Football Features

Die Mannschaft’s decline: Five things wrong with Germany since their failed World Cup defence

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 13:57, 8 September 2019 | Updated: 13:10, 25 February 2020

Such has been the nature of German football in the past year, Netherlands’ 4-2 victory over Joachim Löw‘s men in Hamburg on Friday night was hardly surprising. 

Once the undisputed kings of the castle, Germany have been in freefall since October 2017: since then, they have won just eight of 21 games.

Their victory over the Netherlands in March (whom they have failed to beat on three other occasions) is the only time they have beaten a team ranked higher than 18th in the FIFA rankings in that period. They’ve had 11 opportunities to do so.

Talking of the rankings, the Germans are very much flirting with historic failure: they sit 15th currently and have not been higher than 13th since their remarkable exit from the World Cup in Russia.

Their lowest position ever is 22nd and, if they carry on the way they’re going, it may not be long before they equal this unwanted feat.

Of course, the Netherlands are no mugs and a defeat to them alone is no reason to sound the alarms.

However, Friday night’s loss was far from a one-off and epitomised many of Low and Co’s major issues not just since last year, but since their 2014 World Cup triumph, starting with…

1. A centre-back conundrum

The German defence is a massive problem. In their last four meetings with the Netherlands, they’ve shipped 11 goals. For a side like Germany, scoring twice at home should be enough to guarantee you a result, even if you’re playing one of the best teams around.

Currently, Jonathan Tah, Niklas Sule and Matthias Ginter are the only out-and-out centre-backs available to Low. They are solid options, but nothing more. Antonio Rudiger is injured, and even his success with the national team has been limited. Sule has impressed for Bayern but has struggled to replicate that form for Low. Tah is no Virgil van Dijk, Sule no Matthijs De Ligt, Ginter no Samuel Umtiti, Rudiger no Raphael Varane.

It was well publicised how Low banished Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng from the national team after their abysmal World Cup campaign and many praised the manager for ruthlessly ridding himself of the deadwood. However, it appears he may have cut off his nose to spite his face.

Perhaps this decision may have been justified had Die Mannschaft possessed the necessary options to fall back on. Of course, Boateng and Hummels were poor for Germany in Russia. Boateng has since lost his place in the Bayern side (to compatriot Sule) and, on paper, Hummels’ departure to Dortmund could be interpreted as a sign of his demise. However, Hummels’ quality on the ball as well as his undoubted leadership skills would not go amiss in this German side. Borussia Dortmund are a top side and one which Hummels will play a crucial role for this season.

Granted, Low wanted to bring a new generation through but the decision to drop players who, relatively recently, were considered genuinely world-class centre-backs when he didn’t have anyone to replace them is appearing a more and more baffling decision by the game. Sule possesses the ability required, but you can’t win tournaments with one quality defender. There have been calls recently that Hummels deserves another chance, but Low has insisted that he will stick to his guns. Perhaps he should reconsider.

2. Full-back crisis

If the German centre-backs are hard to come by, German full-backs are practically extinct and they have been for some time.

Even during their successful World Cup triumph in Brazil, Benedikt Howedes (a centre-back) played much of the tournament at left-back. It may have worked in 2014, but their shortage of full-backs is starting to catch up with them.

Joshua Kimmich, arguably among the best right-backs in world football, is deployed in central midfield by Low (as is often the case with Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich). Meanwhile, Lukas Klostermann has made just three appearances for Die Mannschaft and has only been playing top-flight football for two seasons.

Marvin Plattenhardt is only really picked due to a lack of options. Nico Schulz is good but prefers to play further forward. Thilo Kehrer is a centre-back by trade but has the capacity to play at right-back if required, although he is far from a specialist.

Full-backs are more important than they have ever been and Germany have a chronic deficiency of them. Low has tried to rectify this by playing three centre-backs (thus meaning Schulz can play higher up the pitch, at least) but, as previously mentioned, these players aren’t much better.

Low has started to use the wing-back system in an attempt to shore up the leaky German defence following the capitulation of his favoured 4-2-3-1. So far, it has had limited success. Systems need time to work, but there is a clear lack of the pacey, decisive forwards required for this system to work in the German ranks (more on this later).

