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Why did Germany Fail at the World Cup?

Note: This article is almost 6000 words long as I tried to be as thorough as possible. If you don’t want to read it all, the sections which should most interest the casual reader are 1c (striker issues), 2 (counterpressing), and 6 (recommendations).   

German girl crying

I do not believe there is anyone reading this, maybe not anyone in the entire world, who would argue that the German National Team did not underperform this World Cup.  Failing to get out of the group stage for the first time in history is, to put it simply, a catastrophe, and it is a catastrophe we must engage in in order to draw lessons for the future.

Plenty of people have already engaged with it and offered their own theories.  Two of the most common ones I’ve heard blame the players for being “past it” and underperforming or blame the entire idea of possession football.  Meanwhile, the DFB favorite explanation puts the entire failure on Özil and Gundogan’s shoulders for making one ill-advised photoshoot.

When I think about those theories, particularly the ones who blame one player or another, my mind keeps turning back to a conversation I had not that long ago with an acquaintance who is a strong Barcelona fan. He commented, as so many have before him, that Messi never plays for Argentina like he plays for Barcelona.  I replied that the difference lies less in Messi and more with the fact that he’s surrounded by world-class players playing as part of a well-organized whole at Barcelona.

Thus, even the one player that everyone is convinced can do it all alone in fact relies to an incredible degree on the support of his team, and what is true for Messi much be even more true for Reus, Thomas Müller, Özil, Hummels, Kimmich, etc.  If they are forced to play under highly unfavorable circumstances, we can hardly complain if the results are disappointing.

By this point, it should be obvious that I am writing this article because I believe most of common explanations for the failure of the National Team are wrong.  Rather, and although I acknowledge that after such a woeful performance blame can hardly be treated like it is in short supply, I think primary responsibility much be assigned to Joachim Löw because his coaching and tactical decisions set up both the team and the players for failure.  To better analyze his failures, I will mainly look at four areas: strikers (or the lack thereof), faulty counterpressing, the defensive midfield, and the bizarre coaching decisions of the game against South Korea.

Part 1: The Center Forward Problem

Section A: How Goals Are Scored

or How I Scored 8 Goals in 9 Shots

Recently, I played a game where I scored 8 goals in only 9 shots.  I don’t bring it up here to brag about it because I’ve played so many bad games in my life where I couldn’t score for the life of me (not to mention that I obviously don’t play at a professional level) and particularly because, even though my teammates found my performance to be quite incredible (it was suggested that it would be an auspicious time for me to buy a lottery ticket), what I did was actually much less impressive than it sounds.

Of the nine shots I took that game, eight of them were, so to speak, big chances.  I was one vs. one against the goalkeeper, the keeper had been taken out of the game and I had a tap in, or I was shooting unmarked and unpressured within the box. Moreover, the one shot I didn’t score off was the only one which wasn’t a big chance. Thus, scoring so many of them is not quite what it seems at face value.

That is not to say my shooting wasn’t particularly good (I probably scored about twice as many goals as an ExG model would predict) or that I wasn’t lucky (a couple of my finishes were pretty bad and I was surprised to see them go in), but it serves to illustrate my point: most goals are scored off of big chances; therefore, the best way to measure how good an offense is by the number of big chances it creates.  By that measure, the German offense was remarkable bad last World Cup:

Germany vs Mexico-No big chances created:

Germany vs Sweden-one big chance created, plus another not counted on this chart because Gomez was wrongly ruled offside (the goal would have counted if he had scored due to VAR).

Germany vs South Korea-only one big chance before the 87th minute:

Thus, those who emphasize the very large number of shots that the National Team took in those three games, with the implication that Germany only failed due to bad luck or bad finishing, are incorrect as almost all of those shots were ones that were quite unlikely to result in a goal.

Section B: How to Defeat a Parked Bus
or Why Everyone Who is Anyone Plays with a Striker

The main reason that National Team created so few good chances is simple: its opponents, drawing on the lessons that the last decade have brought about playing against possession teams, played extremely defensively and focused on packing so many players in the box that there was no space whatsoever within it.

