals against Mexico and Sweden, and was powerless to prevent South Korea’s first goal in Kazan. At the time when hopes were still high, he was seen as one of the team’s saviours for his stunning save against the Swedes. It did indeed appear that Neuer was back to his best.
Manuel Neuer keeps Germany in the game against Sweden, with a stunning save. In hindsight, it only prolonged the agony.
Those who have sought to back up their criticism of Neuer’s selection have only been able to produce evidence that is scratchy at best. The free-kick fumble against Korea, which led to nothing. Then, his suicidal charge up the field that resulted in the Koreans’ second goal. This, in the wide scheme of things, was not a big deal. Germany needed two goals in as many minutes to survive, and simply had to throw everything forward.
If Neuer had stayed on his line, the Germans would have still lost. They would still be out of the competition. Even if Neuer had done cartwheels in the middle of the pitch as Son Heung-min was tucking the ball away, it would not have made one shred of difference. Those desperate final minutes called for desperate measures, and it will not stop Neuer from doing his thing. Nor does it make him any less effective as a sweeper-keeper, despite some believing that he “may have learned his lesson”.
Lack of leadership
Another reason for selecting Neuer was his role as a leader. When one looks as the players who were out in Russia, the FC Bayern ‘keeper was the only man who could lay claim to such a reputation. In addition to their lack of hunger and the absence of a cogent game plan, this German team suffered badly from a dearth of leaders. In tight games where things are not going your way, these are the players you need. They also make the coach’s job easier.
In 2014, there were many Führungsspieler. Neuer himself. The quiet and businesslike skipper Philipp Lahm. The old hand Bastian Schweinsteiger. The mild-mannered yet determined Per Mertesacker. The veteran Miroslav Klose. Three of these players retired immediately after the triumph in Rio. A fourth, Schweinsteiger, would hold on until the Euros two years later. This left Neuer as the only senior player capable of providing any sort of leadership.
Even then, leading from the back, as goalkeepers inevitably have to do, is always tough. While he can be a rousing presence in the dressing room and the tunnel, it is hard for a goalkeeper to manage things in the middle of the pitch. Even a force of nature like Oliver Kahn was unable to do that.
Führungsspieler. A bruised and battered Bastian Schweinsteiger against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup Final.
In Brazil, the leaders came to the fore. We can all remember Mertesacker’s impassioned speech following the tight 2-1 second round win over Algeria. Nobody can ever forget the bruised and bloodied Schweinsteiger rousing and enthusing those around him in the final.
When the team were struggling to break down the Korean defence, there was nobody to encourage them. To motivate, drive, coax, cajole. To give those around him a verbal kick up the backside. There were no determined faces, just desperate ones. There was no communication, just misplaced passes and missed opportunities.
The summer camp supervisor
Many positive things have been said about Jogi Löw’s coaching style. He has built his reputation on being calm, cool and objective. All excellent traits to have as a coach. When the team is working well and the machine is ticking, there is nothing to worry about. The calm coach can sit back and enjoy his charges do their thing, and fine tune the machine when they are in the dressing room or on the training ground. He is a cross between a university lecturer and a summer camp supervisor.
The problems start when things are not going well, more so when compounded by a lack of strong leadership on the pitch. This is where Löw’s approach comes unstuck. When everybody is enjoying themselves, it is all good. As soon as there is the slightest hint of trouble, there is nobody capable of taking the bull by the horns and executing a Plan B. These are the situations where you need a feisty big brother on the pitch, and a strict father in the dugout.
Part of Löw’s measured approach has always been to find the best people to work for him as well as with him. It means that he has never really been comfortable with big egos. One thing the German coach has always looked to do is put a firm lid on dissent in the dressing room.
In itself, this not a bad thing. Nobody wants dressing room discord. The obvious problem with this approach, of course, is that there will eventually come a point where nobody dares to question the coach, even it has become obvious that things may no longer be functioning properly.
This is where the big personalities can be useful. These big egos, if honed properly, can also make the best and most effective leaders and influencers. While the summer camp supervisor doesn’t like big egos, they actually need to them to keep things running.
