A group exit in the 2018 World Cup; a round-of-sixteen ouster in the Euros; and another group stage departure looms in Qatar, if they lose to Spain on Sunday evening. The perennial tournament team, four-time World Cup winners, three-time European champions—they even have coined a word for that in Germany, turniermannschaft, or the (big) tournament team, and for good reason—now ripped off their most enduring identity. In the past, less-gifted, less-skilled German teams, with little odds for a prolonged run, have entered the World Cup but gnawed and gnashed and gritted their path of glory.
Oh that familiar German mentality. Thomas Muller had once said: “The decisive factor is that we not only have class, we have a mentality, These players know how to win, they’ve proven it. We’re not just anyone.”
There, always, was a resounding national pride when they wore the national colours, symbolised by a lung-blasting, intimidating rendition of the Deutschlandlied, the national anthem. Even the indefatigable Diego Maradona got nervous when Lothar Matthäus pounded out the national anthem at the Stadio Olimpico. Matthäus had once told this newspaper: “There were players I never talked to in the league, those I genuinely disliked, those I barely knew, but in the national camp we would put behind all the rivalries and fight as an unbreakable unit for the country. We were willing to face any adversity, we were willing to put our life on the line to make our country proud. Have you ever seen the Germans crying on the field? It is because even if we lose a game we know that we have given our everything into the game.”
Is it passion that this German team is missing? Or is it quality? Or is it that fabled unbreakability? Or is it experience? There is no shortage of quality or experience. Three of the squad are World Cup-winners. Ten of them have won the Champions League. Some are legends, some are frantically wooed by the finest European clubs. Though they possess a classical target-man in the mould of Miroslav Klose (yes, we miss those somersault celebrations still) or Jurgen Klinsmann, they have a variety of proven goal-scorers. From Kai Havertz at the tip of their attack to Leon Goretzka at the base of their midfield to Antonio Rudiger at the heart of their defence. It’s not heart that they are missing either. Even in the defeat against Japan, they fought valiantly, threw everything at the resolute Japanese, who could not be conquered.
Surely, then, it should be coach Hansi Flick’s tactical ineptitude. It can’t be, in Germany he is praised for his fluid brand of football, lining up his team in an expansive 4-2-3-1, the extra attacker in the midfield compared to Joachim Low’s 3-4-2-1 embellishing a razor-sharp cutting edge. Flick, though his playing career was not as distinguished as Matthaus or Klinsmann, was Low’s long-time ally and assistant in the 2014 World Cup. In his short and sweet stint at Bayern Munich, before he was summoned for national duties, he guided the club to seven titles after taking over a messy Munich team. “He is a top guy to be with in the dressing room, always calm, always with a smile. He can do wonders for the team,” Matthaus had said.
When Germany’s attackers strum the right notes, they are indeed a joy to watch; the fullbacks and wingers befuddling opponents with quick, crisp one-touch passes at extreme pace, forming miniature triangles between them. The double-pivot centre midfield pairing gives structural robustness. On paper, and when the elements fall in place, they are a sight to behold as well as terror to defend.
But what then has transpired? A German whodunit? Some surmise that there had been too much distraction in the build-up, with the furore over Fifa’s threat to sanction the OneLove captain’s armband, to which the German team responded by covering their mouths in the team photo before kick-off. “There was too much drama in the build-up, too many issues that were more important than football, much like four years ago,” the never opinion-shy record international Lothar Matthäus told the tabloid Bild. “That sort of thing disturbs your concentration, it distracts – and thus means you may lack the crucial 5 or 10 per cent.”
Some believe Flick blundered in substitutions. In the second half, he took off some of his more dynamic as well as experienced players, dishevelling the balance. Ilkay Gundogan, Kai Havertz, Jamal Musiala, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry were recalled to the bench. Some are convinced that Germany don’t quite have the steel to defend, resolve to grind out 1-0 wins, a trademark of their 80s, 90s and early 2000s before Low dismantled the conventions and embraced a more vibrant flavour that rankled the wizened old-timers.
The reluctance to tackle—made en vogue by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona—is considered symptomatic of their failing. So is the absence of smouldering physicality, the gnarl as snarl. Flick’s—as well as modern football’s— fixation to win beautifully with a high-pressing, short-passing game has doubters in Germany, where it is not winning beautifully that matters, unlike in the Netherlands and Spain, but winning alone.
So the burden on Flick’s shoulder is enormous. A failure to reach the knockouts would not only end his tenure but potentially change German football. But as they say, Germany is the last team that could be written off in a tournament. The obsession then would be not only to revamp the structure but reclaim that winning mentality.
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