Of course, parking the bus is not a new strategy and every good team has had to deal with it for years because almost all opponents they play are content with getting a draw. Notably, the best teams in the world, almost of which play possession football, have almost invariably reacted not through playing with the false 9s that everyone was convinced were the wave of the future just a few years ago but instead by acquiring and playing the very best strikers they could find, with Suarez, Lewandowski, Ronaldo, Higuaín, Lukaku, Aguero, and Cavani being but a few examples, thus showing how important proper strikers are when playing against compact defenses.

Our very own experiences at Bayern also back that point.  During an all too long period between the summer of 2015 and the winter of 2017/18, we relied on Lewandowski as our only striker and prayed that he didn’t get injured.  During that sad epoch, within the Bundesliga we won 65 out of the 85 games we played overall, but of the 9 games Lewandowski did not start, we only had a positive goal difference (i.e. scored more goals than we conceded) before Lewandowski was subbed on in 4 out of 9 times he did not start (Lewandowski made some crucial contributions as a sub, most notably the 5 goals in 9 minutes).  Thus, not playing a center forward dropped our win rate from 76% to 44%.  As goals generally stem from big chances, what this says about how Lewandowski’s absence effected our ability to create big chances is obvious.

Additionally, our experiences after acquiring Wagner in the winter of 2017/18 suggest that our problems stemmed not from lacking Lewandowski and his incredible skills specifically but instead from lacking a center forward in general.  In the Rückrunde, we started nine games without Lewandowski, and won 7 of them (or 78%) before Lewandowski was subbed on or without him playing at all, and in fact did so despite an embarrassing tendency to concede the first goal.  The addition of a good center forward made us much more able to destroy the parked buses of other Bundesliga teams.

Finally, the past experiences of the German National Team (no, I am not going to refer to them as “Die Mannschaft”) also show the necessity of a striker for possession teams.  Over the past 6 or so years, the National Team has always played ultra-possession football except for a brief deviation during the Confederations Cup, and has usually played with a false 9 (generally Mario Götze).  However, this setup, although adequate against weak teams, has generally failed against well-organized opposition in tournaments, and it’s telling that the National Team began two tournaments with false 9 setups but in both ended up switching to playing with a “true” 9.

Nowhere are the advantages of such a switch more evident than in Euro 2016.  With the false 9 system, Germany played for 180 minutes against compact Ukrainian and Polish defenses and managed to create essentially nothing from open play (in those two games, the only big chances Germany managed to create were one off a set piece and another in late game counterattack after Ukraine was forced to send numbers forward).  This was clearly not acceptable, so for the must win game against a defensively well-organized and excellent Northern Irish team (Ukraine and Poland together managed to create just one big chance against it), Joachim Löw decided to drop Draxler, pull Götze back to the left wing, and start Mario Gomez, an actual striker, in the center forward position.  Some bad finishing somewhat masked the results of these changes, but from a chance creation prospective they were excellent:

As you can see, the National Team, in no small part due to Gomez’s efforts, managed to create no fewer than 5 big chances, not to mention a boatload of other shots from relatively good positions (Germany scored and hit the post twice off of shots that weren’t big chances) against a team that played about as deep as Mourinho’s Manchester United.  In most universes, Germany would have won by far more than 1 to 0

Unfortunately, Löw, like too many fans, paid too close attention to unlucky finishing, and dropped Götze in favor of the much inferior Draxler (who manages to create a decent chance in about 1 out of every 6 games he plays for the National Team), but Germany still managed to vastly out create its opponents from open play until Mario Gomez got injured against Italy.  At that point the National Team was out of strikers and thus was forced to play an extremely frustrating game against France where possession could not be turned into shots within the box.

Section C: How Center Forwards Actually Benefit the Team
or Why Timo Werner is NOT Really a Striker

Many of you would respond to the above by saying “so what?” After all, the National Team did start with a striker, Werner, in all three games, so its underperformance cannot possibly be explained as stemming for a lack of one, right?

In fact, the National Team played like it had Striker Deficiency Syndrome despite having Timo Werner because Werner is barely a striker at all and is certainly not the kind of striker that a possession team needs to play against a parked bus, and in order to understand why this is true, one first must understand how a good possession striker helps an offense.

There are three areas that such a striker must excel in: space creation, chance poaching, and combination play.

