Germany’s ouster from the 2018 World Cup continues the trend of defending champions failing to navigate the group stage into its eighth year now. The Germans have now joined France, Italy and Spain as the World Cup defending champions to get knocked out in group stage itself.
Die Nationalmannschaft’s early exit from the 2018 edition has meant that in four of the five World Cups this century, the reigning champions have fallen at the first hurdle. France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and now Germany in 2018. This points to a worrying trend for champion teams but is there a reason behind all these failures?
We take a look at all four disgraced world champions as case studies to figure out why title favourites continue to fluff their lines so early in World Cups.
Opponents wisen up
This is the most common reason since having defending champions in one’s group merits special attention to detail as beating them could end up being the magnum opus of a player or his manager’s career.
We saw Germany at this World Cup being hurt by lethal counter-attacks as all their opponents targeted their weakest zone. Germany don’t play a specialist defensive midfielder in the mould of N'Golo Kante and hence marking the metronomic Toni Kroos and bypassing him in transitions have proved fruitful to Germany’s opponents. As a result, Joachim Low’s team conceded three of their four goals from fast counter-attacks.
Similarly, Spain at the 2014 World Cup were built on a possession-heavy, midfield-oriented playing style, therefore the likes of Netherlands and Chile used long balls and high pressing to score against them. Likewise, Senegal also scored their famous winner against France in 2002 off a quick counter-attack.
Italy always found themselves conceding first in the 2010 edition. Negative game states are difficult for the trailing team and if that team happens to be the defending champion, they are faced with breaking down deep defences, far from easy for a team like Italy not known for their attacking fortitude.
Luck of fixtures
The order of group stage fixtures might be a trivial thing for most observers but their significance is underrated. Had Germany beaten Sweden in their first group stage game instead of their second, the scenario heading into the final game would have looked entirely different. That said, a look at the FIFA rankings of the defending champions’ group in 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018 points to a pattern.
All four teams were the highest-ranked team in their respective groups in the four World Cups, with France in 2002, Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2018 being world number ones. All but one of the four defending champions had to face the next best team (according to FIFA rankings) in their group in the opening game, rendering their start to the tournament the toughest possible to win. Spain in 2014 faced Netherlands in their opening game who were ranked 15, just behind 14-ranked Chile, barely a big difference.
Obliging to the highest probability of defeat, three of them lost their opening fixtures as defending champions, while Italy only drew with Paraguay in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup. The order of fixtures has certainly played a big part in the catastrophic exits of world champions over the years.
A team winning the World Cup often does it at the pinnacle of its powers, when the blend of talent, experience, conditions, mentality and every other tangible and intangible factors all come together in a positive way such that the whole cannot be any further greater than the sum of the team’s parts.
In that case, the subsequent years are always a dip from the championship-winning high, with the team’s designs based on scaling that high again which is rarely achieved even if possible. Germany faced similar circumstances this time out but had already lost their experienced core of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose to retirement, leaving a void in terms of experience and leadership.
The end of one success cycle with the departure of key players means the introduction of a new batch of players. It isn’t necessary that the level of the old-timers and the newcomers is same, hence a drop in form can never be ruled out.
That is perhaps the cost of success cycles and a reason why back-to-back World Cup wins are a rarity in the modern day. The last time a team won consecutive World Cups was in 1962, when Brazil were crowned world champions for the second time.
Regression to mean and availability heuristic
Years of build-up leads to success at a World Cup, and once achieved, a natural process of slacking off after the expenditure of considerable energy means that repeatability is nigh on impossible.
There, a regression to mean, which is the phenomenon of falling back to average (or mean) after reaching an extreme point (or peak), can be seen. However, that doesn’t clearly explain the recent world champions’ first round exits since the teams in question are, on average, clearly better than just qualifying for World Cups and playing the group stage.
There may also be psychological factors involved in that the players are aware of their team’s most recent success and are keen to ensure they don’t endure a big drop-off, a case of availability heuristic where the most recent information is valued more, and judgment is largely based on that information.
That adds extra pressure and responsibility to the players who are often seen trying too hard while not getting the basics right, leading to a lack of direction in difficult situations. In their 0-2 defeat to South Korea on Wednesday, Germany were all at sea in the dying minutes, going gung-ho in search of a winning goal and completely losing their shape. Also, South Korea’s second goal was the result of Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer getting dispossessed in the attacking third.
In that case, senior players are of great value but even they are fallible under those circumstances, like Neuer. Spain had 15 of their 23 World Cup winners in the 2014 squad yet suffered humbling consequences. In comparison, Germany at this World Cup only had eight players from the 2014 squad.
The expectation to maintain lofty standards can sometimes weigh heavily on even the most hardened individuals, such is the nature of the sport and its demands.
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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 14:45:28 IST