DOHA, Qatar — When you’re a four-time World Cup winner, two straight first-round exits is bound to bring gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair and the sort of self-criticism that would have done Chairman Mao proud. That’s what awaits Germany as they travel home.
It’s going to be a bummer of a holiday season, but in these situations, it’s also worth finding some clarity. Identifying those areas of concern that are legitimate and those that come down to luck and happenstance.
First, as tempting as it might be to bundle the two World Cup nightmares together, they are not the same. Four years ago, Germany were top seeds and faced weaker opposition (Mexico, Sweden and South Korea) in their group. They lost two games and beat Sweden thanks only to an improbable Toni Kroos free kick in the fifth minute of injury time.
This time, they paid a dear price for failing to close out the opener after taking the lead against Japan (losing 2-1), battled top seed Spain to a 1-1 draw and beat Costa Rica in the final group game. Not great, but had it not been for Spain somehow managing to lose to Japan, they would have been through. (Indeed, since teeny tiny margins separate agony and ecstasy in a World Cup: the millimeters by which the ball remained in play when Kaoru Mitoma crossed for Ao Tanaka for Japan’s winning goal are what sent them home.)
As in 2018, Germany actually won the expected goals battle in each of their three group games, except this time they did so by a massive margin (plus-4.92, compared with plus-2.61 in Russia). So let’s be clear: Germany were not terrible; they did enough to advance under normal circumstances (Japan beating Spain is not normal circumstances); and they did not get the breaks.
That said, Hansi Flick and the players are not without blame. Far from it. Manuel Neuer might still be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but he certainly did not play like it in Qatar. At a minimum, he deserves to share the blame with Nico Schlotterbeck for that goal conceded against Japan, while the less said about his performance against Costa Rica, the better. Up front, the gaudy xG numbers do you no good if you don’t finish properly, and there has to be an element of collective blame to that.
As for Flick, as I see it, there are valid criticisms and less valid ones. Let’s start with the latter.
Flick gets criticized for trying to import the Bayern Munich model of play into the national side, which leaves his team too open at the back. The notion that attacking football works in the club game but the World Cup somehow calls for low blocks and defensive prowess is vastly overblown. Sure, France won playing that way and England reached the Euro 2020 final doing just that, but that’s not a significant sample size. It might just be that Didier Deschamps and Gareth Southgate were more comfortable playing 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, you can make a very strong case that Southgate’s defensiveness actually cost them the final as they handed the initiative to Italy.
A simpler, more rational mantra might be to play to your strengths and what your players are accustomed to doing. The bulk of the German side comes from Bayern, who attack and press high, as do Manchester City, where Ilkay Gundogan plays. Sticking to that script makes sense, not to mention that if you set up to play on the counterattack and go a goal down, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult to then do a 180 and go on the attack.
The other fallacious argument here is that Germany paid a dear price for the lack of a “proven center-forward.” Evidence for this is, supposedly, the fact that they did better with Niclas Fullkrug — an average, blue-collar guy with zero caps until a month ago — than with Kai Havertz or Thomas Muller leading the line, neither of whom is considered a “proper” center-forward.
Let’s ignore for a minute that neither Liverpool nor Manchester City, the most dominant teams in the best league for the past five seasons, have such a figure (we’re talking pre-Erling Haaland in City’s case). That’s club football — I know, it’s supposedly an entirely different sport (see above). But Brazil and Argentina are, along with France, most people’s favorites, and they don’t have a traditional center-forward.
So what gives? Mueller and Havertz were picked ahead of Fullkrug because they are simply better. Sometimes we overcomplicate the game: it’s still 10 outfield players moving and passing, dribbling and shooting, so it makes sense to get your best guys on the pitch. (It just so happens that, in this tournament, Fullkrug was more effective.)
ESPN FC’s Archie Rhind-Tutt labels Germany’s World Cup exit as a debacle.
So what blame can we lay on Flick?
For a start, this is not a team where the pieces fit together well, particularly in the final third. He was unable to find a solution to that, possibly because, like most coaches, he had very little prep time, possibly because he wasn’t comfortable making tough decisions, like handing the keys of the team to midfielder Jamal Musiala, Germany’s present and future at this time. And possibly, he misread the form of some of his veterans (Neuer, Muller and Leon Goretzka spring to mind), opting for loyalty over productivity this season.
Flick’s game management also left a lot to be desired, in the second half against Japan and in the match against Spain. He didn’t make the right adjustments when Japan made changes after the break, and the vibe in that second half was way too loose and careless. Against Spain, it felt as if Germany gave the opposition a little too much respect, as if the benefits of a win were outweighed by the damage of a loss. It was probably the calculation that a draw was just fine, since Germany would beat Costa Rica in the final game and there was no way Japan was going to defeat Spain… a calculation that, as we saw, proved to be entirely incorrect.
Germany’s reaction after going a goal down against Spain saw them play arguably their best football at the World Cup. With hindsight — which is always 20-20, of course — that ought to have been the blueprint.
So what’s next? Flick might or might not stick around, and it might not be his choice anyway. The likes of Gundogan, Antonio Rudiger and Muller probably won’t make it to the next cycle, but others will emerge. And there’s still plenty to come from Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry and, of course, Musiala. If they can unlock the hypertalented enigma that is Havertz — they’ll need help from Chelsea on that one — then the foundation will be there for another run as early as the next Euros in 2024, where they’ll be the host nation.
Four years ago was a low point. This time, it’s more a case of 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 just fine.
Germany’s early World Cup exit will sting, but they will just be fine