Weak at the Knees: Is Germany suffering from mental and tactical regression?

By Cristian Nyari

Sweden’s incredible and historic comeback against Germany on Tuesday will no doubt add fuel to an already fiery debate about the National Team’s supposed mental frailty and Joachim Löw’s ability to truly reach their potential.

Images of despair and disbelief have become commonplace in German football over the years, whether it was Bayern’s dramatic and unexpected loss in the Champions League final against Chelsea, Germany’s capitulation against Italy at the EUROs or the seeming inevitability of a loss whenever Germany is faced with Spain. German clubs’ failure in European competition only enhances a growing reputation of shortcomings and underachievement.

With a budding generation of talent though hopes and expectations remain high and perhaps none more so than for the National Team. The “new” Germany announced its arrival on the international stage with a bang at South Africa in 2010 and continued on to EURO 2012 in record breaking fashion yet there remain doubts about the team’s overall development and progress and whether they will ever truly reach their potential. While it is impossible to even consider the answer to that question at this point in time results and performances during Löw’s tenure may indicate a pattern that paints a clearer picture of where the team stands (or falls) and where it may go.

Chasing Shadows

Perhaps the beginning and the most symbolic juncture of this debate was the semi final against Spain in South Africa over two years ago. Although Germany had the youngest side at the tournament the encounter with Spain became emblematic of future and recurring patterns in the team. As Spain comfortably and characteristically dominated, Germany struggled to keep up and always looked second rate. They never adapted, always chased and were taken completely out of their comfort zone by a visibly superior opponent. Contrary to Spain, Germany had difficulties retaining the ball and ran out of ideas once they passed the halfway line. Although a noble attempt against a more seasoned and trained side, the match always had the feel of men versus boys at times.

Postmatch comments included expressions of too much respect for the opponent and players being in awe of their idolized opponents, neither of which sounds like the desired formula for a World Cup semi-final. Germany had a great tournament despite that loss though and finished 2011 in impressive fashion but their uneasiness when faced with increased pressure (on and off the pitch) would continue to rear its ugly head in the months to come.

Counter Culture

In hindsight Germany’s friendly against the Ukraine in November last year will probably be forever remembered as Löw’s failed experimentation with a three man backline and maybe even forgotten but underneath that unsuccessful tactical venture and ultimately meaningless friendly was another example of Germany being taken out of their comfort zone and failing to adjust. More importantly, it symbolized Germany’s continuous vulnerability on the break. Whether it was the lack of match practice with the formation or another case of nerves getting the best of them, Germany were continuously exposed by the Ukraine’s quick and ruthless counter attacks and were lucky to leave the Ukraine with a draw after conceding three seemingly unnecessary goals.

There was a distinct lack of defensive organization and no visible communication between midfield and defense as every Ukrainian attack could have turned into a goal. In spite of this apparent structural weakness, Löw remained steadfast in his formation and Germany persisted to attack, continuing to leave holes at the back, particularly on German set pieces. Lest anyone thinks this was strictly an issue with their formation, two months earlier Germany faced the same problems against Poland who took advantage of Träsch’s eager forward runs and Mertesacker’s slow pace. It took a late Cacau goal to avoid a defeat in what was another risky performance by Löw’s men. The same had been the case against Austria and Brazil earlier in the year and throughout all of 2012, be it the embarrassing loss against Switzerland (their first loss to the Swiss in over fifty-six years), Denmark at the EUROs or Austria last month.

Tactical Russian Roulette and Desperate Defending

The team’s seeming inability to alter its direct style of play or retain the ball against teams that press intensely is just as big of an indictment, if not more, than criticism of mental frailty. Hand in hand with that is the brave yet stubborn conviction of Löw’s offensive approach which has often prohibited or disabled him from adjusting to his opponents when necessary. The failure to react to Zlatan Ibrahimovic dropping deeper to pick up the ball and disrupt Germany in midfield in the second half for example was as detrimental as Germany’s mental uneasiness.

More glaring are the team’s continued and colossal defensive problems. Löw’s constant rotation in the backline never lent itself to stability and four years after switching to the 4-2-3-1 Germany are still struggling with the execution of their high backline. In fact, Germany have kept only five clean sheets in their twenty-six matches in the last two years. A byproduct of playing attacking football is that you inevitably leave yourself exposed on the counter but Germany’s inability to effectively cope on the counter, as we have seen, has been a big part of their defensive problems.

