For the first time since 1938 five-time World Cup winners and reigning champions Germany failed to make it past the first stage of the competition. Some might say the writing was on the wall as three of the previous four World Cup winners failed to make out of the group stage at the subsequent tournament. But long-standing history and coincidence aside, the early elimination of one of the favourites to lift the trophy came down to concrete failures, mistakes and perhaps even some bad luck. This article charts the debacle that was the German campaign and aims to answer one question: what went wrong?
In autumn 2017 the German national team looked on track to offer a strong defence of their title. Qualification for the tournament in Russia was wrapped up with a perfect record just two months after a ‘B’ team secured the Confederations Cup in July. Mats Hummels would later state that that was the last time the side played well, as a period of winless friendly matches followed.
With just days to go until the start of the World Cup Joachim Löw’s side finally ended a run of five games without a win as they edged out Saudi Arabia in unconvincing fashion. In the run up to the World Cup Löw rarely started a game with a full-strength squad, preferring to rest important players using the argument that they were not that important. But even for a country known as being a ‘tournament team’, that was a remarkably frivolous move and one which ultimately lead to the disjointed performances in Russia.
Löw made his reputation as an international coach by bringing through the generation of players who would eventually go on to win the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. More than a few eyebrows were raised when 22-year-old Leroy Sane failed to make the final squad, despite an excellent domestic season in the Premier League with Manchester City. His pace and trickery would have been a valuable weapon for a side who often looked flat in the final third.
The inclusion of veteran Mario Gomez who had only scored a single goal since Euro 2016 was also questionable considering Sandro Wagner performs the same role and appeared to be far more settled in the team with five goals in World Cup qualification. Gomez missed very presentable chances in all three group matches when Germany’s attack was frequently reduced to playing long balls and crosses into the box.
Absence of Senior Figures
While Löw chose to omit certain players from his squad, Germany entered the competition after a changing of the guard since their triumph in Brazil. World Cup winning captain Philipp Lahm retired directly after the 2014 tournament along with defensive stalwart Per Mertesacker. All-time leading World Cup goalscorer Miroslav Klose followed suit and midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger ended his international career after Euro 2016.
The hope was that the next generation of players would take over the leadership in the dressing room, but the impression on the pitch was one of a rudderless group of individuals. Hummels openly criticised the coaching staff after the opening game loss against Mexico, a move unthinkable just four years earlier. The players expected to step up and lead the team simply did not show up. Top scorer at the 2010 World Cup Thomas Müller failed to find the net and both Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira were dropped for the second match after disappointing performances against Mexico.
When asked after the opening match defeat to Mexico why he didn’t feature from the off, Marco Reus replied that he was not in the starting team as they were expecting a long campaign at the tournament. The in-form Borussia Dortmund winger was one of the few highlights prior to the squad travelling to Russia and would go on to score in the 2 – 1 win over Sweden. But resting players in the opening game smacks of a side not taking their opponents seriously.
Germany’s squad lacked the hunger and drive that had taken them to the title in Brazil. Löw was reticent to include many of the players who had worked so hard to win the Confederation’s Cup who still had plenty to prove on a truly global stage.
Germany deserved to be eliminated from the World Cup, few would doubt that. Nevertheless, the squad suffered setbacks before and throughout the tournament. Captain and starting goalkeeper Manuel Neuer only made his comeback from injury after the end of the domestic season and his lack of practice with the team was evident as the defence looked very uncertain.
They day before the team’s first match, starting left back Jonas Hector was taken ill meaning back-up option Marvin Plattenhardt was used. The Hertha Berlin player had played so little football in the national team that players were reportedly not even confident in passing to him. Against Sweden, Sebastian Rudy was taken off injured early on after appearing to have stabilised a previously shaky midfield. Germany finished the group stage with the most shots on goal of any side, yet only scored twice and those came in one match. Good chances were wasted and they hit the woodwork in each game – the margins between winning and losing were fine.
The fallout from the failure in Russia could have sizeable consequences in German football. The last time the national side failed to make it out of the group stage of a major tournament – Euro 2000 – the German FA introduced sweeping reforms of youth team football. While an upheaval on that scale is unlikely in this instance, Löw’s role as head coach looks untenable despite his success and 12-year reign in charge.
Whether Löw and his staff remain at the helm, the reliance on the players he brought through in 2010 must end for Germany to progress as a side. None of the squad from Germany’s U21 European Championship win in 2017 were included in this squad and such talent cannot be ignored. Humility and hard work will be the recipe for success with Euro 2020 qualification just around the corner.
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