Over the years, Löw has continually sought to weed the big personalities out of the German dressing room. After Euro 2008, combative midfielder Torsten Frings was slowly edged out of the reckoning. The same fate would befall Michael Ballack, whose relationship with the coach had started to deteriorate badly around the same time.
The injury to Ballack just before the 2010 World Cup was perfectly timed for Löw. Despite having at least another season in the tank following his recovery, the former German captain never played for the Mannschaft again.
Finding the next Führungsspieler
Having a Schweinsteiger, Lahm or Ballack in middle of the pitch may not have changed anything in Russia. But it would certainly have altered the body language and collective malaise. In those final moments against South Korea, nobody was actually putting their life on the line. Nobody seemed to be fighting for the cause.
In the past, German teams always had capable characters. Paul Breitner. Uli Stielike. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Lothar Matthäus. Matthias Sammer. Warriors all. In Russia, apart from Manuel Neuer, there was no other senior player who was willing or able to assume this mantle.
Against Sweden, there had been a fleeting glimpse of the sort of leadership that was needed. Having saving the team with his last-minute winner, Toni Kroos stepped up. His post-match statement was as bold as anything any of the greats of the past might have said.
“Of course the first goal is down to me. No question. […] But you’ve then got to have the balls to play like that in the second half.”
Toni Kroos on German TV after giving the ball away for the first goal and going on to score the winner. pic.twitter.com/AFjH6oCq8j
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) June 23, 2018
Had this combination of circumstances created a new Führungsspieler? Alas. It was merely fleeting. Against South Korea, Kroos was back to being a ghost. The leader we had seen for that brief moment on that emotional evening in Sochi had completely wafted into the ether. The balls he spoke of had completely withered.
There are potential leaders in this German squad. The problem is that they are not among the senior group. Sebastian Rudy has always shown that there is a fighter behind that angelic face. He is as hard as nails, and would have walked back onto the pitch with a bandage around his head and two splints up his nose if he had been allowed to. (In contrast, the likes of Leroy Sané would be straight on the phone to his ENT specialist).
Another is Joshua Kimmich, who in his short professional career has shown a fighting quality that belies his age. He is a terrier, willing to stand up to opponents twice his size and with twice the reputation. To be a leader, you need to have that piece of the devil in you. In 2020, a 25 year old Kimmich could be the perfect man to wear the Kapitänsbinde.
Over the years, Germany had acquired the reputation of being the perfect tournament team. The Turniermannschaft. Every time a major tournament came around, the pieces all came together. The leaders assumed their positions. The younger players took up their places. The coaching staff got it right. Everything would click, and synchronise beautifully. In major tournaments, Germany could be likened to a snowball rolling down a mountainside. Always getting larger, growing stronger, and gathering momentum. Occasionally, there is a slow start. But everything comes together in the end.
Beside this, there has always been the spirit of the collective. A sense of belief that has allowed Germany to become the team that never knows when they are beaten, the masters of the last-minute comeback, fighters to the bitter end. A force that is both mental and physical. It is not without good reason that former England striker turned pundit Gary Lineker would make his now oft-quoted statement:
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Even when there may have been other problems, the combination of fighting spirit and strong leadership had always provided a solution. In the weeks before the 1974 World Cup on home soil, the squad had been going through all sorts of problems off the pitch. Captain Franz Beckenbauer brought the players together. They even survived a humiliating group phase defeat at the hands of the neighbouring GDR before going on to win the tournament.
In 2004, the start of the German footballing reboot began. In 2006, a team that nobody had any confidence in before the tournament began made their way in to the last four, only falling to eventual champions Italy in the smoking embers of extra time. During that competition, the word Teamgeist was used. Team spirit. It made for a German team that looked not just to win and apply those good old-fashioned German values, but also to enjoy themselves.
The result was the Sommermärchen of 2006, which laid the foundation stone for the beginning of the new, rebooted Mannschaft under Jogi Löw.
There was always going to be pressure on the German team. But the coach and players adopted a fresher approach. More young players were integrated. The talent production line started to develop and gather momentum. The players were expressing themselves on the pitch like never before, while remaining grounded. Gone was the tactical rigidity of the 1980s and 1990s. This new philosophy blended sound German footballing values with the best of the rest, the perfect mix of order and freedom.