It also raises questions about where the focus lies and whether it lies exclusively in one area over another. Their defensive record certainly suggests a greater emphasis on attack and given Germany’s plethora of talented attacking players it is logical to build on one’s strengths but never at the complete expense of other fundamentals. The evident imbalance between attack and defense remains one of the most unsettling aspects of Löw’s side and one in which the most work needs to be done.

Mind Games

Fewer games represent Germany’s nerves, or lack thereof, better than their encounters with Italy. Their friendly against the Italians early in 2011 was one of their best showings against their bogey team in recent memory until another lapse in concentration late in the game allowed them to squeeze out a draw. Germany’s grip on the game loosened the more pressure Italy applied until the dam burst. Funnily enough, Germany would have been in the role of coming from behind and salvaging results when it looked least likely.

Although a tactical misjudgment was largely responsible for the final outcome against Italy in Poland and the Ukraine this summer, the extent to which the players were unable to deal with and adapt to their opponent and their level of play only adds to the criticism. Two years after South Africa the “new” Germany looked just as phased, inexperienced and out of their element as they had against Spain in Durban. Unsure of themselves and their roles, individual errors were supplemented by collective confusion and more clumsy defending. Prior to the match, players and coach dismissed the idea that their poor record against the Italians would have any impact on the fixture but it is difficult to completely rule it out in hindsight.

Similarly, the point of contention from the Sweden game may not be the fact that they scored their first or second. Teams getting consolation goals after being down significantly is a common occurrence in football. The real issue was to what extent Germany lost control of the game after the first two goals and never got it back and how easily Germany were thrown off their game with such a commanding lead. Bastian Schweinsteiger commented after the game how a sense of complacency befell the team after their big lead and even Löw admitted that it all started in the players’ heads. Nevermind the fact that Germany had never, in their 112-year history, blown a four goal lead, the final 20 minutes were a domino effect of self perpetuating and self inflicted devastation.

Of course you can argue that this is all a result of youth and inexperience and therefore part of the process and that over time it is inevitably going to come together. More often than not though, youth is an advantage rather than a disability, especially with the increased tempo and fitness demands of the modern game. Experience counts and can be invaluable, especially at the international level, but this generation of German players is as technically gifted as any in the last 40 years. And given Germany’s high standards and ambitions it stands to reason that certain things could have been done better up to this point.

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. You can check out Cristian’s articles on the excellent Bundesliga Fanatic, or can follow him on Twitter @Cnyari

Weak at the Knees: Is Germany suffering from mental and tactical regression?
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2 thoughts on “Weak at the Knees: Is Germany suffering from mental and tactical regression?

  • October 22, 2012 at 23:58

    Excellent feedback Lance, danke!

    I too was slightly put out by the singing in the first half, as well as the “Sieg” chant which is usually reserved for the last five minutes. I’d imagine that it simply spurred the Swedes on, and then Löw did the rest with his tactical blowout and bizarre substitutions.

    I know quite a few of us pundits and commentators pre-match were joking about Westermann putting in an appearance, but when Sweden came back to 4-2 the perfect opportunity arose for him to replace, say, someone like Özil to shore up the defensive line – and provide an experienced head.

    About celebrating “podium” finishes, this is something that here in Britain we are familiar with. Until the successful Olympic games in Beijing for example (surpassed this year of course) a Brit even reaching an event final was seen as a major deal. I feel Germany – for a long time seen as a nation of winners – are turning into also-rans happy to just be there or finish second or third. What is happening right now to the football team is being mirrored by their Olympic performance, which has continued to slide since 1992.

    I was in Munich to for the CL final, and like everybody else was completely crushed. I can understand the relentless pressure – the media has turned football into an all-encompassing event that goes beyond simple sport – but I don’t think a 70s/80s era Bayern side would have crumbled in such a fashion. Could you see the likes of Rummenigge or Augenthaler folding like that?

  • October 22, 2012 at 22:47

    Hello Christian,

    a well analyzed article. Thank you. I miss such good discussions in Germany. It is just always player XY who is at fault.
    I would like to add a few things.
    First I agree with you that the tactics of our team is so offensive that it is suicidal from time to time. It is good if the team scores in the first half, but it is going to get more difficult to score as the match goes on. The friendly against Italy is a good example for my thesis.

    Second: Löw is a good trainer to develope an offensive and attractive system and in integrating young players, but he is a really awful coach when it comes to decisions in decisive situations in important games.

