As Mario Götze’s shot hit the back of the Argentine net with seven minutes left of the 2014 World Cup final the script became complete. After a 14 year wait, Germany were once again champions of the world. They had gone through despair – and a tremendous national restructure of the game – to once again sit atop of the pile, the best team in world football.
Prior to this Bayern München had just become back-to-back Bundesliga and Pokal winners, the season before the Bavarians had won the Champions League, in an all Bundesliga final. It was a good time for those at the top of the German game.
It was an especially good time to be a Bayern fan, after the heartache of losing the Champions League Final to Chelsea – in their own stadium in 2012 – they made amends by thundering to a treble and then recruiting the hottest property in club football, Pep Guardiola.
The Catalan’s arrival in the summer of 2013 propelled Bayern to the Bundesliga, once again at a canter. The gap between the Bavarians and the chasing pack was 10 points, in reality it should have been a lot more. Losing three games on the bounce after capturing the league denied Bayern a points total to rival the season before. It was the beginning of a precedent – domestically Bayern were becoming untouchable, beaten on an off day, not at the betterment of their opponents.
Fast forward to the May of 2018 and Bayern were once again champions, the Rekordmeister kept on adding to their tally of league victories. It now sat at 27 Bundesliga titles, their last one the sixth on the trot. Domestically Bayern were top of the pile, Borussia Dortmund had wilted after the departures of Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, Wolfsburg had gone from potentials to relegation material – when it came to an internal challenge, Bayern had little.
Outside of Germany the case was very different. Failure to match the heroics of their 2013 European antics began to gain more column inches than their titles – it was after all a procession each season. It just wasn’t Bayern who were struggling though.
The Europa League had been a failure for those who entered, as well as the Champions League – Borussia Dortmund had even managed to be embarrassed in both competitions during 2017/18.
RB Leipzig had threatened to challenge Bayern in 2016/17 but their first foray into Europe had left them way off the pace a season later, Hoffenheim fell to Liverpool at the play-off stage – out before the season had really got started.
Germany Flying High
The German national side though, they had romped to Russia. Winning all of their qualification games they looked serious contenders to regain their world crown, they even dominated in the World Cup warm-up, winning the Confederations Cup with a youthful side playing expansive fast football – it was becoming a joy to watch.
However, with the turning of the new year, 2018 started to become a problem – not just for the Bundesliga sides in Europe but for the all conquering national side as well. Die Mannschaft had began to stutter, and it reflected the club scene on the international stage.
The end of 2017 saw Germany draw with England and France, not the worst of results but the style in which Germany had become noted for was on the slide – replaced by a tinkering of the squad by Joachim Löw, it was almost as if friendlies began to get in the way of his preparation for Russia.
Spain were the first test of 2018 for a German side experimenting with its formation, personnel and tactics. The result a 1:1 draw, Germany eventually dragging themselves back into the game after being run ragged by the Spanish for the opening 30 minutes.
Brazil soon followed, as did defeat. Surely a World Cup warm up against Austria and Saudi Arabia would feature a much improved German side? It did not, humiliated by neighbours Austria in a display that looked as far from a ‘German’ one as possible they then just about limped past a poor Saudi side.
World Cup Squad
Löw decided on his final 23-man squad and there were some surprising omissions. Leroy Sané and Emre Can two noticeable absentees. Nils Peterson, Jonathan Tah, and Bernd Leno were also cut.
In England the lack of Sané bemused many – the Manchester City winger had won the PFA Young Player of the Year award and was a key member of Pep Guardiola’s title winning side. His omission drove more interest in England than it did in Germany.
Löw had publicly stated that Sané hadn’t performed well enough internationally and that he was one for the future. Behind the scenes there were issues with the Manchester City player, his self withdrawal from the Confederations Cup squad had angered Löw and the German national coach didn’t trust him, certainly not over Marco Reus and Julian Draxler. Löw turned to Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt – a player he knew well and trusted.
Germany would open their World Cup defence to Mexico, then Sweden before finally finishing with South Korea – it was a given that the group stage would be navigated easily, maybe even arrogantly looked upon as a distraction before the knock-out stages.
As it panned out Löw’s Germany were woeful – slow, susceptible to the counter, devoid of ideas and the most bemusing of all, they looked tired and disjointed. Their biggest stars looked unable to raise their game.
Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Niklas Süle looked shadows of their best, as did Thomas Müller – the Bayern players were off the boil, used to winning by default the first sign of resistance couldn’t be coped with. Forwards Timo Werner and Mario Gomez inexplicably couldn’t buy a goal, unable to rise to the challenge offered by their supposed weaker opponents.
Toni Kroos briefly lit up the stage with a wonderful last minute winner against Sweden, but it only delayed the inevitable – Germany were to leave the world cup at the group stage for the first time in 80 years. The Real Madrid player unable to match his European triumphs on the international stage.
Joachim Löw – Mistake after Mistake
Löw abandoned the exciting football seen in 2017, in favour of a 4-2-3-1 and it seemed to stifle the world champions, he then offered little by the way of changes to combat it when the situation arose. Brandt was given just over 20 minutes during the three group games, little time to shine – but he gave indication enough that had he been included from the start the result could have been different. As for Sané, we’ll never know what his presence could have brought.
Elder statesmen were preferred to youth – Manuel Neuer hadn’t even played one game for Bayern München since September of 2017 but he was thrown into the starting lineup at Ter Stegen’s expense. The arrogance of Löw looks to have been one of Germany’s major downfalls.
Five tournaments had yielded a minimum of five semi-final appearances for Löw, his lack of focus for this iteration cost Die Mannschaft dear. Four years previous the Germans had looked youthful, in Russia they looked an old side with no cohesion.
This exit could be compared to the way in which Germany bowed out of the 2000 European Championships, what followed that debacle was a complete overhaul of the country’s coaching system. Money was spent, coaches were recruited as were scouts – a network of football academies were established. It eventually bore the biggest fruit of all, a 2014 World Cup win.
Germany is not in the same state as 2000, in Julian Nagelsmann and Domenico Tedesco they have two of the brightest young coaches in world football and their U18 to U23 squad is littered with talent.
The inquest into Germany’s failure began as soon as the final whistle blew on Wednesday. Is it the fault of complacency? Löw was the recipient of a long term contract before the World Cup started, Germany looked stale under his stewardship, can he continue?
Can it just be a coincidence that the national side looked unable to challenge when tested? The domestic league has been a foregone conclusion before it has kicked off for the past few seasons. Take out Bayern and the competition is fierce within the Bundesliga, put them in and it becomes a stroll for the Bavarians – often due to a mental block for those playing them.
Has the most dominant side in the Bundesliga’s history led to a downturn in the national side’s fortunes, has the lack of competitiveness affected the psyche of those at the very top – and has it influenced the DFB into thinking that everything is OK in the house of Die Mannschaft?
Chris Williams is a freelance European football journalist. Primarily covering the Bundesliga, Premier League and both of UEFA’s European club competitions. Published in both local and international publications, he also contributes to television and radio across the globe. A member of the UK’s Sports Journalist Association and the International Sports Press Association (AIPS). Follow Chris Williams on Twitter @Chris78Williams