You can slice and dice this nightmare a thousand ways, smother it in narrative, toss in a few dollops of socio-political allegories and hunt for a couple of details that really spoilt the taste — it was the remote base camp at the northern tip of Qatar peninsula that lost it, or the unworn One Love armband or the unnecessary pre-tournament friendly in Oman — but listening to the Germany players after the event, they all brought it back to the most basic of basics.
“We missed too many chances,” said Joshua Kimmich.
“We were susceptible in defence,” said Manuel Neuer.
Case closed. Board the plane. Let’s all go home.
Tournament football is all about giving as little away as possible. Ask Joachim Low’s world champions from 2014, a Germany side that fielded four centre-backs in their first four games in Brazil. This Germany team, like the versions that faltered at the Euros last year and at the 2018 World Cup, were set up to attack but were sadly recklessly profligate at both ends — an extravagant folly, like much of the architecture around them in Doha.
Being wasteful in front of goal isn’t quite as bad as conceding chances when you create openings on an industrial scale the way this team did.
Against Costa Rica on Thursday, their xG was a frankly ridiculous 6.06, enough to score the eight goals that might just have put them through to the knockouts, irrespective of Spain’s well-timed — certainly when it comes to those who might challenge them for the trophy — off-day against Japan.
But nothing happens in isolation. The more you miss, the more you’re forced to keep going, creating problems at the other end, and the more you concede, the more you’re forced to push for goals again, creating further instability in the process.
Since exiting Euro 2016 at the semi-final stage, Germany have conceded at least one goal in every single tournament game and found themselves behind at least once in every one of those matches as well. When you’re constantly chasing your own tail, it’s hard to get anywhere, even if it’s just the first knockout round of a World Cup.
The reasons for this inherent flakiness are open to interpretation.
The old guard — the former winners and non-winners of World Cups past now bestriding German TV studios and tabloid columns — will reflexively cry out “There are no leaders!” and bemoan the current crop’s lack of application and seriousness, just like every generation before them have complained for a few thousand years.
Kimmich knows what’s coming.
“It’s the worst day of my career,” the Bayern Munich midfielder said, his voice nearly trembling. “When I came to the Germany national team, they were World Cup winners, and in Euro 2016, we made it to the semi-final. Then we messed up 2018, wrote off the Euros and failed to make it out of the group stage again here.
“My aim, attitude and responsibility was to help the team progress. I find it hard to cope with the fact that I’ll be linked with these failures. I’m a little afraid of falling into that hole.”
It was genuinely sad to hear Kimmich express these fears, especially since this show of vulnerability will only be seized upon by his detractors.
The campaign questioning the 27-year-old’s moral fibre had already started last week. Bild called him “Chefchen” after Germany lost to Japan from 1-0 up in the opening group game, which translates as “wannabe boss” and is the same disparaging term that newspaper had used to describe midfield predecessor Bastian Schweinsteiger before the 2014 triumph in Brazil.
Macroanalysts will instead point to the failure of Germany’s youth system to produce centre-forwards, centre-backs and defenders.
Current national-team manager Hansi Flick reiterated his view that player development in Spain and England is more advanced.
The German FA has been working hard to fix the flaws at grassroots level, in truth, but it will take another few years before those changes bear fruit.
In the meantime, Flick’s job is to make do with what he’s got: which is a very unequal distribution of resources. In midfield, there are enough Champions League winners and top players to win this World Cup, but the individual quality at the back simply isn’t there to negate the inevitable fallout from the manager’s high-risk, medium-reward system.
“It’s not just bad luck, it’s also inability,” Kimmich said. “Opponents don’t have to do much to score goals against us.”
Muller went further.
“We don’t have specialists in all of the positions,” the 33-year-old said. He was probably thinking of David Raum, a converted winger still learning his trade as a left-back, or of Niklas Sule, a sometime right-back who never quite looked like a World Cup centre-back in Qatar.
Bayern veteran Muller might have included himself too in that analysis, incidentally.
Thursday night was just the latest and in all likelihood the last failed attempt to use Muller as a centre-forward in the national team.
He would have been much happier in his customary role playing off a true No 9, and should have seen a lot less game time in Qatar in any case. But Flick’s loyalty towards the player blinded his judgment, and his efforts to keep all the big names happy led to ill-fated substitutions (Leon Goretzka for Ilkay Gundogan against Japan) and a line-up that included Kimmich as right-back against Costa Rica.
Tactically, his Germany certainly had an attractive identity. But in practice, it was the same, often chaotic, seesaw style we had seen in the Nations League earlier this year, devoid of proper protection for a highly dubious back line.
Flick hasn’t yet learned that the main task at international football, where problem players can’t simply be replaced by signing better additions in the transfer market, isn’t so much maximising your strengths as masking your weaknesses. The 57-year-old’s gung-ho instincts exacerbated the problem instead.
Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll know who will be punished and who’ll be spared following this national embarrassment.
The team’s sporting director Oliver Bierhoff will come under pressure after presiding over a third poor tournament in a row, as will Flick to some degree. Even Lothar Matthaus, a former team-mate of his at Bayern and a long-standing ally, felt that Flick “miscoached” the Japan game.
But it’s doubtful whether FA president Bernd Neuendorf is ready to make such wide-ranging decisions after only nine months in the job. The 61-year-old is himself under fire for his handling of the One Love armband controversy; the federation should have prepared a backup plan to account for FIFA’s intransigence rather than rely on an ad-hoc gesture by the players to get their point across.
Others will go of their own volition.
Muller is likely to retire from Germany duty “after talking to my wife and the national team manager”, as is Manchester City’s Gundogan, who turned 32 just over a month ago. Goalkeeper and captain Neuer is 36 but wants to continue until at least the Euros in 2024, but his comparatively indifferent form warrants careful consideration.
Whoever takes the team into that tournament on home soil in 18 months’ time will face the same shortages at the back. But they will also enjoy the same, if not more, creative prowess.
The trick will be to curb the side’s attacking instincts and find a more pragmatic approach, as Flick did so well in the second game here against Spain.
Germany have to go back to the basics of tournament football, namely the determination to concede fewer than the opposition, rather than feed the urge of outscoring them.
There’s no reboot needed for that, just an update of the programme before better hardware will become available.
Until then, don’t worry too much. Any team starring Jamal Musiala will have a shot at the biggest trophies for years to come.
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)
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