Space creation is the most crucial of the three areas. Essentially, the striker needs to be able to distract the team’s defense and draw one or more defenders upon themselves in order to allow other members of the offense to find space in the final third. This is particularly important as a team parking the bus generally has the number advantage against the team attacking it because the more offensive team generally needs to leave at least two players far back as insurance against counterattacks.  Thus, the other attackers will almost always struggle to create anything unless the centerbacks are always looking over their backs.  The ability to threaten to get on the end of crosses, moreover, is a particularly effective tool to keep the defense’s attention divided.

The second crucial area is chance poaching.  The center forward is usually the player that is in the best position to shoot and the most likely to win to end up on the end of a dangerous ball in a congested box.  Therefore, a good striker must have the excellent positioning and intelligence that is required to be unmarked in the right place at the best time.   He thus must be marked 95% of the game in order to distract the defense but be unmarked the crucial 5% it takes to score the game winning goal.

Finally, a good possession striker must excel at combination play.  He needs to be able to act as option during possession play and help complete quick and dangerous movements of the ball in the penalty area. Such passing can help turn the slightest gap in a defense into a goal.

It should be obvious that Timo Werner excels in none of these three areas.  His presence and movement in the box are not enough to discombobulate the defense.  His poaching within a packed box is lacking and did not threaten at a single point the entire world cup.   Finally, he’s not particularly good at combination play.

Of course, I am far from the first person to point out that Werner is not the best striker for possession play, but many discussions of this have focused on his height, which I don’t think is the most important factor.  It is true that Werner’s height of 1.81 Meters imposes a disadvantage on him, but Gerd Müller, arguably the best striker within the box ever, was only 1.76 Meters tall.  Instead, it’s the fault in Werner’s movements which make the biggest difference.

Admittedly, most objective observers would respond to my criticisms by pointing out that Werner is still an effective enough of a striker to score over 30 goals in a mere two Bundesliga seasons and thus was not quite as unfortunate of a choice as I am making him out to be.  However, for RB Leipzig he not only plays for counter-pressing/counter-team instead of a possession one, but also plays secondary striker instead of striker, relying on Yurary Poulsen to create space for him.  Furthermore, Werner’s weaknesses were arguably quite evident from the qualifying campaign and the friendlies that came after it. Thus, playing him as a sole striker on a possession team was a dismal choice from Joachim Löw.

By contrast, Sandro Wagner, as he proved last season, has exactly the characteristics that a striker needs to play on a possession team.  He has such a great presence in the box due to his movement and size that defenders frequently forget to mark his teammates, yet he has the strangest talent at frequently getting uncontested tap ends.  Despite all expectations, he has also proven to be quite capable at combination play inside the box.  Moreover, Mario Gomez, despite his gradual decline with age, still excels in dominating the box and poaching within it.

Thus, when Joachim Löw choose to bring Timo Werner to the World Cup and start him three times in a row despite an evidently dysfunctional offense, he was choosing the worst of three options.  His decision is particularly odd considering that many of the limitations of an offense built around Werner were apparent in the last part of qualification and in the friendlies that followed.

Timo Werner is a decent player by Goalimpact but nearly as good as 

Sandro Wagner nor even a declined

Mario Gomez, much less (for reference)

Kun Agüero

Notwithstanding the reasons behind Löw’s choice, it had a highly deleterious effect on how well the entire team played. When a team lacks a proper center forward, each position pays.  Wingers have more trouble isolating opponents in 1 vs 1 situations, secondary strikers find themselves with less room in the box, playmakers can’t find open passes, registas can’t advance the ball, fullbacks don’t have anywhere to cross the ball to, and box to box midfielders have their late-arriving runs noticed and neutralized before they can score.  In real terms, the players who had to futilely struggle against such unfavorable circumstances, and who got the blame afterwards, were Reus, Draxler, Kimmich, Özil, Müller, Hector, and Kroos.

True, Löw did eventually improve things in each game by throwing on Mario Gomez late, but only playing real football 1/3 of the time is simply asking for failure, and failure he did receive.

Part 2: The Counterpressing Problem

Counterpressing (or Gegenpresssing) is pressing right after losing the ball rather than dropping back as fast as possible.  There are many different variants of counterpressing, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, but all of them are essentially based around having at least one player apply pressure to the opponent which has just secured possession of the ball while simultaneously cutting off his passing options.

