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What Went Wrong With Germany?

Time Travel
The year is 2017. German football cannot curtail its giddiness. Germany has won the Confederations Cup with what is their B team. Their U21 team has also won the U21 world cup tournament. They are still the world champions and they will be heading into the upcoming World Cup tournament as favorites. The year before this they were finalists at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Germany is beaming with its mix of young talent and established world-class performers. What followed shocked the football world.


Die Mannschaft disappointed spectators spectacularly at the 2018 World Cup. Their tournament began with a defeat to Mexico. A last-minute win over Sweden papered the first defeat but there is a popular, albeit wrong saying that “football doesn’t lie”. It may be a fallacious statement but Germany’s game did not lie. Their final game was an all-around travesty. Uninspiring, labored, and bereft of ideas, they lost by 2 goals to South Korea. Heads must roll.


The First Mistake
Joachim Low kept his position as head coach of the team. After such an embarrassing display of lethargy and on such a grand scale, it was surprising not to see Jorgi fired. Former president of the German Football Association Reinhard Grindel did not leave immediately too. He continued his stay amidst different unsavory occurrences. The watch scandal, corruption allegations in the hosting of the 2006 World Cup, the 2018 World Cup, the handling of the Mesut Ozil/Ilkay Gundogan picture case, and the decision to part ways with the old guard. Figureheads in German football like Michael Ballack continued to call for his resignation but he did not resign until April 2019.


Oliver Bierhoff also kept his job as the Technical Director with all this going on. Fritz Keller took over after Grindel in September 2019 and continued with Jorgi. 14 years is a long time for someone to be in charge of a team in modern football. Complacency and lethargy will find a way to creep in.


The Second Mistake
Joachim Low had to make a statement after the embarrassment of the 2018 World Cup Campaign. Ozil retired from international football after the brouhaha surrounding the picture with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Low decided Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller, and Mats Hummels had run their race for their nation. He announced that he would no longer be calling them for games. “The young national players need to get the necessary space to fully develop, now they have to take on the responsibility”, he said at a press conference. Sami Khedira retired too.


The mistake here is not that he dropped these players in the first place. The problem is that even after they regained form, Low has refused to call them up. Hummels has moved back to Borussia Dortmund where he is a leader in Lucien Favre’s defense. Low continues to ignore his return to form. Whether in a back 3 or a back 4 Hummels leads the Dortmund defense and should be doing the same for his country.


Thomas Muller has regained form and enjoyed a record-breaking season with Bayern. His personal and collective achievements are outstanding. Yet, he is still waiting for a call from Low. Football’s only raumdeuter plays in the number 10 role for Hans-Dieter Flick’s Bayern. Muller brings a combination of spatial awareness, football intelligence, creativity, goals, and grit to the current European Champions. Yet, his call has not come. Boateng may not be back to his best version but he is still ahead of players like Robin Koch, Antonio Rudiger, and Jonathan Tah who continue to get call-ups to the national team.


Selection Issues
The points mentioned above are not the only selection issues Low seems to have. Low’s call-ups are very puzzling as he calls players that do not have game time under their belts. Even some of the players that have the game time should not be getting calls to this German side. For this point, keep in mind that most of the European leagues have played 8 games this season.


Ilkay Gundogan has made 2 starts in the league while the ambiguous Julian Draxler has started 5 games. Draxler has started this many games due to PSG’s injury issues and has not been impressive either. Thilo Kehrer has started 3 games while Lukas Klostermann has started 3. Benjamin Henrichs has started 3 league games while Nico Schulz is yet to start even one game for Dortmund. Niklas Sule has started 3 games while Antonio Rudiger is yet to feature in the league after falling out of favor at Chelsea.

The inconsistent Julian Brandt has started 3 games and Mahmoud Dahoud has started 2. Robin Koch has conceded 4 goals on 3 separate occasions with Leeds. On what ground does Low call up these players?


Kroos Control?
A player that deserves a paragraph on his own is Toni Kroos. When he is not dismissing blatant racism or football celebrations, he is one of the best midfielders in the world. Kroos has never been an athletic midfielder, to begin with. Even in his younger days with Bayern, he was popular for his intelligence, passing, and shots. He was not famous for his athletic abilities. At Real Madrid, he has played in deeper midfield positions and has become one of the best at controlling games. The problem is that as he has gotten older, the little athletic ability he possesses is declining.


