Well, what can I say Soccity readers? I let you down. In our super awesome, nearly 5 billion word preview of the World Cup group stages, you’ll recall I predicted Germany handily winning group F. It seemed a pretty safe pick; my pick for South Korea being the second team out of the group was far more outlandish and unlikely. Yet here we are, group stages of Russia 2018 officially closed, and Die Mannschaft will be watching the rest of the competition from their couch instead of participating in the knockout rounds.
How did we get here? What went wrong? What does the future for this relatively young Germany squad look like? Fortunately (or not, depending on your persuasion), I’ve got plenty of thoughts to share. So wipe away your tears, strap in, and join me in a post-mortem of 2014’s World Cup champion.
End of the line for Jogi Lӧw…or at least, it should be
Few international managers in the game’s history have enjoyed as consistent a period of success as Germany’s top coach. Lӧw’s record is imperious; of the 165 national team fixtures he’s taken charge of, Die Mannschaft have won 108, drawn 30, and lost just 28. That’s a roughly 65% win percentage for those of you crunching the numbers at your desk, an impressive feat in an environment where he’s only actively working with his players for 3-4 months a year.
That said, it’s evident that success has bred complacency for Jogi, as the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup was anything but smooth. Apart from winning the Confederations Cup in 2017 with a very young squad, Low’s side looked shaky in their pre-tournament prep matches. Their rustiness was fully evident on matchday 1 against Mexico, and they continued in a similar vein against Sweden and South Korea on their way to a historic group stage collapse. As head coach, Low has to shoulder a decent portion of the blame here.
A lack of preparation is not something German sides are typically accused of, yet as Low chopped and changed his line-up between every group game it became clear he really had no clue what his best XI was. The result was a series of fractured, nervy performances in which star players weren’t used properly (if at all) and the balance of the team looked horribly off. Against Mexico, they lacked pace and physicality; against Sweden, their technique was uncharacteristically sloppy; and finally, against South Korea they were too slow and dispassionate to muster up the single goal they needed to qualify. Truth be told, their group stage was over well before South Korea scored in stoppage time, and given the class disparity between his team and their group mates, Low has to take responsibility.
What does that look like? After 4 World Cup cycles with the team (2006 counts as he was Klinsmann’s assistant), it seems that the sun finally needs to set on Low’s time as Germany manager. It was the most likely outcome regardless of how they performed in Russia, but their collapse has hastened the timeline considerably. There is simply too much talent in the DFB’s player pool to accept an elimination in the first round of a big tournament like this. It’s anybody’s guess who should replace him, as there are tons of talented ex-players who are likely interested in the role. But it’s clear to me that for progress to occur, and indeed for this recent horror-show to be put behind them, Germany needs fresh blood in the manager role.
Flair players a luxury Low, Germany couldn’t afford
Flair players. Every team has them. Their impact is sometimes difficult to quantify in terms of goals (less so, in assists), but they add a facet to attacking play that often increases the number of quality scoring chances created. Germany had several players that fit this description in the squad this summer, with the most notable being PSG’s Julian Draxler and Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil. Perhaps surprisingly, both were guilty of absolutely shambolic displays over the course of the group matches, so much so that neither of them merited a starting role in back-to-back matches. Ozil started the loss vs. Mexico, was benched for the win over Sweden, and returned to the first XI for South Korea, while Draxler was given the full game against Mexico, started but was subbed against Sweden, and sat out the South Korea match.
Now before this gets misinterpreted, let me get it on the record that I think flair players are a necessary part of top teams. Hence why players like Eriksen, Coutinho, James Rodriguez, and others command such high transfer fees and important roles in their respective teams. That said, the difference between the names I just listed and guys like Draxler and Ozil is that the former group provide more than just their flair, while the latter are somewhat one-dimensional. What I mean to say with this is, the skill set of a player like Ozil is far narrower than that of say, Eriksen.
You look at a guy like Eriksen, and you see more than just tricky passing and clever use of space, the typical hallmarks of a good #10. The skillful Dane, who by the way practically carried his side to the knockout stage over the last two weeks, brings value on the defensive side of the ball as well. You’d be hard-pressed (pun definitely intended) to find many other attacking midfielders who pressure opponents as relentlessly as Eriksen does when his side lose possession. This fits right in with the modern game, where aggressive pressing styles are becoming much more vogue for those in-between teams that aren’t quite elite, but also aren’t poor enough to solely use a park-the-bus strategy in every match. For these teams, pressing acts as a sort of force multiplier; not every man on the pitch may be able to pass or shoot like Eriksen, but most of his Denmark teammates can run and close down space the way he does.
