DOHA, Qatar — When you’re a four-time World Cup winner, back-to-back first-round wins inevitably bring teeth gnashing, hair-pulling and the kind of self-criticism that would have made Chairman Mao proud. This is what Germany expects on the journey home.
It’s going to be a bummer about holidays, but in these situations, it’s also worth finding some clarity. Identify the areas that are legitimate and those that rely on luck and chance.
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First, as tempting as it may be to lump the two World Cup nightmares together, they are not the same. Four years ago, Germany were top seeds and had to contend with weaker opponents (Mexico, Sweden and South Korea) in their group. They lost two games and only beat Sweden thanks to an unlikely free-kick from Toni Kroos in the fifth minute of added time.
This time they paid a heavy price for not being able to finish the opening game after taking the lead against Japan (lost 2-1), battling against Spain with a 1-1 draw and beating Costa Rica in the final group game. Not great, but if it wasn’t for Spain somehow If they had managed to lose to Japan, they would have progressed. (Indeed, since at a World Cup tiny margins separate agony and ecstasy: the millimeters the ball stayed in play when Kaoru Mitoma crossed for Ao Tanaka to Japan’s winner was what sent them home.)
As in 2018, Germany actually won the expected goal fight in each of their three group games, only this time by a huge margin (plus-4.92 compared to plus-2.61 in Russia). So let’s be clear: Germany wasn’t terrible; They’ve done enough to progress under normal circumstances (Japan beats Spain Not normal circumstances); and they didn’t get the breaks.
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However, Hansi Flick and the players are not innocent. Far from it. Manuel Neuer may still be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but that’s certainly not how he played in Qatar. At least he deserves to share the blame with Nico Schlotterbeck for that goal against Japan. The less talked about his performance against Costa Rica, the better. First of all, those gaudy xG numbers won’t do you any good if you don’t close properly, and there must be an element of collective guilt.
As for Flick, I think there are legitimate and less-than-justified criticisms. Let’s start with the latter.
Flick has been criticized for trying to import Bayern Munich’s game model into the national team, leaving his side too open at the back. The idea that attacking football works in club play but the World Cup somehow requires low blocks and defensive skills is a huge exaggeration. Sure, France won that way and England used it to reach the final of Euro 2020, but that’s not a significant sample size. It could just be that Didier Deschamps and Gareth Southgate were more comfortable that way. And frankly, France had so much talent that it probably didn’t matter how they approached the 2018 World Cup. As for England, there’s a very strong argument that Southgate’s defense actually cost them the final when they handed the initiative to Italy.
A simpler, more rational mantra might be to play to your strengths and what your players are used to. Most of the German squad comes from Bayern, who attack and press high, as does Manchester City, where Ilkay Gundogan plays. It makes sense to stick to this script, not to mention that it’s a lot harder to make a 180 and then attack when you’re preparing to counterattack and score.
The other fallacious argument here is that Germany have paid a heavy price for not having a “proven centre-forward”. Evidence of this is said to be the fact that they did better with Niclas Fullkrug – an average worker with zero caps until a month ago – than with Kai Havertz or Thomas Müller at the helm, neither of whom count as a ‘proper’ centre-forward.
Let’s ignore for a minute that neither Liverpool nor Manchester City, the most dominant teams in the best league in the last five seasons, have such a number (we’re talking before Erling Haaland in City’s case). It’s club football – I know it’s supposedly a different sport (see above). But Brazil and Argentina are most people’s favorites alongside France and they don’t have a traditional centre-forward.
So what’s up? Mueller and Havertz were picked ahead of Fullkrug simply because they’re better. Sometimes we over-complicate the game: it’s still 10 outfield players moving and passing, dribbling and shooting, so it makes sense to put your best guys on the field. (Incidentally, Fullkrug was more effective in this tournament.)
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So what guilt can do we put on flick?
First of all, this is not a team where the pieces come together well, especially in the last third. He couldn’t find a solution to this, possibly because, like most coaches, he had very little preparation time, possibly because he wasn’t comfortable making difficult decisions like handing the keys of the team to midfielder Jamal Musiala, Germany’s present and future at this time. And he may have misread the form of some of his veterans (Neuer, Muller and Leon Goretzka spring to mind) who have chosen loyalty over productivity this season.
Flick’s gameplay also left a lot to be desired, in the second half against Japan and in the game against Spain. He didn’t make the right adjustments when Japan switched after the break and the atmosphere in that second half was far too easygoing and careless. Against Spain, it felt like Germany were paying a little too much respect to their opponents, like the harm of a loss outweighed the benefits of a win. It was probably the calculus that a draw was in order as Germany would beat Costa Rica in the last game and there was no way Japan would beat Spain… a calculus which, as we’ve seen, turned out to be dead wrong.
Germany’s reaction after falling behind against Spain saw them play arguably their best football at the World Cup. In hindsight – which is always 20-20 of course – that should have been the blueprint.
What’s next? Flick might or might not stay, and it might not be his choice anyway. The likes of Gundogan, Antonio Rüdiger and Müller are unlikely to make it into the next cycle, but others will emerge. And a lot can still be expected from Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry and of course Musiala. If they can unravel the hyper-talented mystery of Havertz – they’ll need help from Chelsea for that – then the foundation will be there for another run as early as the next Euro in 2024, where they will be the host country.
Four years ago was a low point. This time it’s more about tweaking and learning from your mistakes, especially in terms of game management and knowing when to be confident and when to be humble. Germany will be fine.
https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-world-cup/story/4822649/germanys-early-world-cup-exit-will-stingbut-they-will-just-be-fine Germany’s early World Cup exit will sting, but they will just be fine