June 27, 2018
Never write off the Germans. It is an instinct, a cringing reflex, hardwired into every soccer fan. Never write off the Germans. Which is why, after their loss to Mexico in their opening game, we all just assumed they’d sort themselves out. They had to. It’s Germany.
What the hell was that, Germany?
And that’s why, as they laboured against South Korea, we all just knew that something would happen. A goal would come off Thomas Müller’s shins. Or Toni Kroos’ in-step. Something was coming from somewhere. That’s just how things work. They always get out of the group. They’ll nick one, and they’ll knock out Mexico, and then as an encore they’ll do England on penalties.
Well, we can probably write them off now. The bad start became a bad middle, and then — with a moment of hope, just to keep things interesting — a bad end. The problems we saw in the loss to Mexico were there against Sweden and Korea; they weren’t solved by shuffling the line-up, and they weren’t solved by chucking on Mario Gomez.
Broadly speaking, Germany had two major flaws that added together to make one complete disaster. (Isn’t it weird, to be using the past tense already!) Up front, they were slow and fussy, unable to poke and prod their way through deep-lying defenses. At the back, they were constantly vulnerable to the counter-attack, a vacant midfield exposing slow central defenders.
These problems were exacerbated by the fact that Germany were, well, Germany: a big nation, a strong team, the defending champions. “Sit deep, spring the breaks” is what all their opponents were planning to do anyway. That’s the logic of the group stage; that’s how David beats Goliath. Perhaps, if they’d made it through and run into some larger and more ambitious sides, they’d have been better placed to cope.
Or perhaps even Spain would have decided: “Huh, this lot are rubbish. Let’s sit deep and spring the breaks.”
What the hell was that, Germany?
What’s really weird about Germany’s exit is that the games, though close in scoreline, weren’t too far away from being absolute blowouts. Mexico mucked up innumerable chances on the break, and Sweden, moments before Kroos scored his free-kick, were a simple square pass from a 2-0 win. Still: Germany. Look, Korea are butchering loads of breaks as well. Germany.
The last time Germany went out of a major tournament at the group stage was Euro 2000. That side was truly dreadful, and the consequence was a complete reworking of German football from the ground up. Fourteen years later, that rework delivered a group of players good enough to win the World Cup.
This catastrophe probably doesn’t call for another reboot: this failure wasn’t down to a lack of talent, in the broadest sense. But there was a air of staleness about the whole enterprise, from Jogi Löw down. World Cup-winning teams do tend to go off, and Germany 2018 join France 2002, Italy 2010, and Spain 2014 in the Holders Out in the Group Stage Hall of Shame. And there were certainly one or two of the 2014 squad for whom this looked a tournament too far.
As with all stale football teams, there appears to have been unhappiness behind the scenes. Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündoğan were criticized by their own football association after meeting Turkey’s president Recep Erdoğan, and the German press reported rumors of factions in the camp. Meanwhile Mats Hummels, after the loss to Mexico, suggested that his concerns about the openness of their midfield were being ignored internally.
So while this probably doesn’t call for a demolition job, Germany could certainly do with opening a couple of windows and getting the air moving again. Whether Löw gets trusted with that job remains to be seen: before the Korea game, the president of the German football association was clear that he was the man to oversee the post-World Cup “transition”. Perhaps his victory at the Confederations Cup with a young team will save him.
Either way, you know they’ll be back. They have to be. They’re Germany. And you just cannot — well, you know how it goes. We are in a moment of singular historical oddness. This has never happened before, and may never happen again. Normal service will be resumed in four years. In the meantime, please remain calm, and enjoy the rest of tournament.
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