A good national team needs to have a strong defence. That should be a prerequisite. If Germany continue to defend how they are currently, they can wave goodbye to any imminent success.

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3. Playing style crux

Germany’s set-up against the Netherlands on Friday was very different to how many would expect. Low has been rotating his teams quite consistently in recent times and is clearly struggling to find his best side. Timo Werner and Serge Gnabry were both playing in roles which are unfamiliar to them in the Bundesliga – Werner out wide and Gnabry up front.

Gnabry has taken to this role like a duck to water, scoring eight goals in nine games and being one of the only bright sparks for Low in recent times. Werner has been frequently played out wide for Germany since he has failed to make the lone striker position his own.

Previous success had been based around imperious possession and superior technical ability – Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Thomas Muller were the catalysts for their triumph in Brazil. Kroos is still available, but the other four are not: Schweinsteiger has retired, whereas Khedira, Muller and Ozil have all suffered at the hands of Low, particularly Ozil.

The German boss has struggled to adapt. It seems as though the axing of these players was made without a back-up plan. Marco Reus has struggled to step up while Gnabry, who has already impressed, needs more time to grow and prove he can perform on a consistent basis.

Leroy Sane is injured but was criminally underused prior to this; everyone remembers his exclusion from the 2018 World Cup squad. He is the only player they have who possesses the explosive pace that could cause any defender in the world problems, yet he is ignored. For the new system that Low is trying, he will be hoping that Sane will be the solution to many of his problems once he returns from injury.

Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt, despite huge success in the Bundesliga, have not been given too much of a chance in Low’s new era. There are a plethora of issues tactically and it is painfully apparent that Low has no idea how to get the best out of his squad as of yet.

4. No talisman

All the best teams have a match-winner: France have Kylian Mbappe, Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, England have Harry Kane, Belgium have Eden Hazard and Brazil have Neymar. No German players have shown they can emulate any of these stars.

Reus has done it for Dortmund but not on the international stage. Their best players, Kroos and Kimmich, play too deep to do so. The young players need time. The best teams in history, almost without exception, have someone who can drag them out of trouble when their team-mates can’t. Germany don’t possess this entity.

Gnabry is currently the only player to show anything like the kind of form required to drag this German side through European qualification. He has sparkled in recent games but is too inexperienced to be labelled the superstar that Die Mannschaft need. Too much pressure on his shoulders at this point could prove to be detrimental to his performances.

Muller, Ozil and perhaps Mario Gotze were probably the only players who could truly stake a claim to being this match-winner at any point in their international careers. Muller had an insatiable appetite for goals and always seemed to step up when required (during his prime, at least).

The likes of Havertz and Sane have the capacity to grow into this role but even so, players such as Werner and the latter have had chances to showcase this ability already to no avail. Someone will eventually step up – they always do – but, for the time being, it is a problem which no amount of tactical nous can solve.

5. Experience vs youth

An issue which has been touched upon already and is perhaps not really anyone’s fault: the German squad is horribly unbalanced in terms of experience and youth.

Remarkably, their starting XI in Hamburg possessed just one player that is between the age of 25 and 29 – Schulz, who has played only six competitive games. Given that when between the ages of 25 and 29 players are seen to be in their ‘peak years’, this points towards a squad which is neither here nor there.

There is a positive side to this, of course. Kimmich, Werner, Havertz, Sane and Gnabry are all still young and will surely have a bright international career ahead of them. Every side has transitional periods, even the best of them, and the Germans are having theirs at the moment.

But players who are in their prime are not being given the chance they perhaps deserve. It’s peculiar that Ilkay Gundogan was on the bench while Kimmich played in the middle on Friday, given his form for City over the past year.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen is 27 and one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the moment. Granted, Manuel Neuer is outstanding, too, but Ter Stegen can certainly feel hard done by that he is still the second choice.

Low has problems, some of which are out of his control. However, there is no doubt that he could be doing more to get the most out of Die Mannschaft.