Four years ago in Brazil, Germany were crowned world champions in the Maracanã, with Mario Götze the hero with the winning goal, and Philipp Lahm leading the celebrations by lifting the trophy, the fourth time a German had done so.
It was the cumulation of a long rebuilding process in German football and was seen as potentially the start of a period of Die Mannschaft dominance of the international game, with a conveyor belt of talent waiting to replace those who would fall by the wayward through form or age.
Yet fast forward four years and following defeats to Mexico and South Korea and three uncharacteristically haphazard displays, Germany’s 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign in Russia was over before it had even really begun.
It was assumed by most that this was still a team at the peak of its powers, perhaps an even stronger entity than in Brazil, so where did it all go wrong, and what needs to be done to bounce back from a disastrous World Cup?
Leadership vacuum left by Lahm and Schweinsteiger
When they won in Brazil, there was little doubt about who the leaders were. Lahm was still somewhere near his best, even if he would retire from internationals after the tournament, especially when he was moved back into his natural right-back berth after starting the first four games in midfield, where one could also find his Bayern Munich team-mate Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Aside from them, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose also added great experience to the team, regardless of whether they were being picked or not. Around them, the more exciting talents such as Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller could thrive, not to mention Götze (who didn't even make it to Russia) as well.
Four years later, and alongside the likes of Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng, it is these players who should have been shouldering the responsibility as the new senior players in the set-up, yet for a myriad of reasons, that just hasn’t been the case.
For Neuer, the captain, there are mitigating circumstances, with his priority simply being getting on the pitch in Russia after missing most of the season with a metatarsal injury. A more decisive manager may have even left him at home because of that, or at least given the captaincy to someone less distracted.
Others, like Müller, have not been in the best of form in recent times and struggled here, whilst even for Bayern the partnership of Hummels and Boateng at the heart of defence hasn’t always been the most dependable. On the occasion that they played together in Russia, against Mexico, they were a liability at the back – not that the midfield helped them – whilst Boateng had a dire night against Sweden.
As for Özil, when things are going well, there are few better distributors of the ball. Yet for both club and country, he is constantly criticised for disappearing when it really matters. Whether that is true, or whether the criticism itself has got to him (which seems more likely), he just isn’t the player that people expect him to be at the moment.
Sami Khedira is another senior figure that has been mightily disappointing. It’s fair to argue he, more than any of the others, isn’t worth his placing in Germany’s starting line-up anymore, and he was poor against Mexico whilst having little influence when recalled against South Korea.
At least Kroos, despite being off-colour as well, has been one to step up, exemplified by his dramatic free-kick against Sweden. Marco Reus, in his first World Cup, took his share of the responsibility too, although again the South Korea game was a day to forget for him. Perhaps these are the men, along with current skipper Neuer, that Joachim Löw (or his successor) should look to as the leaders of this side.
The kids aren’t alright for Löw
Löw clearly expected better from his more experienced players, and ultimately they let him down. Unlike in previous tournaments – most notably 2010, when the current generation burst onto the scene – he seemed less willing to trust his youngers to dig them out of the hole that had been created by the senior players.
The exceptions to that, Joshua Kimmich and Timo Werner, did struggle in this tournament, with the latter being careless at times at the back, whilst Werner was often left on the left-hand side, having struggled to thrive up front, which may not have been the case if his older team-mates had delivered. Neither can be held responsible for the disaster that unfolded, however.
In fact, there’s plenty of suggestions that Germany’s best player in Russia was Bayer Leverkusen winger Julian Brandt, despite the fact he was limited to cameos at the end of each game. When he did come on, he provided a burst of energy and threatened to give Germany the spark they were lacking without him, hitting the post in each of the first two games.
By the time of the South Korea game, Löw really should have realised this, and thrown him in from the start, yet instead he trusted in his experienced men (and Leon Goretzka) for that game, rather then giving the 22-year-old the chance he clearly deserved.
In an era where Germany have so many quality players available, Löw has almost been spoiled for choice, and ultimately the choices he has made have been the wrong ones. If he was more willing to trust his youngsters when it really mattered, it could have made the difference.
Having done the opposite at the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, where he rested his key men and won the tournament with an inexperienced squad, he should have seen the benefit of fresh faces. Indeed, Werner sealed his place as Germany’s main striker in that tournament, although the form of Goretzka, the other star man there, has fallen away a little since.
In the English-speaking media at least, people are pointing at the absence of Leroy Sané as crucial. Whilst it wasn’t that, he, perhaps more than Brandt, could have been the wildcard option for Löw when he realised the senior players weren’t delivering.
Of course, Sané hadn’t done enough in a Germany shirt to justify his place in the final 23-man squad, and in the initial cold light of day one could see why Löw didn’t pick him. With hindsight though, he had been too cautious with some of his selections, whilst not willing to trust a potential star man. Ultimately, Sané’s absence was a symptom rather than a cause of Germany’s fall.
Löw’s reign reaching its sell-by date
In the end, Germany were complacent. When form wasn’t good going into the tournament, everyone was saying they would come good when it matters, they are a Turniermannschaft (tournament team). In the past that was true, but this time it wasn’t.
Likewise, when they announced their initial squad for the tournament at the National Football Museum in Dortmund, they began by confirming contract extensions for all of the key men around the national team, including Löw. They knew they had done a good job up to that point and assumed that would continue in Russia. Yet here we are, with Löw’s position now arguably untenable.
As already mentioned, Löw’s trust in the men who had got it done before was undeniable. Never mind that, 2014 aside, this side have fallen at the semi-finals stage in three further tournaments. Never mind too that someone like Mario Gómez is well past his prime. Like with Sané, Löw felt he couldn’t trust Sandro Wagner, because of his character, yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he would have been a much better super-sub then Gómez was in this tournament. Likewise, Nils Petersen.
When the time for panic came, which it did in all three games, he simply didn’t have as many options as he would have liked, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t have known what do with them – just look at the chopping and changing from game-to-game. In his defence, he’s not been in this position before, it’s almost been plain sailing up to now.
Yes, he was let down by the men he asked to do the job on the pitch, yet there always comes a time in any walk of life that eventually someone will become complacent and stuck in their ways. Löw was given an extension until 2022, but perhaps the DFB should have waited until after the competition to see if that time for come for Löw, because it most probably has.
If he does stay, he now needs to identify the appropriate leaders, discard the deadwood and give the next generation their chance. The UEFA Nations League, which proceeds qualifying for UEFA Euro 2020, could give him, or his successor, the perfect chance to do this. The transformation at the beginning of the last decade has become known as ‘Das Reboot’ – but now it’s time for Das Mini-Reboot in the national side.