In Brazil in 2014, everything had been honed to perfection. Just the season before, FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund had met in he final of the Champions League. German football was right back at the very top. Then there was Campo Bahia, a five-star custom resort specially built for the squad. All of the boxes were ticked. When studies are made on how to prepare and win a World Cup, Germany’s march to Rio in 2014 is the perfect blueprint.
Four years on in Russia, things had taken a different turn.
I have already touched on a number of these points. Leaders had retired, and had not been replaced. Many of the senior players, indulged by the media, had become complacent. The coach’s desire to develop his tactics had been taken a step too far. Team spirit and unity was taken for granted. Everybody had expected the machine to simply switch on, ignoring the rot that had started to set in.
It is understandable. After all, this was Germany we were talking about. The ultimate Turniermannschaft.
At Euro 2016, the signs were already there. Knowing that he needed leaders on the pitch, Bastian Schweinsteiger was appointed as team captain by Jogi Löw. It was a major error of judgement. For all the experience and warrior spirit he brought to the party, Schweinsteiger was never at his best in France. Having worked his way back from serious injury, the captain was simply not the same player.
The doubters were initially silenced when Schweinsteiger scored in the opening match against Ukraine, but the chickens would come to roost at the sharp end of the tournament. A bizarre handball in the box in the quarter-final against Italy made things more complicated than they should have been, and a repeat performance in the semi-final against hosts France effectively put paid to the Mannschaft’s title ambitions.
The failed fusion of styles
Schweinsteiger retired in 2016, but the coach seemed to give up on honing leaders. Instead, he looked at integrating a playing style that was already on its last legs. Inspired by Pep Guardiola’s methods in Munich, the German coach started to tinker even more. It didn’t matter that in 2013, a Bayern team playing good old fashioned counterattacking football had completely destroyed a Barcelona side that were the seen as the kings of possession and suffocation.
The last vestiges of old-fashioned German values of strength, speed and set pieces were phased out, replaced by a not-quite-there form of tiki-taka and possession-driven football. Even the age-old mainstay, the goal-scoring centre-forward, was being rubbed off the tactical chalkboards. Rather than look for a proper long-term replacement for the retired Miroslav Klose, Löw had started to play with ideas like the “false nine”.
These tactics were employed in Russia, and failed miserably. Germany’s pass completion rate looks impressive, but the statistics do a remarkably good job of hiding just how poor the possession game really was. A pass completion rate of 90 percent is utterly meaningless, if the remaining ten percent results in the opposition breaking away and scoring. Löw’s possession game did not suffocate Germany’s opponents, but asphyxiated his own team.
The Mannschaft’s ongoing problem with set pieces is something that pundits and analysts had highlighted repeatedly, only to fall on deaf ears. The ability to deliver a decent corner had always been a solid component of the traditional German approach, and had garnered two important goals in 2014, including Mats Hummels’ quarter-final winner against France. Compare the German approach to set pieces in Russia to Gareth Southgate’s young England team, who have reaped the rewards.
A team like South Korea, not the tallest around, were there for taking. It would not have taken a tactical genius to understand that the Koreans would have been severely tested by well-executed corners and crosses, particularly with the likes of Hummels and Niklas Süle prowling in the box. It would have made more sense to play three at the back, two dedicated wingbacks, and a big striker like Mario Gómez up top. (Or Sandro Wagner, who was clearly cut from the squad for being too much of a loudmouth).
Another thing about the #GER #WorldCup failure: set pieces. Apart from that special Kroos goal, it was utterly rank. How could we not swing in at least a couple of effective corners against Korea, with such a height advantage? Meanwhile, look at #ENG. They are killing it.
— Rick Joshua 🇩🇪 (@fussballchef) June 28, 2018
All of these problems had been obscured by a highly successful qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup, which saw the team score a record-breaking 43 goals in their ten matches. This was all well and good against mediocre opposition, of course. As soon as the team were playing better opponents, the goals had started to dry up. Badly.
Between their final qualifying match and the defeat in Kazan, Germany played nine matches. They scored just eight goals. To give this some twisted perspective, World Cup hosts Russia, a team that had been written off by everybody, matched this figure in their two opening group games.
