World Cup 2018: The Struggle Of The Defending Champion Continues
“Congratulations to Korea for the win, for Sweden and Mexico for the qualification. It’s difficult to explain. The way we played we didn’t deserve to go through.”
-Germany coach Joachim Loew
Many of you may remember during the last World Cup, I posted a blog about the challenges the defending World Cup champion faces. Sometimes it seems like bad luck. After Germany’s game against South Korea, my look at the defending Champion deserves an update.
In the 20th Century, only Italy in 1950 and Brazil in 1966 were among the defending champions that failed to make it past the Group Stage. In the 21st Century, there was France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.
Then came Germany here in 2018. Germany was the most impressive team at the 2014 World Cup and deserving of their victory. The team appeared to have many a great retire from the national team over time like Miro Klose, Per Mertesacker and Phillipp Lahm just after their World Cup win, Bastian Schweinsteiger right after Euro 2016, and Lukas Podolski in 2017. Nevertheless their reputation of consistency would continue to be as they would continue to do very well in tournaments, if not win. There was the semifinal finish at Euro 2016. There was winning their first ever Confederations Cup in 2017. They even won FIFA team of the year in 2014 and 2017 as well as the Laureus award for Team Of The Year in 2015. It appeared that the years were kind to team Germany as well as with the new talent that was coming along. Including Joshua Kimmich who won German Player Of The Year in 2017. Germany’s Olympic team in Rio which consisted mostly of men under 23 won the silver medal. It also appeared Head Coach Joachim Loew was continuing to make the right decisions and Germany’s football system which went through an overhaul in the early 21st Century was continuing to pay off big time.
Even in friendly play, Germany did very well, but they also had notable defeats like 4-2 against Argentina seven weeks after the World Cup, 2-1 against the US in June 2015, 3-2 against England in March 2016, and 3-1 against Slovakia in May 2016. 2017 looked like a good year for Germany as they topped their World Cup qualifying group easily and they didn’t even lose a dingle friendly. Their draw for the World Cup didn’t appear to threaten their World Cup status as their mix with Sweden, South Korea and Mexico appeared to be a group they could advance with after playing.
Then the 2018 year began. They drew against Spain 1-1 in their first friendly in March. Their next friendly, against Brazil four days later, they lost 1-0. They would lose to Austria in a friendly 2-1 on June 2nd and then win 2-1 in a friendly against the Saudis on June 8th. It was apparent the team chemistry that gave Germany the winning edge in 2014 wasn’t there.
The World Cup squad of 23 for the German national team was announced on June 4th 2018: two days after their loss to Austria. Manuel Neuer, goalkeeper for the 2014 team, was back and was captain of the team, as were eight other members of Germany’s 2014 team. There was also Mario Gomez who was part of Germany’s 3rd-place World Cup team of 2010. Marco Reus, who had to be replaced just before the 2014 World Cup because of an ankle injury, finally got his World Cup moment in 2018. There were some notable differences about the make-up. Four members of the 2014 team had 100 caps or more. None of the 2018 team had that. Three of the members were part of Germany’s silver medal-winning performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016. There were the ‘reliable’ veterans like Ozil, Muler, Neuer, Khedira and Boateng. As for the new players, there were talents like 26 year-old Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 22 year-old Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Julian Brandt, and defenders like 25 year-old Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and 23 year-old Joshua Kimmich from Bayern Munich as well as 22 year-old striker Timo Werner who scored three goals during the 2017 Confederations Cup.
There were also some notable members of the German national team who were left off the World Cup squad like Shkodran Mustafi who was part of the 2014 team and Mario Gotze who scored the goal that won Germany the World Cup. Gotze had been going through a metabolic disorder since March of last year and it may have caused his dismissal from the national team.
Then the World Cup started. Their first opponent was Mexico right in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. There were talks of struggles with the team chemistry since the Cup started, including with their team-based training in Moscow, but it appeared to be nothing to worry about. Mexico was a team where their last defeat to them was in 1985. They even beat them in the semis at the Confederations Cup last year. However sport is not about the past; it’s about now. Vet Neuer was chosen to be goaltender, Kimmich and the relatively inexperienced Marvin Plattenhardt were the only two ‘new’ players chosen as defenders, the two midfielders were vets Kroos and Khedira, and Werner was the only ‘new’ defender of the four. Substitutions also caught people’s eyes as ‘new players’ Plattenhardt and Werner were among those substituted and two vets along with ‘new player’ Julian Brandt were the substitutes. Germany had 60% of the ball possession, 25 of 37 attempts, nine attempts on-target and nine off-target, eight of the nine corner kicks, 88% pass accuracy, but the one goal was scored by Hirving Lozano of Mexico in the 35th minute.
