Express any worry in Germany about how the national team is going to perform at a major tournament and a single-word response usually follows.
“Turniermannschaft,” you’ll be told.
It means “tournament team” and the implication is that when the major tournament comes around, Germany always turn up.
After the defeat by South Korea the “deadly silence in the dressing room” that coach Joachim Low spoke of said it all – in Russia, they didn’t.
Germany had not gone out of a World Cup at the first stage since 1938, but that all changed in Kazan.
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Why did Germany go out?
You might say that Germany should have taken in-form Manchester City striker Leroy Sane, who was a surprise omission from the 23-man squad, but that misses the point in two ways. Firstly, because the man who went instead, Julian Brandt, was probably one of Germany’s most impressive players – in the 19 minutes he got at the tournament.
More importantly, this was not down to the absence of any single player.
The loss of leaders, or ‘Fuhrungsspieler’ as they say in Germany, was a factor. After the 2014 World Cup, captain Philipp Lahm, top scorer in World Cup history Miroslav Klose and key dressing room figure Per Mertesacker all retired. Lahm’s successor Bastian Schweinsteiger followed suit in 2016.
The build-up to the last tournament in Brazil for some players shouldn’t be ignored either. The 2012 Champions League final defeat by Chelsea was burnt into the memories of the six Bayern players who would start the World Cup final. By then, they also had the momentum of a win in the all-German Champions League final at Wembley in 2013. It contributed to the feeling that German football was on the up.
Off-pitch politics and ‘arrogance’
The lead-up to this tournament, on the other hand, might not have helped.
Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil having photographs taken with controversial Turkish president Recepp Tayipp Erdogan in May dominated the agenda – but, then, off-field issues had been present going into the 2014 tournament too. And, as in the build-up to Russia 2018, there were injury worries to key players as well.
Still, Low told German public broadcaster ZDF that he had been happy with their preparations. The warm-up games against Austria and Saudi Arabia hadn’t been good but they had talked things through.
He did admit: “I had the feeling that there was perhaps a certain arrogance before the Mexico game [within the camp] – like we would be able to react at the touch of a button when it all starts.”
The lack of balance in the side was stark as Germany were continually caught on the counter throughout the tournament. When going forward, they generally lacked both the speed and the precision to break down their opponents.
Individual selections can be questioned, none more so than that of Sami Khedira. It had made sense that he was dropped for Sebastian Rudy against Sweden, having not been quick enough in body or in mind against Mexico.
When the five changes to face South Korea were announced, the strangest was Khedira’s return. That he’s a key dressing room figure should not be underestimated but within 40 seconds he set the tone for another poor display on the pitch when caught in possession.
Another of those changes was taking out Germany’s top scorer at their past two World Cups in Thomas Muller. That was controversial but it looked the right call given his form. Playing new Bayern team-mate Leon Goretzka in his stead did not.
Given how frequently he lost the ball, he will not challenge Muller for a slot at the German champions but that’s because Goretzka usually plays in the centre of midfield or at number 10, not as a winger.
Those selections all added up to another incoherent team performance with numerous chances for South Korea – but, as defender Mats Hummels pointed out, Germany had their opportunities too, the best falling to Hummels six yards out.
“If I head the ball in in the 86th minute, safe to say it’s a case of ‘how awesome, we’re through.'”
Instead, it hit his shoulder, bouncing out – just as Germany were about to. It was a sliding doors moment but there were plenty even in their 2014 triumph.
Take their opening 4-0 victory over Portugal when Portugal had a two-on-two with the game goalless. Then there was the last 16 against Algeria in which Manuel Neuer saved Germany on several occasions. Even in the final, had Gonzalo Higuain taken his one-on-one chance it could have been Argentina’s name on the trophy.
This is not to say Germany were lucky, more that the margins between success and failure can be incredibly fine. When a team wins a tournament, such moments of doubt get left behind. What stays in the memory instead is Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi-final.
Where next for Germany?
Winning the Confederations Cup last year told of Germany’s apparent strength in depth. Seven of the starting XI against South Korea on Wednesday did not feature in Russia last year, for instance. You might remember too, however, that Germany’s U21s won the European Championship last summer. Yet none of them were present in Russia this summer, and that is telling.
The next generation of young German talent has not broken through in the same way that Khedira, Ozil, Neuer and Jerome Boateng did at the 2010 World Cup, having also won the Under 21s Euros the year previously.
Their achievements at the top level of club football make the case for dropping them seem absurd but age means those four are likely to have played at their last World Cup.
Questions now surround the future of head coach Low, who just a month ago extended his deal until 2022.
Reinhard Grindel, president of the German FA, said after the defeat that he and the board want Low to lead the upheaval. Low told the press it was too soon for him to answer.
One thing is clear – the phrase ‘Turniermannschaft’ might be heard a little less before Euro 2020.