Fabian Ruiz, Koke, and Rodri are not better than Kroos at controlling a game yet they outplayed the maestro in the game. They took the game from him with their athleticism. If Low is attentive, he’d know that this is an occurrence these days. Before the international break, Carlos Soler and Uros Racic ran through him in a shock loss for his side to Valencia. In this age of football, athleticism is as important as technique.

Some “technical” footballers do not have the athleticism to cope but then their managers surround them with players that make sure the midfield does not get run over. See Maurizio Sarri’s use of N’golo Kante and Allan to protect Jorginho. See Antonio Conte’s use of Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal to protect the aging Andrea Pirlo. Kroos is at that stage too. Against Spain, he was in midfield with Ilkay Gundogan and Spain overran the two of them. Only later in the game did Low send Koch up to midfield after identifying the problem. The game was already gone.


Kroos can control a game when he has the bustling Luka Modric and the defensively aware Casemiro around him. He can also seize control if the opposition does not try to take the game to his side. But if he is not covered in the wrong game, Kroos can be a liability. Low has to give him that protection or drop him.


Tactical Insecurity/Issues
The 4-2-3-1 formation has almost become synonymous with Germany in this decade. It was the formation Jurgen Klopp used to take his Dortmund side to 2 Bundesliga titles. This was the same system Jupp Heyneckes used to secure the treble in the 2012/2013 season. It was the primary formation at the 2014 World Cup. It is a formation that Bayern used to secure their treble under Flick. Yet, it seems like Low is afraid to return to the basics.


He has experimented with a back 3 and a back 4 to mixed results. They do not invoke fear of their opponents like the previous sets of German machines. Low has become so reactive, he is changing formation and personnel at every inconvenience. Low is tactically adept but he has become more reactive than proactive. He has become a tinkering coach who changes formation and players all the time and this does not allow stability.


Also, why is Matthias Ginter who is one of the best central defenders in Germany playing the wing-back position? Why is Low starting a midfield two against a team known for winning by controlling the middle? Why play a 3-man defense against a team that only uses one striker? In fact, in Spain’s game before the Germans, they did not use a striker at all. What was Low thinking?


Missing the Flick/Leadership
Flick’s role in this German side is more evident since his departure. His man-management is an asset they are missing. A man that can transform a flailing side that lost 5-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt into a treble-winning side is a huge asset. Flick is more of the player’s person than Low and it is what the set-up needs right now. Note that this is speculation and an outsider’s view. But from the outside, it looks like they need a nexus between the coaching ideas and the players.


They need more vocal leaders on the pitch too. The aggressive type of leadership that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm used to offer and not the quiet one that Toni Kroos brings. One cannot help but feel that this is an area where the dropped trio would have been useful.


To Be Honest
Many things went wrong for Germany on that day. Issues building from 2017 down to now. One issue that is easy to resolve is recalling the trio. Manuel Neuer stated that if it were up to him, they will return. That is the captain of the team and his words are echoes of the dressing room. It remains to be seen whether Low will (in the brilliant words of German football expert Manuel Veth) step over his shadows to recall them. Low is a firm man with great resolve even though his constant tinkering does not show this. Recalling the trio is the first step. Flick will not be leaving Bayern Munich to join the German set-up. Now they need to find someone who can relate with the players as he did.


Low also needs to stop tinkering and stick with a formation that his players can ingest and play with their eyes closed. He needs to instill a tactical rigidity in his team and stop the chopping and changing.


He must also ask himself some very important questions. Why was Timo Werner playing on the left and Serge Gnabry through the middle? Why was Leroy Sane on the right? Sane is still getting used to playing on the right after years of playing on the left under Pep Guardiola. He is a substitute player for Bayern who is getting used to this space on the right. He was on the right for Die Mannschaft but after a few touches, it was obvious that the sharpness he needs to be effective was not there. The sharpness to cut into the packed middle and skip challenges from midfielders to carry the ball forward was not there. Low should have moved him to the left where he is more comfortable albeit limited. He may have made more of an impact dragging Sergi Roberto but Low did not react fast enough.


Low also needs to learn to call players based on merit. At least 7 players with this squad do not deserve a place in this side based on their appearances and performances at the club level. If he were to call players based on form, the trio should be here barring injuries/Covid. It is hard to see Low leaving before the Euros but if he does not fix up, the embarrassment that is ahead may tarnish his great legacy.

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