Germany’s men’s football team - the winner of four World Cups and three European Championships - has been in steep decline in recent years.
With consecutive group-stage exits at the FIFA World Cup and ranking outside the top 10 for the last four years, the once-feared German football machine appears to be broken.
Following a humiliating 1-4 loss to Japan in an international friendly, the German Football Association (DFB) fired coach Hansi Flick on September 11, 2023. This is the first time a men’s national team coach has been sacked.
After being the ‘tournament team’ for the most part nearly 60 years (apart from a blip in the mid-1990s to early 2000s), and only a decade after winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup, German football is at a crossroads, only eight months before hosting EURO 2024.
Problems with the current squad
Germany has won just seven of its last 21 matches. One of the main problems has been its over-reliance on a particular playing style, thus becoming predictable.
The 4-2-3-1 formation, which helped it to win the World Cup 2014 and to the semifinal in EURO 2016, is no longer as suited with the current lot of players as it lacks quality in certain areas of the field – centre forward and full-backs.
Germany has struggled to find a proper striker since Miroslav Klose retired in 2014. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz have both been tried in the position, but neither has come close to producing the veteran’s numbers.
In the absence of Klose, the burden of scoring has been on Thomas Muller, who is an attacking midfielder by trade. Mario Gomes and Lucas Podolski have also contributed but both of them faded away after the EURO 2016 campaign.
It finally zeroed in on Niclas Fullkrug, a 30-year-old late bloomer, who was playing club football in the German second tier two seasons ago.
Fullkrug scored his first World Cup goal for Germany in a 1–1 draw against Spain after coming on as a substitute. He doubled his tally in the next game against Costa Rica. Since then, the Dortmund striker has become a mainstay, scoring 6 more goals in the next seven international friendlies.
Defensively, Germany has also been leaky.
Despite having talented centre-backs, the team has struggled to keep clean sheets. Antonio Rudiger, the same defender who won the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively, was embarrassed by Japan in the World Cup.
Germany’s positional superiority allows fullbacks to overlap and generate overloads in the attacking third, but it also leaves it vulnerable to rapid counterattacks. This is caused by the lack of cohesion in central midfield and proper fullbacks who can track back and defend.
In the last 21 matches, Germany has fielded 17 different full-back pairs and on every occasion, at least one of them has been substituted.
Thilo Kehrer, Matthias Ginter, Jonathan Tah, Niklas Sule, and Nico Schlotterbeck to name a few have all played as fullbacks for the national team in the last four years - despite all of them being natural centre-backs.
Although it has used natural full-backs such as Marius Wolf, David Raum, Benjamin Henrichs, and Robin Gosens among others, they have mostly been paired with a centre-back on the opposite flank. In only 3 out of the last 21 matches, two natural full-backs started for Germany.
In spite of having multiple elite midfielders such as Ilkay Gundogan, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Emre Can, and Pascal Gross, the team is unable to strike the appropriate balance in its midfield. These players just cannot seem to translate their club form to the national squad.
Thirdly, the team is reeling from the absence of leaders - the one who wears the armband and those who rally the troops.
Philipp Lahm, the captain of Germany’s World Cup-winning 2014 team and the tournament director of EURO 2024 said that the team is missing a nucleus.
“I don’t know who has the responsibility, currently. Who is the face of the team? Who forms the core? Who are the key identifying players in this team? Every successful German team had a core, which still needs to be formed now,” Lahm told DW in an interview in July.
Beyond the tactics: A loss of the German fighting spirit
Pragmatism, resilience, and a never-die attitude have been synonymous with German football since it first started to make inroads in big tournaments.
The mighty German teams didn’t always play the most eye-catching football, but they were always one of the toughest teams to beat.
“Of course, they need to have good football skills, too. But it is also about mentality and desire to give your absolute best and win tackles.”Rudi Voller, Sporting director of the men’s German football team
“Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win,” said former England striker Gary Lineker which epitomises the steely mentality of the team.
However, legends Bastian Schweinsteiger and Rudi Voller, who were instrumental in Germany’s victorious World Cup campaigns, have voiced their concerns about the lack of fighting spirit among players in the current national team.
“At the end of the day, I was a fan of players because they just showed great football and also they were not able to give up so fast, they were resistant. I think that’s what the supporters want to see,” Schweinsteiger had in an interview.
Voller, who is the current sporting director of the German national team also had the same tone. He said, “Of course, they need to have good football skills, too. But it is also about mentality and desire to give your absolute best and win tackles.”
Germany’s youth development system: A double-edged sword
In response to Germany’s humiliating group stage exit from EURO 2000, the DFB had a major overhaul of the youth development system – investing millions in training coaches, building youth performance centres, and introducing football academies in rural areas.
The programme paved the way for the 2014 team but has come under recent criticism for being too focused on scouting and selection from the lowest age groups.
This focus on early specialisation has led to a narrowing of the talent pool. A recent football documentary, WHY Germany sucks at football nowadays has revealed the worrying reality of Germany’s youth performance centres.
In Germany, around 1.3 million kids play in the under-14s, but only 400,000 are left in the under-15-18 age groups. This number is decreasing alarmingly every year because the system is too competitive and demanding, and it does not allow enough room for fun and creativity.
In the documentary, former academy players and youth coaches have described how the youngsters at the academy have everything taken care of – from their needs to knowledge of the game – rarely giving them chances to make tough decisions in life.
And the effects are eventually showing.
Germany finished bottom of its group in the Under-21 EURO 2023 while the under-20 team meanwhile failed to even qualify for the 2019 and 2023 under-20 World Cups.
Bundesliga’s decline: Fewer German youngsters
Despite having a reputation for developing young players, the amount of playing time for German under-23 footballers in the Bundesliga has fallen from 23 per cent in 2010 to just 6 per cent in 2020, according to a report by DW Kick off.
It is no surprise that only two German clubs (FC Cologne and VfB Stuttgart) are listed among the top 25 clubs that produced the most players for the top five European leagues in 2022, according to the book Denkfabrik Nachwuchsfußball by Leo Teßmann and Gora Sen.
The last time a German team reached the semifinals of the UEFA Youth League was in the 2018-19 season (1899 Hoffenheim), and no German team has ever reached the final since the tournament was founded in 2013-14.
In September 2023, the DFB hired 36-year-old Julian Nagelsmann as their new head coach, who became the youngest coach to helm the national team since the Second World War (Otto Nerz is Germany’s youngest ever coach, who was 34 when he got hired in 1926).
He is tasked with turning around the fortunes of the team and leading them to success at EURO 2024 in front of demanding home support.
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