An angry team meeting. Home truths exchanged. Defeat used as a launchpad for improvement. West Germany did it in 1954 after defeat by Hungary and went on to win the World Cup. They did it in 1974 after defeat by East Germany and went on to win the World Cup. They did it in 1982 after defeat by Algeria and went on to reach the final. But that was in the old days, when Germany was a Turniermannschaft – a tournament team – and they could rely on their leaders, their Führungsspieler, to drag them through.
There was an angry team meeting after Germany’s defeat by Japan on Wednesday, but they are no longer a Turniermannschaft and they no longer seem to have any Führungsspieler. For the first time in 20 years, questions are being asked about the direction of German football.
The problem when talking about national sides is how little evidence there is. Friendlies can’t be taken seriously. A lot of qualifiers are mismatches. And so everything comes down to a handful of tournament games, when one decision, one mistake, one moment of brilliance, can transform the perspective. Which is why it’s worth beginning by going back to 2014 and Germany’s World Cup triumph.
The 7-1 win against Brazil in the semi-final, understandably, demands the attention. But that game was really a story of Brazilian hysteria and indiscipline, ruthlessly punished by a Germany forward line supremely drilled in transition, as it had been in beating Portugal in the group; and putting four past Australia, England and Argentina at the previous World Cup.
The key moment in Germany’s 2014 success had come after the edgy 2-1 win over Algeria in the last 16. Jogi Löw, recognising that his team had been fortunate in that game and against Ghana in the group – what if Jordan Ayew had squared it with Ghana 2-1 up? – went for a run along the beach in Rio. By the time he got back he had decided to go back to basics. Miroslav Klose returned at centre-forward, the fluid front three was abandoned and the centre was blocked up. The result was the functional 1-0 wins over France and Argentina (and the Brazilian self-immolation).
The World Cup win is the high point of Das Reboot, the process of reform that began in 2000 as Germany shifted from being a country dismissive of pressing to becoming its most enthusiastic proponent. The new German school – Jürgen Klopp turbocharged the revolution with his eloquent TV punditry in 2006 – became dominant across Europe, but the World Cup win was ultimately an outlier; it had in its final stages very little to do with aggressive pressing.
Löw always seemed caught between a desire to play in the modern style he had helped usher in as assistant to Jürgen Klinsmann at the 2006 World Cup and a stodgier but perhaps more effective approach. Germany under him could be attractive, attacking and vulnerable, or dull, defensive and impregnable. After 2014 he never quite got the balance right, culminating in the embarrassing group-stage exit four years ago.
There was talk then about cliques and Löw’s failure to integrate the younger generation who had led Germany to spectacular success at the Confederations Cup in 2017. Failure has many fathers but what has been apparent over the past few months is how that basic tactical issue persists. Hansi Flick was successful with a pugnaciously high line at Bayern Munich, winning the Champions League in 2020. But even with a goalkeeper as adept at sweeping as Manuel Neuer it is very hard, given the limited time available, to implement that with a national team.
Squeezing high up the pitch, trying to win the ball back as near to the opponent’s goal as possible, shutting down counters before they’ve had a chance to develop, may be the most effective way of attacking. But the downside is the space left behind the defensive line and, as Liverpool in 2020-21 and again this season have shown, it doesn’t take much for it to go awry.
Look at Germany’s defeat by Italy in Euro 2012, at the wobble against Ghana in 2014, at the defeats by Mexico and South Korea at the last World Cup, at the struggles against Hungary at Euro 2020 and again this summer, and the same patterns recur: Germany are vulnerable to balls played in behind them. That was the source of both Japan goals: first from a counterattack and then from a simple free-kick. Suddenly Germany is doubting its reformation.
The present system of coaching clearly produced technically adept, tactically intelligent players, but has something been lost along the way? Where are the modern-day Beckenbauers, Rummenigges, Matthäuses, the leaders who will drag them through? Are they focusing too much on rondos and not enough on individual battles?
It’s not just a German problem. There is a curious dearth of young centre-forwards at this World Cup, which is why Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez and Olivier Giroud (or Karim Benzema had he been fit) remain so central to their sides. Kylian Mbappé is the obvious exception, but even he prefers not to play as the out-and-out striker. But that’s an understandable outcome given how influential Spanish football, or more specifically Pep Guardiola’s vision of football, has been in shaping the ethos of modern western European academies. Spain have not really had a top-class centre-forward since David Villa’s broken leg in 2011.
Perhaps Germany would have finished Japan off in the first hour had Timo Werner not sustained a pre-tournament ankle injury but, for them, the issue is less to do with individual battles in the forward line than at the back. Perhaps bringing in Thilo Kehrer for Niklas Süle will eliminate the sort of error that led to Japan’s second, but that inability to press well enough to play as high as Flick desires is leaving Germany vulnerable.
This may be the paradox of Das Reboot; that what has made the German idea of football so successful at club level is precisely what is undermining the national side.