Counterpressing has three advantages.  First, by winning the ball back deep in their opponent’s half, the counterpressing team can attack without having to progress the ball forward and, if they play swiftly and attack while the opponent’s team is caught in transition, can create big chances by going up against a disorganized defense. Second, even if the team being counterpressed doesn’t lose the ball deep, they are usually forced to play it long and hence give away possession, allowing the counterpressing team to begin build up play again.  Third, even if the team buying counterpressed is able to keep possession of the ball, it usually takes them so long to work themselves out of the counterpress that the counterpressing team has enough time to organize its defense and drop back.

Counterpressing is therefore a crucial element of possession play and all possession teams rely on the strength of their counterpressing to avoid being exposed by counterattacks.  Thus, it is no surprise that Bayern Munich has a history under many coaches of exceling at counterpressing.

The German National Team, being a team which usually plays possession football and which is mostly made up of players from Bayern and the even more counterpressing orientated Dortmund,  unsurprisingly has been historical excellent at counterpressing (yes, even when Özil is playing. Maybe even especially when Özil is playing). For example, here is a video from the Euros of Germany preventing Italian attack after Italian attack through relentless pressure:

Those astute observers among you might remember that Germany’s counterpressing was completely ineffectual this World Cup. It never looked like the players were organized enough when they tried applying pressure.  Consequently, it was far too easy for opponents to counterattack and take on Germany’s backline, and much ill resulted.

Counterpressing successfully is mostly a matter of team organization. As Jurgen Klopp’s early career proves, it’s very possible for even quite mediocre players (Remember Kevin Großkreutz?)  to counterpress successfully if given proper motivation and organization, and most of the players on the national team were not only quite a bit better than mediocre but also very experienced at playing incounterpressing teams.  Moreover, it isn’t necessarily very difficult for a coach to teach a team to play a particular style of counterpressing; Kovac has managed to do with Bayern surprisingly quickly.

Thus, I have to primarily blame Joachim Löw and his coaching errors for the problem that Germany had counterpressing this world cup.

Part 3: The Defense Mid Problem

Counterpressing, however, is only one of the strategies that possession teams use to defend against counterattacks.  Another frequently used tactic (although not usually by Guardiola) is dedicating a midfielder to control the space in front of the centerbacks.  This has two highly beneficial effects.  First, it forces attacks outwide, where they are less likely to result in good scoring chances. Second, it prevents the centerback line from being exposed and caught in a situation where the centerbacks have to choose whether or not to step up, a circumstance which frequently leads to mistakes.

You might remember how not having a defensive midfield was a major problem in the game against Mexico.  Hummels and Boateng had to break up attack after attack by themselves until one of them inevitably screwed up and Germany was scored upon.

Thus, Joachim Löw reacted by dropping the must maligned Khedira for the game against Sweden and replacing him with Rudy. Rudy proceeded to do an excellent job but then got injured early in the game, leading him to being replaced with Gundogan. However, this replacement didn’t really matter so much as the defensive midfield still did a good job shielding the centerbacks the rest of the game.

Rudy hadn’t recovered by the game against South Korea, so Löw responded by playing Khedira again in the defensive midfielder role.  People who blamed him for the debacle against Mexico must have had low expectations, but in fact he did a good job shielding the centerbacks until he was subbed off.

Thus, the evidence suggests that perhaps it was not so much the individual players that were the problem but instead the instructions given to them.  If different coaching instructions can turn Khedira from a dismal defensive midfielder to a good one, then arguably the original problem lies not with him but instead with the original instructions given to him.

Consequently, the defensive midfielder issue provides evidence of how many problems that the National Team suffered were really due to coaching mistakes because it is one of the few problems that the coaching staff caught and corrected.

Part 4: The Worst-Managed Game Ever

The main reason why Germany failed to beat South Korea must be said to be Joachim Löw’s horrible game management.  He, displaying decision making on par with Ancelotti, made the wrong choice time after time in that game and the National Team paid the price.

Joachim Löw’s first error was starting Timo Werner as a lone striker. For reasons I have discussed extensively above, Werner was quite inadequate for that role, something that had become very clear in the previous two games, yet Löw still proceeded to start him instead of Mario Gomez.

