Opinion: The reasons for Germany’s downfall and early exit in Russia

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In England, football supporters around the country rejoiced at the news that spread. “Germany are out of the World Cup”, said the commentator on the television coverage. The country collectively punched the air screaming with joy as South Korea won by two goals to nil to send the tournament giants home. This was the textbook definition of ‘schadenfreude’ – the German word which literally means ‘satisfaction or pleasure at someone else’s misfortune’. This word described the response of much of the watching world.

Why, a non-football fan may ask? Why was everyone so pleased about Germany’s exit? The reason is simple. This is the great Germany. The four time champions of the world, Die Mannschaft. The current holders of the World Cup were out at the first time of asking, in dramatic fashion.

But, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Empires rise and fall in a cyclical nature. In medieval history this was apparent, as it is in an economical outlook of a state – an economic ‘boom’ is almost always followed by an economic recession, due to loosening of monetary policy. The nature is different, but the overarching theme is applicable to sport.

In 2002, the previous winners France crashed out at the group stage. In 2010, Italy did the same. Spain in 2014 and now Germany 2018 added to this list. Coincidence? I think not. This asks serious questions of the best teams in the world and casts doubts on sports psychology methods after victory.

Rewind four years. It was a sunny evening in Belo Horizonte. This was the night the football world fell in love for Germany, as they left hosts Brazil in deep mourning with a 7-1 victory. This was the result of a decade of planning – a revamp that began a decade previous.

In Euro 2004, Rudi Völler’s Germany were knocked out in the group stage. From that moment, German football changed. It was a bit like knocking down an old building and starting from scratch. The DFB built 336 youth training centres across the country for teenagers, and demanded that referees at youth level were not just referees, but scouts.

The blueprint was scrunched up and thrown in the bin. A new one was drawn. Part of this included the rule that no club has a single owner or foreign billionaire in charge (the 49% rule). This meant, the 50% of foreign talent that was in the Bundesliga in 2002 could not remain. German clubs would have to source from their academies due to the lack of money.

Rewards were realised in 2009, when Germany beat England 4-0 to win the European U-21 title. Six members of that team played in the thrashing of Brazil. Whilst Spain and Brazil only had the models of fast football, Germany had a number of tactics at their disposal.

Germany changed things at the bottom, the rewards were felt at the top. Götze’s goal against Argentina with seven minutes remaining of the 2014 World Cup final was that reward.

So, what went drastically wrong in Russia? We take a look at some of the reasons for the German downfall in 2018, both on and off the pitch, and try to conclude some reasons why Germany have gone from the best team in world football to one of the most mocked.

Bayern’s six year dominance

German football was at a peak in the years prior to 2014. Bayern Munich had won the Bundesliga and Pokal for two successive years, they won the 2013 Champions League in an all Bundesliga final with Borussia Dortmund, the hottest managerial property in club football was appointed at Bayern in 2013 – Pep Guardiola. The Catalan breathed fresh air in the Bundesliga, propelling Bayern back to an easy ride to the title.

It was a good time to be a Bayern fan, an equally good time to be a fan of German football in general.

Yet, in 2014, Borussia Dortmund were at the top of their game, under the management of Klopp then Tuchel. Wolfsburg were serious candidates for the title. Bayern had competition. It wasn’t quite level but they had to be on the top of their game.
Four years later, Bayern won the league by 21 points, with Schalke their closest threat in second, but the rest severely off the mark. Third placed Hoffenheim finished 29 points behind the leaders.

The competition the league had in the years of 2011 to 2014 just no longer exists.

When a national team is made up of a spine of the best team in that country, it often leads to good results on the pitch, but not in the case of Germany 2018. Boateng, Hummels, Neuer, Muller, Sule – the Bayern players looked shadows of their best and severely off the mark in Russia.

The concept of winning has become so normalised for players of the Bavarian club that the first sign of resistance or things not going their way could not be coped with.

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We see this in the English Premier League – Manchester City went to Anfield on a winning run that stretched back four months, but looked shell-shocked when they went a goal down. The players couldn’t cope as they didn’t know how to respond from not automatically winning.

Thomas Müller was perhaps the most disappointing – the Bayern man looked disinterested and miles away from the young prodigy he was in 2010 and then the exciting raumdeuter (translator of space) that he was in 2014.

Back then, he had the ability to, despite not being the fastest or most technically gifted player in the world, arrive in the right space at the right time to help his side. He looked lost on the pitch in Russia.

This was the case with Germany – the players were not used to not having it all their own way and failed to deliver.

Sentimentality and loyalty

Loyalty in football is the notion of going down the route of ‘tried and trusted’. In some instances, this is beneficial for all parties. In Germany’s instance, it worked the opposite.

Since the 2014 win, Thomas Müller hasn’t been the same player, Semi Khedira has declined, Mario Gomez is now 32.

Yet, Joachim Löw is still heavily reliant on this core group of players.

In the 2017/18 Bundesliga season, aside from the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, many of the top scorers were German strikers: Nils Petersen (Freiburg; 15 goals), Mark Uth (Hoffenheim, 14 goals, 8 assists), Niclas Füllkrug (Hannover, 14 goals), Kevin Volland (Leverkusen, 14 goals), Sandro Wagner (Bayern/Hoffenheim, 12 goals).

None of the above were selected for the national team in Russia.

In a team that looked lacking in ideas, reliant on Toni Kroos magic to carve chances, Löw did not have one of the fore mentioned at least on his bench as a Plan B. Instead he had Mario Gomez, who managed little over 1000 minutes for VfB Stuttgart in the season just gone.

It has even been suggested that Gomez was picked merely as a cheerleader in the dressing room, given his experience.

