Turniermannschaft – a tournament team – the one word that can best describe the German national team for the past decade or so. Similar to the San Antonio Spurs, Germany has been a side that has been greater than the sum of their parts under Jogi Low. That was the case until this year’s World Cup. Toni Kroos’ late free kick winner epitomized the general persona of this German team. When they’re backed against the wall, they come out swinging. Time and time again, they somehow manage to find the vital goal to push them over the finish line. No matter how bad their play can appear to be, they always prevail and get the job done.
German Football changed in 2006. Jurgen Klinsmann was given the task to modernize the German National team. He had to instill a more progressive style of play that heavily relied on pressing game. As it turned out, he was not the man to lead Germany to the future; but his protégé, Jogi Low, was. Since he took over the reins, Low has coached Germany to winning the World Cup and a Confederations Cup. He has overseen and redesigned German football into a factory that spews out a continuous stream of gifted players whose reach always exceed their grasp. Despite this, there always is an aura that he was an assistant coach who happened to be in the right place in the right time, a befitting manager among his generation rather than a visionary and a genius.
In his 12 year tenure he has had extraordinary success, always contending in international tournaments and always reaching at least the semifinals. Though there was something different about this tournament. Germany was tested and put under pressure. From the hunters they became the hunted in this World Cup. As it turns out, the Germany of old are no more. This German sides struggles to win if they aren’t playing well. As Low considers his future, Germany percolates their group stage elimination in the World Cup; the first time they have not made the last eight since 1938.
In his strangely calm press conference after their 2-0 defeat to South Korea, Low admitted that arrogance played a critical part in their shock Group-Stage exit – in particular to the defeat to Mexico. Germany was uncharacteristically poor. They attacked with no purpose with fullbacks on both sides making forward runs to not track back and leave a fossilized Sami Khedira to protect their center backs. Low has claimed to have had good training camps in the run-up to Russia but the two friendly matches against Austria and Saudi Arabia were alarming. He’s gone on to say that he thought his side was capable to flipping the switch when their games mattered the most. As it turns out, they were far from their best.
What was most glaring about the Germany was their lack of fight and urgency against South Korea. When the news broke through that Sweden were ahead against Mexico, Germany had to win in order to squeeze into the knockout stages. Low sent on veterans in Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller – who has been out of sorts for the past couple of years (and found himself on the bench for the first time in a tournament game since the semifinals of Euro 2012). But Germany still showed no fight. Asides from an excellent save that South Korea’s keeper Cho Hyun-woo made from a Leon Goretzka strike early in the second half, Germany was unexpectedly lackluster.
Since their elimination, Low has admitted that Germany did not deserve to win back-to-back World Cups, or even reach the round of 16. South Korea struck twice in injury time to add insult to injury as Sweden dispatched Mexico. The second Korean goal came from a blunder by Toni Kroos. This felt like football was having its fun, turning the hero to give Germany a chance to make it out of the group stages into the fall guy. Manuel Neuer’s surge from his box – with his aggressive ploy to channel the sweeper-keeper was once his and Germany’s strength. Here, it undid his side as he was caught in possession deep in Korea’s defensive third. A simple long-ball found Korea’s talisman Son Heung-min who rolled in Korea’s second into an empty net.
For the fourth time in the past five World Cups, the defending champions has been knocked out in the group stages. Though none of those shock exits were as unexpected as this. Germany’s biggest strength has been their youth development that has given them a plethora of talent to pick and choose from. It has been so effective this had effectively removed failure as a possibility for Germany. Football, though, is unforgiving and does not tolerate such thoughts of vanity.