If Germany’s failure to successfully navigate the group phase in Russia destroyed one of the safest assumptions in sport, it is still highly probable they will be back
Germany and Low pay high price for too many pre-World Cup warnings going unheeded
There was no attempt to sugar-coat it. Germany retained their eloquence after elimination but it required words they rarely need. "Sorry," said Mats Hummels. The sight of Germany propping up a pool in the World Cup requires different language. It has brought words not normally associated with Die Mannschaft. “Sorry,” said Mats Hummels. “Pathetic,” said Manuel Neuer. “Disappointment,” said manager Joachim Low.
He predicted public uproar in Germany. It was a rare occasion in the past two weeks when Low has been right. The newspaper Bild branded it “the biggest disgrace in German World Cup history”. Low said Germany had lost “everything we have built”. The aura of invincibility has been dented, the notion of relentless, remorseless German progress into the latter stages of every tournament destroyed in their worst World Cup for 80 years. The side who only trailed for eight minutes in Brazil only led for a handful of injury-time seconds in Russia.
Low lost his impeccable record of reaching at least the semi-finals in every tournament. During his long reign, other managerial greats – Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, Vicente del Bosque, Luiz Felipe Scolari – have been humiliated. It transpired that he is not immune to ignominy.
The inquest begins with a manager who hinted at resignation. In May, Low signed an extended contract until 2022. Before Wednesday’s defeat to South Korea, the German FA had pledged their support, though it is easier to say that when there is the assumption of victory.
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Certainly, Low got much wrong. The dissent extended to his first captain. “Leadership? Personality? Mentality?” asked Michael Ballack on Twitter. Germany lacked all. There were problems in attack, midfield, defence and, eventually, in goal. The assumption was that Germany would display their usual ability to peak in tournaments. The reality is the malaise began before Russia. They have only two unconvincing wins in nine games and no clean sheet since November. The warnings went unheeded.
A common theme among the defending champions who have crashed out at the first hurdle – France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014 – has been an understandable loyalty to champion players who proved past it. Low displayed it. This was a tournament too far for the admirable, slowing Sami Khedira. Collectively, Germany looked off the pace. It made the omission of the electric Leroy Sane all the more of an error, even if Julian Brandt, the man preferred, was actually one of Germany’s better players.
Crucially, Sane was in form. Where Low merits some sympathy is that international managers can be hostages to fortune. Sometimes they get players at their peaks. Germany had too many who had injury-hit seasons or who were out of form. Neuer had not played club football since September. Bayern Munich’s seeming suspicions that Jerome Boateng is in decline looked justified. Mesut Ozil was the Arsenal Ozil. The goalless Thomas Muller was a shadow of his prolific former self. Tactically, as Hummels admitted, they were cut open far too easily by the sharper Mexicans. “Even if we had made it in the last 16, everyone would have liked to play against us,” said an honest Neuer.
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Low took responsibility in a frank appraisal, and his revolving-door selection policy suggested he was guessing after running out of ideas, but underperforming players are also culpable. And yet this is not 2000, when the worst German group in living memory failed wretchedly in the European Championship, prompting Das Reboot, the investment in coaching that propelled their renaissance. Now they have plenty of players.
They won the 2017 Under-21 European Championship, finished second in the 2016 Olympics and, under Low, triumphed in last year’s Confederations Cup with a young, reserve team. Khedira and Boateng almost certainly will not be at the 2022 World Cup. Neuer, Ozil, Hummels and Muller may not either.
But there are opportunities for renewal. Niklas Sule should displace Boateng. Leon Goretzka and Julian Weigl could join Toni Kroos in midfield, or Joshua Kimmich could switch from right-back. Sane and Brandt offer the promise of potency on the wings. Timo Werner, despite an undistinguished tournament, is a striker of real talent. Each should have still-younger rivals snapping at his heels.
If Germany’s failure destroyed one of the safest assumptions in sport, it is still highly probable they will be back. But probably not with these players, and perhaps not with this manager after an era came to an abrupt end.
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