- Germany make their earliest World Cup exit since 1938
- Defeat to South Korea spells the end for many senior players
- Joachim Löw will surely go before the media forces him out
You get found out at the World Cup. Sometimes, you can be unlucky in a knockout game, but you’re never really unfortunate to go out at the end of the group stage. You’ve had three games to get the job done. Germany never even started theirs.
Joachim Löw was found out. If history is anything to go by, he overstayed his welcome by four years. Teams simply do not defend world titles. The self-destruction in Marseille two years ago, in the Euro 2016 semi-final, was telling. Germany, all ineffective triangles, lacked a striker to break down France – and went out thanks to two blunders, one from Manuel Neuer.
Today against South Korea, Neuer was at it again, abandoning his true role in the team – to stop goals – in a mad sortie up the field, the sweeper keeper who forgot to sweep – or keep. However, as humiliating as that was, the real issue was Germany’s lack of a world class striker, something they have simply failed to address in any way over the last decade as they obsessed over tippy-tappy midfield constipation.
All this talk of “the team” being king is code for “we do not have a superstar”, like Beckenbauer, Rummenigge, or Matthäus. The “team” gets you so far – as it did in 2014 – but that team had world class players like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both leaders long since retired. Who stepped up in their absence?
The “team” must not be dysfunctional like this 2018 iteration clearly was. Over the coming days and weeks, we will inevitably hear of schisms in the squad, of cliques, and of barely concealed internecine warfare. From the outside, there is an argument that the young players were never fully integrated by the old hands. Were they resented?
Another question is whether the young players are good enough. Certainly, the experienced players were not. Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Mario Gomez and others have probably played their last game for the national team. When was the last time any of them did something special in the Champions League? They go with their reputations diminished. Löw, too, will surely fall on his sword before the media forces him out.
Given the amount of changes the Bundestrainer made to his team over the two final games, it’s clear that this was a systemic failure. Whether Özil was in or not, the performance was the same. Players were, mysteriously, simultaneously out of form. A collective meltdown.
Complacency is at the heart of this. The hunger forged by consistent semi-final and final failure in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 was finally and sweetly sated in Rio. Müller went into terminal decline in 2015/16. He’s never recovered. Others had their backs slapped – constantly. Germany enjoyed their champions. And standards fell.
Failure in France – in what was a poor quality tournament – was shrugged off in ways the 2012 failure to Italy just wasn’t. “You can’t win them all.” The thing is, Germany – for all of its recent success – has won only one title in 20 years. Spain won three in four years prior to 2012.
There was an arrogance at play in Russia, a showboating quality that suggested some believed their own publicity. Witness Marco Reus’s ostentatious and self-regarding back heel attempt against Sweden when a simple finish would surely have been more appropriate – and effective. This happened when Germany were desperate for a goal. Look at Joshua Kimmich, a full back, taking the game to Mexico on his own like some kind of footballing Scrappy Doo, challenging Löw to “lemme at ’em”. It all reeked of indiscipline.
The influence of Pep Guardiola should not be discounted either. He arrived in Munich the year before Germany won the World Cup in Brazil. Over three years, his philosophy of “control” was challenged only by a declining Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund. Guardiola represented the Spanish tiki-taka school, Klopp the heavy metal counterattacking style that made the nascent Germany so thrilling in 2010.
Löw’s defeat to Spain in that semi-final prompted an evolution that reached its apotheosis in Brazil – just before Guardiola challenged and overthrew the accepted wisdom of the German football chattering classes. Under his spell, Germany devolved into an ineffective, inferior version of Spain, abandoning the thrilling thrust and power that characterised earlier Löw sides.
Of course, another simple fact is that this generation of German players peaked in 2013 and 2014, with Bayern facing Dortmund in the Champions League final and Germany winning the World Cup. Since then, under Guardiola and Löw, semi-finals, at best.
Perhaps Löw should have fast-tracked so many of the younger players who won the Confederations Cup into the first team more confidently. But that tournament is no gauge. Maybe this decline was inevitable after 12 years of consistent progress. But there are far weaker sides in the last 16 while Germany retreat, once again, from Russia.
All the more reason then for Löw to go – when the DFB can find a suitable successor. For all the talk of German efficiency and organisation, it’s possible a succession plan is not already in place ready for activation. If so, Löw might limp on, a lame duck. If he does, hopes of winning Euro 2020 – at Wembley, no less – will surely recede.