Germany’s 1-0 loss soon got people talking. This was Germany’s first loss of a Group Stage opening match in yay so long. There was even talk about how the German team lacked organization, lacked chemistry. Some claimed Loew was ‘separating’ the team between the tried-and-true vets and the newer players. More scattering of players than setting a build of play. Germany still however had two more games. Their next match was Sweden in another Olympic Stadium: Fisht in Sochi. Neuer was back as goaltender, but this time there was more presence of newer players, especially among defenders. Even two of the three substitutes were new players like Brandt and Ilkay Gundogan. However it appeared to be another struggle for Germany, especially after Ola Toivonen scored after the 32nd minute. It did, however, appear that Germany was beginning to find their groove again as Marco Reus evened the game up at the 48th minute. However it was starting to look like Germany was going to choke again. Then came the miracle of stoppage time. It was Toni Kroos delivering a successful free kick in the 5th minute of stoppage time to give Germany their winning goal. Despite their 2-1 victory, there were still naysayers, pointing out how Germany did so little with so much. Germany had ball possession for 71% of the game and 16 goal attempts, but only five attempts on-target. They also had five of the seven offsides. Also Jerome Boateng received two yellow cards– in the 71st and 82nd minutes– en route to a red-card dismissal and Germany to play one man down for the remainder of that game and against the following game against South Korea.
Then came Game 3 against South Korea at Kazan Arena. Germany had to win if they wanted to qualify as Mexico already had two wins. No doubt Germany appeared to be there. They had 70% ball possession, had nine corner kicks, and delivered 17 shots, but only six were on-target. Germany appeared to deliver a lot of good attempts at goals, but young goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo was on that night. It was definitely frustrating for Germany as they knew they had to win to stay alive. Sweden was beating Mexico 3-0 so a win was needed to qualify. It did not happen. This time, it was South Korea that took full advantage of stoppage time with a goal by Kim Younggwon in the 93rd minute giving Korea the lead and a goal by Son Heungmin in an empty net in the 96th minute that meant it was the end for Germany. That was only Germany’s second loss to South Korea after their fourth time playing each other.
It’s tough to decide what lead to Germany’s demise. It may be the coaching staff’s overtrusting of its senior players and not giving the newer players a fair chance. Especially after vets like Neuer, Ozil and Thomas Muller all performed below expectation. Some say there was lack of unity or lack of a game plan. There was enough on the field to notice that. Some say the coaching tactics of Joachim Loew that was successful in the past finally ran out here. Loew himself was shocked at the loss and Germany’s early dismissal, however he did not deny any of his misdoings or the team’s misdoings.
Quotes from Loew after the game:
“I think we prepared well for the tournament. We were ready and we knew that all teams will be desperate to beat us, but we haven’t showed for it.”
“It wasn’t only Ozil, a number of other players didn’t perform as they normally would. I take responsibility for that and stand up for that, but I thought it was a good team.”
Interesting to note that Loew signed a contract to stay on as coach of the national team until 2022. Loew has been coach of the German national team since 2006. However he has made it evident that he will voluntarily step down. He made his disappointment obvious, but he said it will take hours to digest.
One thing about the loss is that it gave Germany some embarrassing statistics like the second World Cup ever and first time since 1938 that Germany failed to move past the 1st round, first time for Germany to fail to qualify after opening Group Stage play, and the third defending champion in a row to be eliminated after the Group Stage.
That last statistic continues to be biting. This is the fourth time in five World Cups this 21st century and the third consecutive time the defending champion is out after the Group Stage. I’ve never considered it bad luck to be defending World Cup champion, but the statistics are strongly pointing the way to it. It was never this way in the 20th century. They may have had some bad statistics at the following World Cup, but it was very rare to be out in the Group Stage. Now it’s more common than ever with Germany being the sixth ever and third-consecutive. It’s tempting to think bad lack, but one has to study teams to know why they perform poorly time after time. This is something new and shouldn’t be, but this is tempting.
The defending World Cup champion. The definition continues.