    1) Final 2008 against Spain. Yeah Spain was better but we really lost our pace when he added a second striker for a midfielder. Then they could easily combine in midfield.

    2) Semifinal 2010 against Spain. What broke us Germans our necks was the yellow card of Thomas Müller in the Quarterfinal. The best player in the tournament until that game was hard to replace. But there had been a really promising Toni Kroos on the bench who played a great season with Bayer Leverkusen. Instead of choosing him Löw chose Piotr Trochowski who had not one good appearance in the national team for a long time and also struggled in his squad in the Bundesliga. No surprise that Kroos had the only good chance to score in the whole match for the team.

    3) Semifinal Italy 2012: Yeah well inspite of always loosing against Italy this was a big mental problem and also a few things caused by misjudgement of Löw. He never changed the way of football but then he changed everything because of a 35 year old Italian playmaker, who in the end initiated the crucial play for the first goal anyway. But there has been another big problem. I am a fan of Gomez and also of Kroos (not always 😉 ) but they were definitely the wrong players to appear on the pitch. Why taking out Reus, Klose and Müller which played great against Greece. Why Lukas Podolski who didn’t have any good appearance in the tournament to this point. Therefore we had major problems in creating chances because the offensive play was greatly predictable. Gomez would have been a good choice if you would help him by dynamic players like Reus, Götze or Müller who can create chances. Maybe Klose would have been a better choice for him playing and scoring in Italy. What is also a problem: Özil and Khedira play great in Madrid because they have tactical limitations to their actions. In German squad I always have the feeling for them to be completely anarchic.

    I wasn’t really surprised for loosing the game, but I was really disappointed and raging because of German players already hanging their heads in the first half. One can say what they want about the “Holzfuß” generation between 1994 and 2004, but they did not give up, never. This is a mental problem and it is quite obvious.

    4) Sweden: Mostly I critisize that Löw could and should have strengthened the defense after suffering the second goal. It was obvious that we had problems in the air, therefore we could have added Höwedes who trains in the club agianst a slightly likewise player like Ibra – Huntelaar. Or also substitute a offensive midfielder for Westermann. It was the typical helplessness that Löw shows in such situations.

    And this is where we are at my third and final thesis: We Germans and our media created a generation of fans and players which do not know how it feels to be sucessful on the international stage. The world cup in 2006 was a sucess on many different terms, but definitely not for the moral of the team. Why celebrating a team, which has lost? Why celebrating the second or third place? Normally winners are celebrated, but not in Germany. When I watched the final of 2008 in the Olympia stadium of Munich there was (like always) a huge mass of people who cheered for the German team. So far so good, we lost and I was disappointed, but there were enough people who couldn’t care less about the result because the beer and the event was great and we should als continue to sing and cheer. I really hate those kind of (event-)fans, which are not really interested in football, but have to appear on stage every two years for world cup or european championship. It was the same in the Sweden game when the crowd cheered at minute 35 “Oh wie ist das schön…”. This is something you can do around minute 85 when the score is around 3:0 but not in the first half. This is something absolutely contraproductive and disrespectful as hell.
    It is also the media. While having a tournament you cannot watch the tv. In every commercial break you have around 9/10 commercials which main topic is football and the national team. I love football, I really do, but this annoys me. Sometimes you need a break even if you love something.
    It was the same with the Champions League final 2012. You could not go anywhere in Munich without being reminded about the game. I think the pressure was too much in the end. I think that Bayern would have won the game in any other stadium in the world, but the cruel reality is, that they didn’t.
    This nightmare is going to be a major problem for German teams in the future as it reflects eleven years of pain and suffering in important games on international stage., or maybe also a chance. It is obvious that the main actors of the national team will be players out of Bayern and Dortmund and the two “world class players” from Real. Therefore it is important to have them gaining the mental stability to overcome such situations as in the CL or against Sweden. The opponent must get an impression that the game can not be won anymore, like with the Spanish team or Barcelona.
    Also there has to be a closer concern on the defense. If you read in the German football forums you get the impression that the draw was only caused by the defensive players of Bayern Munich. If you watch the Bundesliga though it is the same players which only received two opponent goals in eight games and only permitted an average of 7 shots on the goal of Manuel Neuer. (if you leave out the match against Schalke it’s only 5!) So I think Löw should think about taking advise from Senior Jupp Heynckes how to stabilize the defense without weakening the offense.

    I am sorry for the long text and my bad English but I wanted to share my opinion with you.

    Best regards



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