And now it is four out of five. After their uninspiring loss to South Korea, Germany joins the previous defending champions from France, Italy, and Spain to exit the World Cup in ignominy.
In truth, the Germans were a bit better than their results suggest. To emerge from three games in which they took 73 shots (including 52 in the penalty area) and produced 5.5 xG with only 2 goals to show for it can be chalked up to some amount of bad luck and small sample size theater. The inability to connect on an early chance in any of the three matches also prevented them from taking advantage of game state and forced them to spend 90 minutes attacking against 9 or 10 defenders. In a different simulation, perhaps we’d be looking at a different result.
And yet, Joachim Löw and the German management team could have done a better job setting the team up for success.
The 23-man roster for 2018 features many of the same players as the roster from four years ago, albeit older versions of themselves. But two players stand out as missing from the roster—Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm were critical contributors, and while Joshua Kimmich has done a decent job replacing Lahm, Germany never settled on a replacement for Schweinsteiger.
Schweinsteiger suffered for fitness throughout that tournament, but was nevertheless an automatic selection beginning with Germany’s third match. Playing in a midfield three alongside Toni Kroos and one of either Philipp Lahm or Sami Khedira at the 6, Schweinsteiger presented the perfect blend of positional play, ball progression, and incisiveness alongside the other two.
By 2014 Schweinsteiger had evolved into a player who was assured, yet progressive in possession. His contribution to build up reduced Germany’s overreliance on Toni Kroos, and allowed Kroos to be a more dedicated contributor in the final third of the field. His defensive steel and positional nous also allowed Kroos the freedom to pull the strings in midfield. With 2.35 tackles per 90 in the World Cup, Schweinsteiger was a major deterrent against counterattacks, especially when paired with Lahm or Khedira.
Entering the group stage, replacing Schweinsteiger’s contributions was the biggest issue facing Germany. Löw had three potential midfield options at his disposal, with Ilkay Gündogan, Sebastian Rudy, and Leon Goretzka all providing reasonable, if inferior, facsimiles for some of Schweinsteiger’s skills.
Curiously, Löw’s initial solution to filling this hole was to not bother trying. Against Mexico, Germany set up with a midfield of Kroos and Khedira, both four years older than the previous World Cup, both with less protection. The result was a 1-0 loss that could have been far worse had Mexico completed their numerous 3v1 counterattacks.
The lack of protection afforded the Germany center backs was evident, as Mexico broke time after time against a fractured and imbalanced German squad. Germany put very few Mexican actions in middle of the pitch under pressure.
After going down one goal, Löw doubled down on a lack of midfield stability by substituting Khedira for a center forward and playing the infamously immobile Kroos as the lone midfielder.
Mats Hummels elucidated just how frustrating the set up was as a center back after the loss. “If seven or eight players attack, then it’s clear the offensive force is greater than the defensive stability. That’s what I often talk about internally, to no effect. Our cover wasn’t good, too often it was just Jerome and I at the back,” he told reporters after the game.
As a response, Khedira was dropped and replaced by Sebastian Rudy, a potential Schweinsteiger replacement. But Rudy’s shortcoming is in his build-up contribution. As a pure 6, he’s not the passer or creative player that Schweinsteiger was, and he had little impact on the game in the 30 minutes in which he played. Before an unfortunate cleat to the face removed him from the equation, Rudy’s sole contribution to the game was 17 passes (with all but three sideways or backwards).
He managed a grand total of 5 pressure events, and didn’t record a tackle, interception, blocked pass, or blocked shot.
Gündogan’s introduction again provided a new option. The City player is more assured in possession, playing over 85 passes per 90 minutes at over 90% completion for Pep Guardiola this season, but he lacks the defensive solidity of Rudy or Schweinsteiger. In 60 minutes, Gündogan was his normal passing self in possession, but certainly didn’t solve the problem of Germany’s soft underbelly.
Thanks to a Toni Kroos wundertor (that offset his critical error enabling Sweden’s goal), Germany survived. But their midfield had still been sliced open, and a poor Swedish counterattacking team featuring two strikers in their 30’s had managed to create 1.10 xG off of a mere 7 shots.
Having seen little success with either Rudy or Gündogan, Löw reached into his bag and pulled out the final nominally-central midfielder on the team against South Korea. Leon Goretzka is closer to a classic 10 than Rudy, Gündogan, or Schweinsteiger, completing fewer than 40 passes per 90 minutes for Schalke this season at a rate of less than 80%. His insertion was Löw’s further insisting that he need not replace Schweinsteiger—Goretzka played out wide while Özil occupied the 10 role. Again, Germany looked vulnerable on the break, and they were finally knocked out thanks to a marvelously inane mistake from Kroos on a stoppage time corner kick.
In three games, Germany tested out three double pivots—Khedira-Kroos, Rudy-Kroos, Gündogan-Kroos—in the middle of the park. Despite oodles of possession, none successfully controlled the game against three teams that, on paper, were significantly weaker. While an alternative world might have seen their attack produce enough to see Germany through regardless, their frailty out of possession is likely to have been fatal against a stronger, knockout round opponent.