Löw’s second error was starting Leon Goretzka at RW.  Goretzka’s quite a good box to box midfielder, yet Löw’s previous experiments with playing him at RW (usually as a substitute from Thomas Müller) had hardly impressed.  Supposedly, Löw made this change in an attempt to exploit the right half-space, but considering that he had two players on his squad that were quite experienced and good at doing so (Julian Brandt and Thomas Müller) and that Brandt hadn’t been given a chance to start yet despite playing excellently, I can only call this decision foolish.

What these two errors together do is suggest that the coaching staff were acting like they didn’t really need to win this game even though the only way to guarantee progressing was winning.  I must call this the height of arrogance.

Said arrogance is compounded by Löw’s third error, which was not making any changes at half after his initial tactical setup had failed but instead sticking with his mistakes until it became evident from the results of the Sweden game that team had to win.

His next decision, to bring off Khedira for Mario Gomez and finally, after 58 minutes of play, put an actual centerforward on the field wasn’t bad since Goretzka could cover the resulting midfield hole, although it was arguably taken much too late and Werner probably should have been the one that came off.

However, Löw followed up his one good decision with his fourth error: taking off Goretzka for Thomas Müller. To be clear, throwing on Thomas Müller at this stage of the proceedings was a good decision. He has a good record turning games around as a supersub. What was not a good decision was taking off another central midfielder for another attacker.  This left Germany with Kroos as the only presence in midfield, and he, predictably, couldn’t protect the defensive line just by himself.  Also, having too few players in midfield meant that team organization completely fell apart and that the could no longer regain the ball quickly in South Korea’s half and resume the attack but instead had to retreat all the back to its own half to regain possession.  This, along with the collapse in ball circulation that resulted from having too few midfielders, greatly harmed Germany’s chance of scoring a late winner.

It is clear that the player who should have gone off for Müller was Werner, who had been completely ineffectual the entire game and who would proceed to be ineffectual for the rest of the game.

Löw’s last major decision, taking off Hector for Brandt, was a good one, but the damage had already been done at that point.

Thus, some very specific coaching errors lead the National Team to ruin in this game, and it is hard to see any reason why we should heap blame upon the head coach of the National Team for them.

Part 5: A Few Minor Matters

Although I have already dealt with the main issues that bedeviled the National Team, I feel like I should also deal with a few other issues.

Section A: An Unfortunate Photoshoot

The media and the DFB have focused heavily on Özil and Gundogan’s photoshoot with Erdogan, effectively claiming that divided the team and hence led it to destruction.

However, the actual statements of players who were at the world cup have downplayed the issue and claimed that it did not have a major negative effect on the team:

 

 

Moreover, despite the degree of criticism Özil has gotten for years for his performances, he didn’t play poorly at all at the World Cup despite all the issues described above and even almost single-handedly won the game against South Korea with an 87th minute perfect cross into Hummels’ head.

Thus, I think the media vastly overblew the importance of the whole thing and its effect on the National Team.

Section B: Favoritism

Joachim Löw’s favoritism, particularly for “old and past it players,” has often been blamed for what happened at the World Cup. However, I don’t think such criticism makes sense in light of the facts.

Only four players started all three games: Neuer, Kimmich, Kroos, and Werner. Everyone else was dropped at least once.

Of the four players, Neuer gave no reason to drop him, and Kimmich and Kroos could not be dropped because there were no alternatives for their positions.  Only the amount of protection granted to Werner stands out, but he was recent addition to the National Team and hardly fits the claimed profile of favored old and out of form players.

Section C: Possession Football

Some people have claimed that possession football resulted in the downfall of the National Team and that the team should have played in a counterattacking fashion because any style that emphasizes “useless possession” is doomed to failure.

However, I don’t think that this argument fits the fact.  Last season, all five winners of the Big 5 leagues played some variant of possession football; four of the five (Bayern, Barcelona, PSG, and Man. City) had the most possession of any team in their league.  Croatia, moreover, reached the final playing possession football.

Of course, there are disadvantages to possession football, but there are also disadvantages to counterattacking football. For example, it is doubtful that the teams we played would have pushed numbers forward and let us hit them on the counter rather than accepting the draw if we sat back against them.

All and all, possession remains an extremely useful tool for big teams to play with.

Section D: Team Selection

There are some players that arguably should have gone to the world cup but didn’t.

Holger Badstuber, despite having his career ruined by injury, played very well for Stuttgart last season and remains excellent in possession.  I would have loved to bring him to the world cup instead of the dismal Rüdiger and I think Löw never giving him a chance by calling him up sent the wrong message.

