For Die Mannschaft, 2018 was annus horribilis, a year eminently forgettable in more ways than one.
Never before in their illustrious history had the German national team failed in successive tournaments in the same year.
However, this palpable crisis may also be the harbinger of another good era for arguably the most consistent nation in world football.
Seeing the team losing like this and going out at the group stage was not easy. Even if you are not selected, you still support your country.
Andre Schürrle provided the assist that led to Mario Götze’s winner against Argentina in the final of 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Four years later the former Chelsea player was not deemed good enough to make it to the squad for Russia.
Ahead of the tournament this non-selection could have been construed as an opportunity lost, considering the German team, unbeaten in qualifying and the winner of the 2017 Confederations Cup, were favorites for the title.
As things panned out Schürrle, like millions of others, would watch in disbelief as the defending champions bowed out in the opening phase.
A few months down the line the national team would follow-up one disappointment with another, with an early exit at the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Disappointed he may have been but Schürrle, now playing for Premier League side Fulham, was pragmatic in his assessment.
“I wanted them to win because I know all of the guys and how much work they put in and how good they can be. Now is the time in Germany to have a transition. It will take time,” he was quoted as saying by the media.
“You saw Spain after their three titles, and they are still in transition mode because they didn’t find this team to be at (their) best. It’s going to be the same with Germany.”
A year of many “unwanted” records
Ahead of Germany’s final game of the year, against the Netherlands, at the UEFA Nations League, manager Joachim Löw was an epitome of positivity.
“It’s a shame for us that we can no longer turn the situation in the group, now we have to learn the right lessons and make the most of a disappointing year.
“We want to sign off with another strong performance to prove we are on the right track,” he said, in the pre-match conference.
The 58-year-old was aware the result was of no consequence to Die Mannschaft, already relegated to the second-tier following the Dutch team’s win over world champions France three days earlier.
He was also aware that a win, against an arch rival, would be a morale booster, required at this juncture to reignite the pride of arguably the most consistent nation in world football.
For a good 85 minutes Die Mannschaft was well on track in Gelsenkirchen, looking likely to protect their two-goal cushion and end the year on a positive note.
However, it was not meant to be.
The Dutch, themselves having a point to prove having failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments, scored twice in the last five minutes to not only secure a 2-2 draw but also pip France (on goal difference) for the top spot and qualify for next year’s finals in Portugal.
The result marked the culmination of an annus horribilis for Die Mannschaft.
It was a year in which they failed miserably as regards their title defense at the World Cup, crashing out in the opening round for the first time in 80 years, and the first time since the group stage format was introduced.
It was a year in which they finished in last place, with just two points, in the inaugural UEFA Nations League, and were relegated to League B.
It was a year in which they lost six times for the first time in their history.
It was a year in which they won just four matches.
It was a year they witnessed their longest winning drought since 1978.
And it was a year when they realized that they would no longer be among the 10 top seeds for the Euro 2020 qualification draw – where they would be subsequently drawn again with the Dutch in Group C.
A few forgettable moments in history
It is imperative to mention here that despite their remarkable consistency at major tournaments – between going out in the first round in the 1938 World Cup (hosted by France) and the failure to cross the first hurdle in Russia earlier this year the German national team had finished among the top eight for 16 successive editions, Die Mannschaft have endured an occasional collapse or two.
Having entered Euro 2000 as the defending champions Die Mannschaft finished bottom of the group with just a single point, having suffered reverses at the hands of both England and Portugal.
Four years later in the same tournament they finished third in their group, behind Czech Republic and the Netherlands, and failed to make the knockout stages.
However, never before had Die Mannschaft failed in successive tournaments in the same year. In that sense 2018 is a first, even if in a negative way.
The Ozil episode…and a reality check
To his credit Löw was honest in his summation of the team’s performance in 2018.
“We have been one of the most consistent teams over the last 10 years – 2018 was a real slap in the face, which was disappointing, but now it goes on,” he said.
The 58-year-old has been in charge of the national side for more than 12 years now, and in the period has guided them to a fourth World Cup (2014), a maiden Confederations Cup (2017) and the Euro 2008 final.
Amid the pile of successes Löw could have been forgiven for allowing an iota of complacency to creep in, had it been any other team.
However, Die Mannschaft has always had higher standards and the humiliation in Russia was unacceptable.
Löw’s future as manager was questioned post the World Cup, and pressure has been increasing with every reverse his side has faced since.
Many view his preference to stick to experienced (but inconsistent) players like Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller as obstinance.
Others point out his hesitation to use the plethora of young talent at his disposal – the likes of Leroy Sané, Emre Can and Shkodran Mustafi, on a regular basis.
Then there was the Mesut Özil saga.
The Arsenal play-maker was made the scapegoat of the German failure, and stepped away from the national team in July, shortly after the World Cup exit.
“I would no longer be playing for Germany at international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect,” Özil was quoted as saying to the media, even as he pointed to his treatment at the hands of the German football community and the public in general, after he and Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan were overtly criticized for meeting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May.
Whether he admits it or not Löw could have, and should have, handled the situation better.
Change…is the only constant
Experts opine a change in management is a logical step to ensure a new direction for Die Mannschaft.
So far the German Football Association (DFB) has felt otherwise, and fully backed the incumbent, entrusting him to oversee a successful transition and steer the national team back on course.
The Germans don’t play a competitive game till March but Löw is aware a lot of work needs to be done.
“The year (2018) was something completely new for me. Now we have reached a phase where we have to renew things, improve, start from scratch,” he admitted during an interaction with the media.
It’s a fact that Die Mannschaft is a team in crisis. However, it is not something they cannot come out of. After all, with every problem comes a solution, and the Germans may have just found one with an exciting new lot of players.
For all the criticisms he has had to endure for not playing youngsters on a consistent basis, it is to his credit that Löw rather controversially included just three World Cup winners in his squad for the Confederations Cup last year.
His experimental line-ups not only excelled but also brought home the trophy, leading their manager to claim Die Mannschaft is “still the best team in the world.”
While that may not be the case anymore, the Germans are more than capable of reclaiming the throne. And who knows it better than their arch rivals.
Ronald Koeman, himself ensuring a Dutch renaissance of sorts, has had encouraging words to say.
“I don’t think Germany have to panic. They still play good games, although the World Cup was not so good, in the Nations League they could have won some games,” the Netherlands manager told the media.
“They still have a lot of talent but transition takes time. I understand it’s hard for [the] Germans because they are, even more than us, used to winning a lot.”
The series of poor results has forced Löw to once again turn to the young brigade, and they seem promising prospects.
Die Mannschaft’s young front line – comprising RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, Manchester City’s Sané and Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry, showed immense potential in the friendly win over Russia.
The trio, nicknamed “the moped gang,” also looked promising for most of the game against the Dutch, with both Werner and Sané on target.
Löw is now more aware than ever before that phasing out the experienced players, and easing the younger lot into the team, is the way forward.
Keeping that in mind the current longest-serving national team manager in Europe has set new targets.
“Our focus however is now like it was before, solely on qualifying for the European Championship, where we want to send a strong team out,” said Löw, after the match in Gelsenkirchen, adding,
“With this in mind we will have lots of room to allow young players to come in and for them to get more and more experience with the national team. We are on the right path, but we must continue to improve.”