FIFA World Cup 2018, Novy Kapadia column: Germany's exit in group stage marks the end of an era under Joachim Low
Joachim Low did not see the writing on the wall when Germany struggled to score goals in Euro 2016 and in friendly matches.
History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Holders eliminated in the group stage of the next World Cup — Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and now Germany in 2018 — is now becoming a trend or a jinx. Marcelo Lippi, Vicente del Bosque and Joachim Low all probably made the same mistake of relying on a settled squad rather than infusing it with younger players with more fire in their belly.
It is this ability to be ruthless and unsentimental that made Sir Alex Ferguson such a successful coach at Manchester United. He always built for the future discarding established stars like Jaap Stam, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Andrey Kanchelskis, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron, Carlos Tevez and several others when he felt they were unsuitable for his club.
When buying medicine, doctors always advise you to see if it is past their sell by date. Many players in the German squad of the 2018 World Cup were over the hill and should have been replaced.
I have never seen such a lacklustre German team devoid of pace and commitment. Precision passing, constant mobility, speed and never say die attitude were the hallmarks of successful German teams of the past. Germany at the 2018 World Cup lacked all these qualities. The defending champions lost because they were one-paced and ridiculously open at the back.
After the loss to South Korea, fans vented their ire against Mesut Ozil, who has slowed down and his casual style gives the impression that he is not trying. But even Thomas Muller who had scored ten goals in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups was a mere passenger, not effective as a winger who cuts in and scores goals or as a support striker. He was sluggish and never a goal threat. It is strange why Muller was even used as a substitute in the vital match versus South Korea, where he was quite ineffective.
Sami Khedira, who was expected to take over as the defensive midfielder from Bastian Schweinsteiger was also slow, error-prone and tentative. Thus Germany became vulnerable to the quick counter-attack. Both Mexico and Sweden scored goals against them by quick counter-attacks down the middle.
Khedira's lack of fitness put an extra burden on the outstanding Toni Kroos, who excels going forward and playing incisive passes and taking long-range shots. Kroos was forced to play deep, so there was no cutting edge in the German midfield. As the saying goes it never rains but pours. In the match against Sweden, the 28-year-old Sebastian Rudy was an effective holding midfielder and made some visionary passes. Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured nose in a collision and was taken off. He could not play against South Korea and there were again gaping holes in the German midfield. If Rudy had been fit then maybe Toni Kroos could have played more upfront and provided the passes for the strikers to utilize.
Low's biggest problem was in central defence. In all three matches, he had to change the central defence pair. Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels started in the 0-1 loss to Mexico then Antonio Rudiger and Boateng played in the 2-1 win over Sweden. In that match, Boateng got a red card (two yellows) and so Hummels and Nikolas Sule were on duty versus South Korea. When West Germany won the World Cup in 1990 they had an impregnable central defence consisting of Guido Buchwald, Jurgen Kohler and Klaus Augenthaler. Again in their historic 2-1 triumph over the Netherlands in the 1974 final, central defenders Franz Beckenbauer and Hans Schwarzenbeck were rock solid. Defence was always Germany's strong point. In this World Cup, it was their Achilles heel. They conceded a goal in every match.
I strongly feel that German football has sacrificed their greatest strength, solidity in defence, tight man marking and hard tackling as they are all now following the modern trend of defenders being comfortable with the ball and focusing on intercepting the ball rather than tackling.
Joachim Low did not see the writing on the wall when his team struggled to score goals in Euro 2016 and in friendly matches. When Miroslav Klose, retired after the 2014 World Cup, Low had four years to nurture a new generation of strikers, who could be either commanding in the air or excel with precision in the box. He kept shuffling his strikers. In the 2017 Confederations Cup, it seemed he had found a fine target man in the lanky Sandro Wagner but surprisingly he omitted him from the World cup squad. Piqued at this omission, Wagner has retired from international football.
In the end, Low reverted to 32-year-old Mario Gomez. A loss of form and fitness prevented Gomez going to Brazil in 2014, but he had invaluable big-game experience having turned out for Die Mannschaft at four major tournaments: UEFA Euro 2008, 2012 and 2016, as well as the 2010 World Cup. His role was to be like that of Lukas Podolski in 2014, guiding the younger striker Timo Werner noted for his explosive speed. However, neither Gomez nor Werner scored a goal. They can complain of lack of service. Crosses from the flanks for the tall Gomez were infrequent and through passes to exploit Werner's speed were also rare.
Factionalism within a German team is rarely heard of. Surprisingly, reports from the German camp reveal there are factions within it. One of the groups consists of Ozil, Sami Khedira, Boateng and Julian Draxler. The other one is the Bavarian group of Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos.
According to reports, Ozil's group felt the Bavarians could have done more to lobby Low over the inclusion of Leroy Sane, who was surprisingly omitted from the squad. Low's reason was mainly tactical; Sane would have been behind Draxler and Marco Reus in the pecking order and might have played for only 20 minutes here or there. Low was also concerned that if Sane who could have given Germany an option in attack with blistering speed could have upset the team harmony with his attitude problems. On one level, Low's decision to overlook Sane did not reveal his skills in man-management.
Low and Germany are in crisis. There is now intense scrutiny on the squad which has too many out of form players. Low is being criticized for not keeping faith with several of the younger players who helped Germany win the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. He has a contract till the 2022 World Cup. Germany does not change coaches easily. But considering the barrage of criticism he is facing, I feel it is best that Low steps down as he could not ensure harmony in the squad and could not develop a settled combination.
Players from Morocco, Iran and Senegal are probably cursing the VAR system as they got unfavourable decisions. But the first round of matches has shown that it cuts down errors in referees' decisions regarding penalty kicks and yellow cards. A record number of 24 penalty kicks have been awarded in 48 matches so far of which 19 have been converted. With a little fine tuning, VAR, like goalline technology, can be effective leading to more goals and accuracy in decisions. There will be no Hand of God goals in the future.
I also support FIFA's decision to revert to the fair play rule as a final parameter to separate teams in case they are equal on points and goal difference. It will cut down on cynical yellow cards by hard tackling defenders, needless time wasting and lead to more attacking football. In Group G Japan qualified on the basis of this rule ahead of Senegal.
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