Many people are convinced that Leroy Sane should also have gone to the world cup, but I am not.  He’s a very effective player in a well-organized team, but not so much in poorly organized one, and the National Team was clearly poorly organized.  He has also never played well for the National Team and I doubt he would have started playing well at exactly the right time to rescue it.  Finally, the player taken instead of him, Julian Brandt, performed excellently.

Sandro Wagner’s case has been effectively discussed above.  He should have gone, and the manner which he was dismissed reflects poorly on the National Team.

Finally, I think Mario Götze would have performed well if he went and was screwed over this season by having to play under dysfunctional coaches on a dysfunctional team, but I can hardly blame Löw for not taking him.

Section E: Curse of the World Champion?

Since 1998, four out of the five World Champions have failed to make it out of the group stage at the next World Cup.  It happened to France in 2002, to Italy in 2010, to Spain in 2014, and now to Germany in 2018.  The only exception was Brazil, which went out disappointingly (considering the expectations leveled on that team) in 2006.

Considering how this has happened again and again to relatively strong teams, it almost seems like there is some systematic basis behind it, but I cannot think of what it might be other than complacency.

Regardless, said “curse” is mostly irrelevant to the specific analysis of why Germany went out.

Part 6: Lessons for the Future

There is no point in doing such a long-winded and detailed analysis of failure as this one if one isn’t willing to suggest improvements.

The most obvious step after something like this would be to fire the head coach, but it wasn’t taken, and I’m somewhat glad of it because I’m not sure who could do a better job with the National Team other than the occupied Klopp and the retired Jupp.

The second most obvious step would be to fire the president of the federation and install someone who wasn’t a politician, but unfortunately that wasn’t taken either.

Moving beyond the question of sackings, the obvious thing to recommend is that the National Team should always play with a proper center forward.  Sandro Wagner is a little old, but as tall and slow striker, he’s probably going to decline slowly (you can’t lose a yard of pace if you never had it!), so he should be good for the Euros.  Unfortunately, he has retired, but a properly humble coach might be able to convince him to return. Failing that, Mark Uth and Davie Selke should probably be given chances, and another good player might become evident before the Euros (Wagner went from being an unused sub at Hertha Berlin to frequently starting at Bayern in 2 and a half seasons, after all),

As for the question of whether the team should continue playing possession football, I don’t think there is much choice.  95% of the national teams of world know that they are greatly inferior to the German National Team, and they will never be stupid enough to push numbers forward and let Germany counterattack them, just like 90% of the teams of the Bundesliga will never push numbers forward against Bayern Munich.  Consequently, the only potential alternative is Klopp-style counterpressing football, and the track record of that is quite varied and Klopp seems to be the only one who has managed to be consistently successful using it.  Thus, although undoubtedly the National Team should be more variable in its playstyle in the future and change more to suit its opponents, it should not abandon possession as its basic play style.

Therefore, since Werner shouldn’t be played as a lone striker in a possession setup again as it’s not good for him or for the team, his days as the National Team’s main striker are over.  Although I think Sane, Brandt, and Gnabry are better options outwide, there’s more potential for him continuing with the National Team as a winger

As for the Golden Generation, since I blame coaching errors for making it inevitable that they would fall short of expectations, I don’t think any of them should be forcibly retired. Most of them probably have one more big tournament left in them. Moreover, one suspects that attempting to retire players like Hummels, Kroos, Reus, Müller, and Neuer would end in grief as excellent performances with their clubs would soon put the pressure on the National Team coach to call them up again.

Obviously, Özil has made his own choice, and I think sleeping dogs should be allowed to lie there.  He was a far better player and far more important for the National Team than his critics have ever admitted or will ever admit, but he is rather old anyways and the media would roast any coach who ever called him up again.

Götze was the odd man out at the World Cup, but I do think he is a good option for the future. He’s only 26, seems to have recovered significantly from the disorder which completely derailed his career, and didn’t make the team last year only because he was screwed over by two very bad coaches in a row.  I didn’t see him very much this preseason, but in the little that I did, he was very impressive and repeatedly broke through Liverpool’s press. Finally, playing him as a 10 would hopefully end any complaints of our playmakers not working hard enough.