Vatutinki: no Campo Bahia
Things would not work out too well with the squad’s planned accommodation in Russia, either. In 2014, Campo Bahia had been the perfect location. It was secluded, yet connected. The team could train, relax and also get to meet local people without feeling overwhelmed. The holiday atmosphere had been conducive to building team morale, and was seen by many of the players as one of the reasons why everything had clicked into place.
In 2017, the Confederations Cup squad had been based in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. In terms of the relaxed atmosphere and general amenities, it was as close to Campo Bahia as any of the Russian venues could provide. Löw had wanted to base the 2018 World Cup squad in Sochi, but general manager Oliver Bierhoff had preferred Vatutinki, a self-contained facility south-west of Moscow.
The German team coach makes it way through the suburbs of Vatutinki near Moscow. It was no Campo Bahia.
If gossip and rumours can be substantiated, it was not a very contented camp in Vatutinki. From the spartan atmosphere through to the food and the Soviet-era decor, nobody was happy. While the training complex was adequate enough, the surrounding area had far less to offer. No beach view, just lines of grim-looking tower blocks. The accommodation itself, built on the site of a former army barracks, was described as a being like a school.
While the accommodation should not be used to excuse the performances on the pitch, it clearly did not help.
In 2014, there had been one united Mannschaft. The squad were a happy bunch, whose camaraderie at Campo Bahia had helped fuel the success on the pitch. Things had been managed perfectly. Club rivalries were ironed out by putting players from different clubs together. The most notable being FC Bayern stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger and dyed-in-the-wool Dortmund boy Kevin Großkreutz.
In Russia, there was no such vibe. Instead, there was talk of cliques emerging. The “Bavarians” against the more fashion-conscious “Bling-Bling” group. The established veterans against the younger players. Jogi Löw’s pets against the rest. We will no doubt be hearing more from the unnamed “moles”, but the truth is that we will probably never know what really went on behind the scenes.
Even the composition of these cliques is confusing. Toni Kroos, who is not Bavarian and had burned his bridges in Munich a long time ago, was part of the “Bavarian” group. Jérôme Boateng, who does play for Bayern, was part of “clique Bling-Bling”. Both Boateng and Özil were part of the “Bling-Bling” group, yet were also part of the established 2014 group. Perhaps it would just be best to ignore this nonsense, but this is probably what allowed the problem to fester in the first place.
While what happened in Russia cannot be compared to the sort of internal ruptures that had derailed the French World Cup campaign in 2010, there was something distinctly un-German about it.
Cliques, squabbles, a lack of team unity? These were things you would expect to read about other countries. Not Germany. Even after the Mannschaft’s win against Sweden, there were negative signs. One could put it all down to an explosion of emotion, but the reaction from some of the German support staff and their taunting the Swedish bench was not pleasant to witness. It was another sign that all was not well.
No one reason, but the combination of many
If we are to look for one reason why Germany failed so badly at Russia 2018, the search will go on for a long time. It was not one factor, or even a couple. It was the combination of many things. One cannot simply look at the coach, and believe that a change will fix the problem. Yes, there were tactical errors from Jogi Löw. He had underestimated the depth of these problems, and was quick to address them after the event. But those who spent all of their time and energy clamouring for his head were missing the point.
The tactics were outmoded and tired, even if the players may have been physically up for the challenge. There was a degree of complacency. The team that had won the Confederations Cup in 2017 had not been properly integrated with the old guard. There were far too many distractions.
While this was going on, the players were being indulged as the tournament approached. The endless photo shoots and promotional nonsense was more extensive than ever before, to the point where players were being turned into little more than accessories for high-end brands. Compared to the more muted buildup that had taken place in England, what was going on in Germany was bordering on madness. The cherry on top, perhaps, was the marketing slogan “The Best Never Rest”.
Well, they are taking a long rest now.
Löw stays on
Immediately after the defeat in Kazan, the biggest topic of discussion was the future of the German coach. Naturally, there were some very loud calls for Löw to go, both from the tabloids and even more restrained observers. When things had started to cool down however, the realisation slowly started to dawn that there were no suitable candidates available to fill the void. Nobody felt like travelling to the Canary Islands and knocking on Erich Ribbeck’s front door again.
