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​Talking Tactics: How Germany went from complacency to disaster

As with any epic footballing crisis it is only after the event, after the initial shock has subsided and the search through the rubble begins, that Germany's World Cup exit begins to look not just understandable but inescapable.

On reflection, the warning signs, the fatalistic hints of what was to come, had been mounting up for some time. It is a peculiar quirk of the human experience that history always feels inevitable; as the present becomes the past, events feel eerily pre-determined.

For Germany, the journey to humiliating group-stage elimination has already begun to seem preordained, their eventual doom taking shape in a series of poor decisions that began in 2017. Why, then, did so few see it coming?



Before the World Cup began

On Thursday morning newspaper Suddeutsche Zeiting ran the headline "Complacent in the disaster", which pretty accurately summarises the mood in Germany. After the 2-0 defeat to South Korea, Mats Hummels made an even more damning assessment: "The last convincing performance we had was in the autumn of 2017."

Germany were poor in each of their six friendly matches between November of last year and the beginning of the World Cup, sliding from disappointing draws with England, France, and Spain, to defeats against Brazil and Austria. Their final pre-tournament match was a narrow 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia in which every single tactical problem evidenced in Group D was on full display. Joachim Low, then, is guilty of complacency more than anything else.

The specifics of the defensive openness, midfield frailty, and weary attacking lines are better discussed in relation to the three group games below, but suffice to say the Saudis could easily have won on June 8. Germany simply refused to learn from their own mistakes, instead assuming that things would fall into place once the tournament began, that their problems would melt away when it really mattered. It is precisely the same naivety that saw France (2002), Italy (2010), and Spain (2014) knocked out at the group stages four years after lifting the World Cup.

And so Low didn't bother adapting his style of play, didn't think to refresh an ageing squad with younger players. Leroy Sane's notable absence was seen by many as evidence of Low's strength of resolve, but in hindsight it is a clear example of his stubbornness and unwillingness to evolve with the times. How desperately they needed someone with his pace, width, and directness in Russia.



Mexico & Sweden: problems in defence, midfield, and attack

Without Bastian Schweinsteiger to sweep up in front of the defence or Philipp Lahm to control the opposition counter-attack, Germany were remarkably vulnerable in all three of their group matches. Mexico easily broke, thanks in part to bravely leaving three men forward but largely because Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng, and Mats Hummels were individually and collectively shambolic.

Khedira is too slow on the turn to adequately provide cover for a back two and was constantly caught high up the pitch and out of position. The same can be said of the full-backs Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt, whose commitment to attack left the centre-backs completely isolated. Boateng is an ambling defender and, as the pre-tournament friendlies clearly showed, does not partner well with Hummels. The setup was disastrous, but alarmingly none of the players or coaches seemed to notice; Mexico counter-attacked again and again, eventually making the breakthrough.

From here on in Germany began to panic. Across the three matches Low played three different centre-back pairs; he dropped Khedira then brought him back; he changed to a 4-3-3, back to a 4-2-3-1, then ended in a lethargic 4-4-2. The best switch came at half-time against Sweden, when Mario Gomez came off the bench and Germany began switching play quickly to the wingers before cutting low balls into the box. Sweden were pushed back, and eventually Toni Kroos scored a freekick that was earned by Timo Werner, bombing towards the byline in pursuit of another cutback.




South Korea: Low fails to learn from his mistakes

Kroos' late winner against Sweden should have been the turning point, but instead Low - yet again - opted for complacency, for the assumption that things would come good.

Gomez was left on the bench for the South Korea tie and - yet again – the team was picked on reputation, on the ghost of 2014 rather than the evidence of their previous 18 months.

Mesut Ozil and Kroos continued their poor form as Germany laboured badly. Arguably the most damning indictment of Low is that the South Korea match so closely mirrored the pattern of the defeat to Mexico; the big-name players struggled, the defence was dreadfully exposed to the counter, the midfield offered no protection, and the attack lacked rhythm or cohesion.

At half-time Gomez finally came on, but by then the pattern of the game – emotional exhaustion for Germany, self-belief for South Korea – had already been set. By the end the Germans were playing in a static, lopsided 4-4-2, the sense of confusion palpable on the faces of the players.



Complacency and entitlement

"We have turned up with a sense of arrogance," Low said after the game. "We thought we could just turn a switch after the bad friendlies." This is only half true. Complacency certainly affected the players' mentality going into the tournament, but their arrogance goes far deeper than that.

Low had no coherent plan B, assuming his tried-and-tested plan A was good enough; the FA picked a base camp at Vatutinki for financial reasons despite Low wanting the squad in Sochi, assuming it would be good enough for the world champions; and the manager failed to learn from the improved second-half tactics against Sweden, assuming their historical quality meant there was no need to deploy Gomez as a target man.

The result was chaos, was Low using 20 players and a variety of haphazard formations in just 270 minutes of World Cup football. He hadn't planned for this. Nobody had planned for Germany crashing out at the group stages for the first time since 1938, and yet as the dust settles the reasons seem immediately obvious and their exit somehow inevitable. From poor performances last autumn to failing to blood the next generation, in retrospect Germany's last 12 months seem to have eerily foreshadowed the catastrophe on the horizon. Low, of all people, should have seen it coming.

Alex Keble
About the author

Alex Keble

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