Ozil, meanwhile, came up during a phase where both national teams and club teams were using a counter-attacking style much more frequently. This style of play suits Ozil perfectly, as it opens up space on the field for him to play killer passes into willing runners. Nowadays, however, Germany and most of the other top teams often enjoy a monopoly on possession, which forces opposing sides to sit deep in their own half and compresses the space players like Ozil have to work with.
No matter how wide the gulf in class is between two teams, the reality is that it is extremely difficult to play against any side that insists on sitting in their own half the entire game. Given that at least 2 out of 3 of Germany’s group F opponents were just about guaranteed to employ such defensive tactics, Ozil and Draxler were inevitably placed in environments ill-suited to their skill set. The result was that they may as well have not been on the field at all, as their attacking influence was neutered and their lack of defensive discipline made them essentially useless on both sides of the ball.
Haphazard tactics lead to disjointed performances
I’ve touched a bit on this in the above sections, but Germany’s tactics in the group phase were a huge problem in every single match they played. In addition to Low setting up his side improperly, the players themselves contributed by either refusing to execute obvious tactical instructions or being physically unable to keep up with the demands of matches.
In game 1 against Mexico, Low should have known at least 3 things about their Central American opponents. First, Mexico’s attackers are young and quick, meaning speed was going to play a significant role. Second, that Central American teams are typically built on physicality rather than technical ability, meaning the game was going to be very demanding for Germany’s midfield and defense. Finally, an aging yet experienced Mexican backline would have the cohesion to prevent dangerous chances as long as they prevented Germany from getting in behind them.
Evidently, Low knew NONE of these things, or if he did it was not reflected in his team selection as he opted for an unbelievably slow and stale starting XI. Muller, Draxler, and Ozil all started in midfield, with two out of the three playing wide roles they are not equipped to play properly. Neither is fast, Muller’s delivery is very average, and both of them favor cutting inside rather than keeping width. The result was a clogged up midfield that seemed to play square balls endlessly in front of a Mexican back line that barely had to move to stop them. Striker Timo Werner barely had any service, and when he did, it wasn’t the kind he could do much with.
Low doubled down on his slow attacking midfield selections with the inclusion of both Kroos and Khedira in holding midfield roles. Both are fantastic players on their day, sure, but both are also incredibly slow and incapable of impacting matches that turn into a speed battle. Mexico’s path through the German midfield on their goal was so laughably simple it took merely 3 passes for them to go 60+ yards and score past Neuer. If you’re going to start Kroos, he needs someone next to him who can actually run to protect the defense from counters like that.
In game 2, Ozil was dropped, Reus came in, and the team immediately looked more balanced and threatening. Sloppy midfield play cost them the opening goal, but they proceeded to manufacture a decent amount of chances. The half-time substitute of true target man Mario Gomez gave the German wingers and fullbacks something to aim for in the box, and the big man’s presence led directly to Reus’s equalizer just minutes into the second half. While the final goal was more a case of Kroos’ brilliance than anything else, the verdict was clear; a two-striker, more offensively balanced Germany formation created significantly more scoring opportunities than the ponderously slow false 9 nonsense Low tried in the loss to Mexico.
So what did Jogi do for the third game? Why, he brought Ozil back in, sat Muller, played an attacking midfielder out of position in a winger spot again (Goretzka), and didn’t use Gomez until almost 60 minutes had elapsed. In total, he made 5 changes to the side that actually won a game against Sweden, repeating nearly every mistake from the Mexico loss in the process.
For 70 odd minutes I watched this lot struggle to create many truly dangerous chances, and in the few instances they did breach the South Korean backline they fluffed the scoring opportunities. When Hummels and Gomez both missed golden chances, I knew in my gut Germany was going home. The late South Korean goals may have piled on the misery, but the match was lost for the Germans almost from the off due to the tactical tinkering Low engaged in.
I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Joachim Low. He’s presided over an incredibly successful period in German football’s history and is responsible for some of the national team’s most memorable moments, including their 2014 World Cup triumph (the team’s first since 1990). But when placed in a position where he had to become a strong leader himself instead of relying on senior personalities like Lahm, Klose, and Schweinsteiger, Low’s weaknesses as a manager were exposed.
I certainly don’t want to see him chased out of town over one bad tournament; he’s earned far more than that during his tenure. I do feel, however, that if the team is truly to evolve their playing style to best fit the young talent in the player pool, it needs to be done under new leadership. A student of the modern game like Klopp or Tuchel seem like they’d be good candidates, while former players like Miroslav Klose probably need a few more years of coaching experience before taking on such a high-profile role.
German football will be fine at the end of the day. The infrastructure and sporting culture that Low began with Klinsmann over a decade ago will continue to produce quality talent that is capable of competing with the best. What they need now is the leader that can carry them to that next generation of success and adapt them to the ever-evolving modern game. Low will always have a significant place in his country’s footballing history, but it’s time for him to say auf wiedersehen to Die Mannschaft.