Draxler was never really part of the Golden Generation, and I’ve seen enough of him to say that he should not really be part of the National Team either.  He’s just too aggressively mediocre to play left wing and not good enough to play central mid.

As for the younger attackers, Brandt proved himself at the World Cup, Sane is Sane, and Gnabry looks interesting.  They seem to be the future of the National Team and should be given more time with it.

When we move to the midfielders and defenders, it is less clear which young players should receive the torch.  Kimmich and Sule are obviously the wave of the future, but it is not clear who else is.  There needs to be a great deal of experimentation there.

On the other hand, the keeper situation is the opposite.  Neuer is good for years to come and Ter Stegen is also excellent, while no intriguing young talents have shown that they are at the necessary level yet.  No changes need to be made there.

Moving beyond possible changes to the squad, we must now focus on specific tactical recommendations to avoid the same errors.  The biggest one must be for the coaches to spend more time in training on counterpressing and to check before tournaments if it is working correctly.

I’m not enough of an expert on gegenpressing to know exactly what went wrong at the world cup, but it did seem like the players weren’t organized enough and hence were condemned to much useless running. Certainly, this weakness had already showed up in some friendlies leading up to World Cup (like when we let Saudi Arabia play out of the back against us), and the coaching staff should have taken steps to address it. Why they did not is hard to understand. We certainly would not have this problem if Klopp were coach.

Additionally, the coaching staff needs to precisely define midfield roles before they send the players out.  Having no one know who is ultimately responsible for protecting the backline is just not acceptable in this day and age.

Finally, the head coach needs to not be arrogant and assume that the teams we face will role over and play like we want them to play, and he also needs to not panic and dig the team a deeper hole when everything does not go perfectly.

I would like end this autopsy by wishing the German National Team better luck at Euro 2020, but I cannot, for teams and coaches make their own luck. Instead, I hope that in two years’ time the National Team will be much better situated to make the most of what it has.

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  • Dumbledore7 says:


    Great article, very well written and good balance of opinions as well.

    There’s a clear link between the world cup winners curse and the footballing asepects. Complacency is one way of putting it, but it goes more deeply. You tend to miss these details when you’re already the winner. No doubt that it wouldn’t have debacled the way it did if Germany weren’t a previous winner – Low would have put more thought into the strikers, midfield protection and actually spend more time contemplating which players should be on the plane.

    It takes some humility to play Klose effectively in the 2014, same humility it would’ve taken to play Gomez. Low is clearly under pressure to use the more reputable Werner even though that couldn’t work for many reasons in this outdated formation.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if we see start to see experiments with three at the back and two strikers, because the coaching staff will eventually start thinking again.

    • Manchu says:


      Yeah, I think you’re analysis of complacency and detail is correct. I legitimately think the best striker option(and the one tactically most like Klose) wasn’t even Gomez, but was instead Wagner. But if it’s hard to drop the Golden Boy Werner for Gomez, how much harder would it be to do so for Wagner who has the opposite public profile in every way? So Wagner doesn’t even get to go to training camp and Germany is suddenly one injury to Gomez away from having no striker options even in the best of circumstances.

      As for the three in the back, I don’t really have an opinion about it. It’s sometimes intriguing, but the problem always seems to be that Germany supply of really good centerbacks has always been small, and it is clearly possible to make functioning 4-2-3-1s and 4-3-3s, so it might not be the next big thing. That being said, my favorite lineup before the world cup was this:
      Wagner
      Ozil Muller
      Hector Kroos Khedira Brandt
      Boateng Hummels Kimmich
      Neuer
      Basically a formation built for high possession and high press, but also built around Wagner’s ability in the box and Brandt’s incredible crossing with his right foot. Every attack on either flank ends with the ball either being worked through the halfspace or, if that is unsuccessful, a cross against the now stretch defense from outwide(obviously, substitute Reus or Gotze if you don’t like Ozil or Muller).

      Would it have worked? I don’t know. Would it have worked a lot better than what was tried? Probably. Is it a template for the National Team’s future? Maybe.

  • Dumbledore7 says:


    To be a bit clearer, I wasn’t insinuating a three at the back for the sake of the shape – it was more to accommodate two strikers with two wingers and the same number of midfielders.

  • MUTU says:


    Great (and super long) read, Manchu! Bravo! Looking forward to more articles from you 🙂