For the DFB, it was a successful face-saving operation. Having extended Löw’s contract until 2022, it would have been one massive volte-face to show him the door. For the coach himself, it made sense to make his apologies, weigh up the options and give it another go.
This does not mean that Löw’s contract will necessarily run its course. There are important matches to come after the summer, and he will need to get things right again, and quickly. The DFB have decided that Löw is their man. For now, at least. Before this summer’s failure, nobody had given a moment’s thought to any possible successor. But that will surely one of the background projects for the DFB now. In simple business terms, Löw has been given the official vote of confidence.
Jogi Löw faces the media on his return to Germany. Just days later, he decided to stay on as Nationaltrainer.
One can only conclude that the decision was the correct one. I have never been Löw’s biggest fan, and had been a massive critic prior to 2014. The triumph in Brazil had made me put that scepticism aside, and I can only imagine that many others did the same. “In Jogi we trust” was the mantra. If there was a successor ready and waiting, I would have backed his departure. Twelve years as a national coach is a good run, after all.
But there is nobody there. Right now, sticking with Löw is the best thing for all concerned. There needs to be some continuity and stability. A common sense solution. This is Germany we are talking about. Not Cameroon, Argentina or Italy.
What happens next
I have refrained from using words like “disaster” and “catastrophe”. What happened in Russia was neither of these things. Nor was it the end of an era. It was, however, an abject failure.
Statistically, a long cycle had come to an end. Records had fallen by the wayside. There were first-time tournament defeats at the hands of Mexico and South Korea. Germany had finished bottom of a group that they had expected to win in their sleep. But it was not a disaster. The structure is still there. The players are still there.
There are some voices out there who have suggested that this year was worse than 2000 and 2004. It is, but at the same time it isn’t.
As far as the opposition is concerned, Euro 2000 pitted Germany against Portugal’s golden generation, a half-decent Romanian side, and and England team that… still had Alan Shearer. Four years later, they were a little unlucky against a good Dutch outfit, and excellent Czech squad and a Latvian team that were determined to make things difficult by parking the bus. These were better opponents than Mexico, Sweden or South Korea.
However, in 2004 the German team was the last before the big transition began. In 2000, arguably the nadir for German football, it was a squad that was, quite literally, creaking. A geriatric Lothar Mätthaus repurposed as a sweeper. Paulo Rink, arguably one of the worst ever players to pull on the famous Nationaltrikot, up front. A team full of journeymen, and a talented Michael Ballack who was only given 64 minutes of playing time by a clueless coach.
In 2000, there was nothing left. Today, the talent factory is still rolling. In 2004, nobody knew where German football was heading. Today, we can look at the available resources and concluded that Russia 2018 was just a blip, a rare situation where every bad thing came together at the same time.
Today is not the end of an era. It is not a fin de siècle. There is no need to beat ourselves up, turn on each other or navel-gaze. It is a blip, like a healthy person the morning after a night on the sauce having eaten some rotten kimchi. Take it on the chin. Move on. #KORGER
— Rick Joshua 🇩🇪 (@fussballchef) June 27, 2018
The changes that need to be made are obvious. New blood is needed, while respecting the veterans. Tactics will need to be reevaluated. Unity needs to be restored. New leaders need to be found and nurtured. The coaching team will need to be examined. Both Thomas Schneider and Marcus Sorg seemed to be playing role of passengers as Löw’s assistants, at least when compared to their predecessor Hansi Flick.
Russia 2018 does not signify the end of an era. It is simply the end of a very bad chapter in the long and storied history of German football. The book is still being written, and we can be certain that a number of the young players who have suffered this chastening experience will be back come the next Euros in 2020. By the next World Cup in 2022, order will surely have been restored.
The one difference will be the absence of the mythical millstones. The German team that moves on from here will no longer be part of that long World Cup legacy. They will no longer be as heavily burdened by the past. They will no longer be the infallible Turniermannschaft. Football will always be a simple game, where twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes. But the Germans will not always win.
Perhaps this will be a good thing.
The title of this piece takes its cue from what is probably the most famous television show in Germany. The regional police drama Tatort, meaning “crime scene”. The subtitle, Wenn der Jäger zum Gejagten wird, means “when the hunter became the hunted”.