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It is not just the strikers, however. Löw often opted with Semi Khedira in midfield, leaving Juventus-bound Emre Can at home and ignoring the impressive Leon Goretzka, who is joining Bayern in the summer.

Manuel Neuer, the great goalkeeper he is, was given the nod over Marc Andre ter Stegen, who headed to Russia following a double-winning season with Barcelona, where he has been heralded as one of the best goalkeepers in world football. Neuer, on the other hand, had not played competitive football since September 2017.

The point being: Löw was too reliant on his 2014 winning players that he ignored fresher talents. The warning signs were there in Euro 2016, but the fact they were world champions and made a semi-final in France paved over these cracks. Löw heavily relied on Bastian Schweinsteiger, who hadn’t played since February of that year with a knee injury. The then Manchester United player was at fault for the goal in the semi final that ultimately saw Germany crash out at the hands of holders France.

There are better talents out there, but it seems to earn the trust of Jogi Löw is not an easy feat. This cost Germany in Russia.

Jogi Löw’s arrogance and refusal to evolve

The arrogance of the coach and the lack of discipline and urgency from his players cost Germany.

The nature of Löw’s attitude was felt long before the tournament began, and continued both on and off the pitch until their elimination on Wednesday.

It is a surprise that we have got to this point in this article, or probably better described as a rant, without mentioning a certain German prodigy known as Leroy Sané.

The winger who made his name at FC Schalke 04, then announced himself as a world class player at Manchester City, was left out of the squad.

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Sané was quite literally the poster boy for Germany, after being one of the best players in Manchester City’s breathtaking campaign which saw him win the Young Player of the Year Award for the 2017/18 season.

I concede that Sané may not have fit Löw’s system, maybe the same with Sandro Wagner of Bayern, but there is no system in the world that doesn’t allow for the skillset of Leroy Sané even as a super-sub.

Mexico were great, but as Sweden proved, they aren’t the best defensively. The same with South Korea, there was space in behind them. Sané would have been perfect off the bench. We have seen what he has done to the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and Napoli with his devastating runs inside the fullback.

The omission of Sané can be put down to arrogance, or to prove a point. Sané missed the Confederations Cup of 2017 for an operation, it would seem the German manager punished him for this.

He had chance to put this right in Russia though, but his arrogance got the better of him again. In the first game against Mexico, he decided to ‘rest’ Marco Reus, because Germany “had a lot of games to go”.

Against South Korea, Löw opted again for the out of form Khedira and Özil, along with Leon Goretzka (as in, the central midfielder) on the wing. He was trying to tell the world he was the smart coach with a modern tactical nous. That arrogance ultimately betrayed Germany.

The German national team had even booked their hotel for the days leading up to and after the final on July 15, showing again, arrogance.

On and off the pitch, decisions were made that backfired on Germany big time in Russia.

Players simply not performing

“The hunger is not the same, the desire is not the same”, said Jürgen Klinsmann, following Germany’s exit.

The 1990 World Cup winner admitted the team deserved to go home, who blames the defeat in Russia on complacency.

Against Mexico, Germany were poor whilst Mexico were brilliant. Toni Kroos magic helped them against Sweden in a very lucky way. But the Real Madrid midfielder conceded that a side that cannot score against Korea deserves to go home.

Every game was a festival of ponderously dull football, every pass looked predictable, which is not what €1bn of youth development is supposed to bring.
There was a lack of team spirit, and certainly a lack of leadership.

The German identity was missing on the pitch. Whilst Timo Werner is an exciting young talent that played well at the Confederations Cup, he looked lost of ideas on the pitch.

He showed glimpses as he danced past players against Sweden, but he is not the typical German forward, a typical no.9. Germany lacked a focal point or box threat that they once had – a Klinsmann, a Klose, a Voller, a Gerd Müller.

This is perhaps why it is so surprising that Sandro Wagner was sat at home.

It was all about possession, possession, possession. But like we saw with Spain in the game against Russia, possession means nothing. It is what you do with the ball that is important. Most passes were sideward, with no intent of breaking the lines of opponents.

Be it inept managerial decisions, lack of application on the pitch, or missing the leadership Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Klose brought, Germany were downright dreadful in Russia, and the future is uncertain.

Where from here?

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“Turniermannschaft”: Germany were quite literally supposed to be the ‘tournament team’. Despite their poor preparation friendlies, when the tournament came around, Germany would turn up – Germany always turn up.

Not this time. Germany were knocked out at the group stage for the first time in eighty years.

But it is not disastrous for Germany. They won the U21 European Championships just last summer, to add to the Confederations Cup win for the first team which was fairly second string.

Kimmich, Rudy and Werner were supposed to replace the Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Klose of the previous generation. It wasn’t to be in Russia, but with two years more game time under their respective belts, they can form the crux of a formidable force for years to come.

Jupp Heynckes, Jürgen Klopp and Jürgen Klinsmann are three names that have been mooted in the German press to replace Löw, but the German FA have said that they want Löw to lead the revival.

Yet, a few days on, the German FA have surely already started their plan to put things right before the European Championship campaign begins.

For me, despite the obvious talents of Löw, it is time for a change. There are many good reasons why he should stay on, but there is an unwritten rule of thumb that a failure in a tournament should lead to the sacking.

Should Germany have crashed out against a tough Brazil in the knockout rounds, it may have been different. But to be knocked out in a group with no previous champion, there is no chance he should remain.

But, appointing a new manager won’t automatically bring success. There needs to be a radical rethinking off the pitch – not as radical as the complete restructure of the blueprint of a the early 2000’s, but a change nonetheless.

German media outlets have compared the sorry state of German football to the political landscape in Germany: in need of a change. I am no German politics expert, but in footballing terms – I agree that a change is needed.

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