You’re So vain, you probably think this Cup is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you? Despite having high hopes, holders Germany managed to crash out at the group stages in the 2018 World Cup. It was a hard lesson to take.
The players learned that being defending champions carries no weight with resolute opponents. Their fans learned that Die Mannschaft were not infallible. And the rest of the planet learned the meaning of the word “schadenfreude”.
The national team’s displays in Russia were full of sluggish performances, individuals not living up to reputations, a sense of misplaced entitlement and some barely believable defensive tactics that even Kevin Keegan would describe as naive.
But the biggest cause of their failure? Arrogance. The belief and presumption that things will come good simply because your way is the right way.
There’s a very fine dividing line between confidence and arrogance. The former smiles, the latter smirks. And sometimes your greatest strength can also be your biggest weakness. The immense self confidence, a conceited belief in your system and ability is an attitude which can also be construed as stubborn. A refusal to see what’s before you, despite your eyes telling you differently.
This was evident in the demeanour of the coaching staff, the players and, indeed the supporters who were all waiting on the corner being turned. Pre-tournament injuries to key men, indifferent form and poor results in the lead-up friendlies should have had alarm bells ringing. They may have rang, but their chimes were deafened by arrogance.
The fact that the last two defending champs fell at the first hurdle should have been a warning against complacency. The mere thought of this occurring was treated with contempt. After all, this is Germany we are talking about. Arrogance.
Joachim Löw, wedded to the 4-2-3-1 system which had brought so much success in the past and playing a slow possession game, never appreciated the drawbacks. That, coupled with a high defensive line, meant his team were susceptible to transitions & quick counters.
But, having witnessed his side being dismantle by Mexico in such a way, he didn’t feel the need to correct it. Being ambushed can happen to anyone but not three times in similar fashion (they were fortunate that a late Toni Kroos goal rescued them against Sweden).
With both full-backs asked to push on at every opportunity and Sammy Khedeira a shadow of his former self, the centre-backs were more overworked than junior doctors. In addition to their own duties they were required to operate as auxiliary full-backs and defensive midfielders at times – often in the same passages of play. The warning signs were clear from Mexico’s first goal.
Mats Hummels, seeing a vast plain like the Serengeti in front of him, felt the need to try to put in challenge on the halfway line which should have been the responsibility of a holding midfielder. Unfortunately, a slip by him compounded the situation and Mexico took full advantage. Would employing a back three have helped Germany defend such situations? They certainly had the centre-backs to employ this system, allowing the full-backs to play as wing-backs with less defensive responsibilities.
After the first match, despite some strong criticism in the national media, Löw reported that it was a minor setback. Germany could simply flick the switch in the remaining games to get back on track. They wouldn’t fall into the same trap as the previous two defending champions. Löw, emboldened by signing a new four year contract on the eve of the competition, answered his critics.
As far as our playing style is concerned, nothing changes.
But it wasn’t just naive tactics which contributed to their downfall. It was a huge risk making Manuel Neuer the first choice given his injury plagued season. Boateng too had been carrying injuries in Bayern’s campaign. There were reports of rifts in the squad, notably between the so-called “bling gang” comprising Ozil, Khedeira, Boateng, Draxler and the more conservative traditionalists like Hummels, Neuer, Müller and Kroos.
The indifferent form of certain individuals was overlooked. As was Leroy Sane, who would surely have made a difference had he been selected. But, Löw and General Manager Oliver Bierhoff asserted, all would come good during the World Cup.
Despite Toni Kroos having his best games for club and country slightly more on the left side of midfield where he collects the ball on the half turn, protecting it side-on from opponents, he was shoehorned into a more central position. And what was there to say about the choice of Mario Gomez in the squad? Maybe he was only ever Plan B but, in that case you have to imagine that that the envelope containing Plan C simply contained the instruction, “give up”.
The passive passing style currently adopted by the national team is designed to keep the ball and draw your opponents out of position, in the hope of individual errors or capitalising on a team losing shape or discipline. It’s risk averse passing – slow and deliberate, with the aim of making fewer mistakes in possession than the opposition.
A tactic not dissimilar to baseline sluggers in tennis who play the safe option hoping their adversary will crack first in long rallies. With so called ‘smaller nations’ becoming ever more defensively-savvy, passing needs to be a bit more adventurous and with more thought given to transitions.
Player-wise, Timo Werner may indeed be the long term answer to the number nine position but, if so, they’ll need to find a way to incorporate his game into the system. Too often the slow patient build up play didn’t suit someone who likes a ball over the top – and often gets it at club level – to make use of his pace. And as for his speciality of running the channels and trying to get in behind the defence? Forget it, those advanced fullbacks had already beaten him to those positions.
In the aftermath it appears that Löw’s job is safe but, if new personnel isn’t on the cards, then the national side needs new management thinking. More prominence placed on urgency and desire in possession, a quicker tempo and style, a willingness to blood youngsters earlier, enhanced tactical flexibility, fresh ideas and less emphasis on misplaced loyalty. It requires insight to see that change needs to occur – and the right moments to choose for that to happen.
Being adaptable doesn’t mean losing sight of your values, policies and ethos. Germany doesn’t have to reboot the entire system like it did after the failures of 1994 and 1998. Back then it needed candid introspection and a complete revamp of the youth academy structure, the ‘Extended Talent Promotion Program’.
But it does require tweaking and fixes. Rather like taking a wrong turning when using Satnav, it just needs to take stock and do a bit of “recalculating” to get back on track.
Germany approached this World Cup full of complacency and self-regard. “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.” A little more humility and greater awareness are essential for the forthcoming Euros.