So it’s official Germany are out of the World Cup. The curse of champions has struck again and Germany follow France, Italy & Spain in following World Cup triumph with indignity of a group stage exit four years later. But how did it come to this? Are there similarities with those fallen champions of the past? And is it the end of Germany’s golden era?
The Curse of Champions
There’s been a lot of talk about the curse but a closer look reveal Germany’s problems were different. France arrived in 2002 shorn of injured playmakers Zidane & Pires and with a back 4 with a combined age of 129 in the humidity of South Korea. Italy went to South Africa in 2010 with an old out of form squad no longer able to call upon the striking talents of Del Piero, Totti & Inzaghi and Inzaghi. In 2014 Spain arrived with a veteran squad that included out of form stars like Fernando Torres after a punishing domestic season that saw a tight 3 way title battle and Madrid derby in the Champions League Final.
Perhaps more importantly those 3 nations are all synonymous with boom and bust World Cup fortunes- France didn’t even qualify for the 2 World Cups that preceded their triumph whilst Italy followed their 1982 triumph with early elimination from Mexico ’86, Spain were a byword for tournament let-down prior to Euro 2008. Germany by contrast are a model of consistency. Even bad Germany teams make the semi-finals: in the last 9 World Cup’s Germany have finished at least third 7 times and in the 2 they didn’t they sandwiched 2 quarter-final World Cup defeats with their Euro ’96 triumph. This just doesn’t happen to Germany.
Missing Leaders and Selection Dilemmas
Whilst I never predicted Germany would go out in the group I didn’t see them winning the tournament partly because they no longer had the strong characters who underpinned their 2014 triumph- Philip Lahm, Bastien Schweinsteiger, Mirosloav Klose and to a lesser degree Lukas Podolski & Per Metersacker. These were the players that rebuilt Germany’s reputation in 2006 after the reboot of the national team and did so with far less gifted teammates than the German sides that followed. Lahm & Schweinsteiger in particular experienced dark days in club & international football but came back stronger to win the biggest prizes in both, Germany’s current group simply haven’t had to deal with that kind of adversity.
Many sighted Germany’s double triumph last summer at the Confederations Cup where they B team took home the trophy and their youngsters won the Euro Under 21 Championships the same weekend, as proof Germany would be the favourites in Russia. It certainly pointed to Germany’s amazing depth of talent, but you can still only take 23 players to a World Cup and perhaps Low made the wrong cuts. Much has been made of Leroy Sane’s omission, Low pointed out his form hadn’t been great for Germany but it’s easy to see how his lightning pace and direct style would have offered something different meanwhile Low didn’t pick any of Germany’s successful Euro Under 21s squad, although he did take the pick of the young players from the Confederations Cup including Timo Werner & Julian Brandt neither of whom proved effective.
Elsewhere Low stuck much like Del Bosque 4 years previous with the players who’d won the World Cup with the exception of Mario Gotze. That meant taking Manuel Neuer despite not playing since September and other injury doubts Jerome Boateng & Mats Hummels but leaving behind Emre Can.
The biggest puzzler here was Neuer being automatically reinstalled as number 1 despite Marc-Andre her Stegen’s brilliant season with Barcelona and good form for Germany.
Lack of form and domestic competition
Germany entered the tournament in poor form having won just 1 of their previous 6 games. It’s dangerous to say friendlies have any real bearing on tournament form and drawing with England and a narrow defeat to Brazil probably shouldn’t have had alarm bells ringing but losing to Austria and edging Saudi Arabia was worrying.
If the collective form wasn’t great the individuals weren’t inspiring either- Meszut Ozil has had a lethargic season with Arsenal whilst Thomas Muller has regressed at Bayern, Marco Reus has suffered back to back injury hit seasons and then Boateng, Hummels and Neuer were brought back with no evidence of form.
The last 4 years have also seen Bayern Munich dominate the Bundesliga. Bayern winning in Germany is hardly news but the ease of winning the title by February has seen too many of Germany’s bets players have it easy at club level. Compare that to 5 years ago when Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund pipped Bayern to back to back league titles and faced them in the 2013 Champions League Final. The Bundelsiga remains a great league for developing talent but the gap between 1st and the rest becoming a gulf.
Rumours that the Germans didn’t like the choice of Sochi for base camp have been rife in recent weeks with talks of cliques and disquiet within the squad. As things started to unravel Low chopped and changed with 4 changes after the first game and five after the second yet Boetang was retained until his red card earned him a suspension with Ozil in then out and then recalled.
Yet for all the changes Mario Gomez never got a start-up front as Werner struggled to find any form in front of goal. Low’s scattergun approach looked chaotic, four years ago he did move Lahm to left back and recalled Klose but it felt like tweaks to an evolving organised side this time it smacked of desperation.
The coming days in Germany will inevitably be dominated by questions over the manager’s future, after 12 years at the helm it probably is time for a fresh perspective. Whoever the manager is they will need to rebuild around Toni Kroos- the Real Madrid playmaker has been Germany’s only success at this tournament and will surely be the captain. Other central figures in the new Germany will surely include Julian Draxler, Joshua Kimmich, Can, ter Stegen & Sane.
But for the Euro Under 21 class of 2009 the game is surely up for Ozil, Sami Khedira, Boetang it should be the end with question marks hanging over Hummels & Neuer. Germany are still producing talent so there’ no need to rip up the coaching manual as they did after the Euro 2000 fiasco but some changes may be afoot with Spain, Brazil and most notably England now outperforming Germany at youth level.
Germany may be down but they’re unlikely to be out.