Mesut Ozil shook his head in stupefaction. So did Marco Reus, Timo Werner, Niklas Sule, coach Joachim Low and the German fans in Kazan as well as supporters back home. No, this wasn’t at full-time when the players realised that Germany were knocked out of the World Cup for the first time since 1938. Not even at half-time.
Within the first few minutes of the game, the German players looked like they were running with a couple of pianos on their backs. The South Koreans, meanwhile, kept on attacking against the run of play to petrify the German midfield and defence. It was evident that Germany lacked urgency and creativity in the final third. The stage was all but set for an early exit.
From misplaced passes to overrunning to playing out of position, the world had never witnessed a German side look so ordinary on the field.
The defeat in Kazan cleared a few important things too. The 2018 side lacked flair and bite, as well as the necessary skill in the final third. The German back line was laughable, considering how easy it was for the opposition to unsettle them against the run of play. Not once, not twice, but on three different match days.
Furthermore, two losses in three games proved that the Nationalmannschaft doesn’t have game-changers in the current squad. Probably because a number of retirements after Germany's 2014 World Cup win — including players like Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose, Per Mertesacker and Bastian Schweinsteiger — robbed the side of leaders, seniority and the winning mentality.
A skilful side had lost its character. The younger generation of players, who won the Confederations Cup in Russia last year, failed to fill the void.
Low, who was under scrutiny after his side’s dismal performances in the last 10 games, had mixed youth with experience. Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Ozil were handed a start, while Sule and new Bayern signing Leon Goretzka made their World Cup debut.
Germany looked nervous right from the beginning, something that one doesn't really associate with the four-time champions. Clearly, Low’s side had lost its identity. The early exchanges were a clear indication of a structural flaw, let alone a plan.
Despite peppering some harmless crosses into the Korean box, it was their opponents who came close to drawing first blood. Germany were made to pay the price after Manuel Neuer bungled Jung Woo-young's free-kick in the 19th minute, but he recovered well in the nick of time to pummel it away before Heung Min Son could follow up.
There was nothing more than just side-passing and hoofing long, meaningless diagonal balls in the first 45 minutes. Germany missed a solid presence in the centre of the pitch, thanks to Khedira, who was indecisive yet again. Meanwhile, Ozil couldn’t prove his worth as the No 10 looked like lost kid in the park, with many of his through balls intercepted.
The equation grew grim for Low’s men when Ludwig Augustinsson scored for Sweden in the 49th minute in the other Group F clash, while Goretzka’s header was parried away superbly by Hyeon-woo. What is a World Cup without drama?
The German fans hoped that the introduction of Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller in the second half would bring some stability up front, but instead they offered disappointment. Much of the credit goes to the South Korean defenders, who didn’t park the bus, but built a wall in front of the goal. The pressure forced the Germans to give the ball away, along with most of their attacking combinations, coordination and the speed to split the defence.
Germany were the team that always won in the final stages of the game just when everyone thought they were beaten. Even in Yekaterinburg, more than 800 kilometres away from Kazan, the Mexican supporters — some with tears in their eyes — were awaiting a late German goal that would ruin their chances of qualifying for the last 16.
The Mexicans were still on the edge of their seats, checking the scoreline on their smartphones. Gomez came close to breaking Mexican hearts before goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo denied his decent header in the 68th minute. And the Mexicans breathed a sigh of relief, but not for too long. The 32-year-old striker almost sneaked one in, but could not connect the ball properly in the 72nd minute. It was a game of near-misses in the final stages of the match as Hummels made a complete mess of a number of chances to put Germany ahead.
"We believed until the end, even with the 0-1 (deficit) we tried to turn it but we could not score,” said Hummels, after Germany became the tournament’s third champions in succession to go out at the group stage. “We had a lot of chances, even me, I should have scored in the 87th (minute). Today it was not easy but, yes, no team could get through easily,” said Hummels.
"This chance will haunt me for a few weeks I guess. I hit my own shoulder with the header, so maybe I wasn't in the right position and maybe I wanted to put too much pressure on the ball," the Bayern Munich defender added.
South Korea hit the final nail in the coffin by scoring a scrappy goal in the 91st minute before humiliating Neuer, who surged ahead to play on the left wing, to score a second. Oh, and all the Neuer hype died a painful death in Kazan.
Problems on and off the field
Germany have been on a downward trend for as many months now. Their performance in the qualifying games sent alarm bells ringing in the dressing room, but it seems as if none of it was considered.
Low’s side went 1-2 down against Austria in early June. Notably, a solitary 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia had been Germany’s only win since the start of the year.
However, Low had a reputation for experimenting formations with different players ahead of big events, especially in friendlies. This move did work in his favour for nearly a decade, but he lost credibility after a series of insipid performances.
In fact, the 0-1 loss to Mexico in their opening World Cup game reaffirmed it.
“The team worked well, players were training really well. But the two friendly matches, against Austria and Saudi Arabia, were not good. Maybe we thought at the push of a button we could shift gears, but we lost against Mexico. If we had taken a point it would have been different. We couldn’t flip that switch. We were convinced once the tournament started we would be able to play well but it didn’t happen,” said Low.
Well, his future is in jeopardy despite signing a new four-year contract in May. The German FA won’t rush to a conclusion the way Spain did ahead of the tournament. But this feels similar to the 7-1 humiliation that they had inflicted on Brazil in the semi-final of 2014 World Cup. It was a listless effort by the Nationalmannschaft and a failure to adhere to possession-dominated football. "We did not deserve to be winning the title once again,” Low said.
Four years ago, Germany’s biggest tabloid BILD ran a front page with an interesting headline that read ‘Ohne Worte!’ (no words), accompanied by a picture of Kroos celebrating his side’s crushing win over Brazil. On Thursday, the newspaper carried a similar headline, this time with a dejected Kroos, who is trying to make sense of what happened in Kazan.
— 🇬🇭ɛ.a.ɢ.ʟ.ɛ.ʏ.ɛ.ʐ➕ (@eagleyez7) June 27, 2018
Football is a simple game and Germany no longer win. Auf Wiedersehen!
Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 18:57:52 IST