Seven steps to World Cup immortality for Germany
Germany’s triumph is the fruit of smart evolution – and sweet vindication for manager Joachim Löw
As the World Cup begins, Joachim Löw is the longest-serving manager in the tournament, but he’s still pondering a question that probably should have been settled years ago. Just what sort of team are Germany meant to be?
The question is linked to the ideological conflict within German domestic football, which is dominated by the rivalry between FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. Bayern’s manager is Pep Guardiola, who is revered as a genius. Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp might be the country’s most popular celebrity. Both men tower over Löw.
They have opposing visions of how the game should be played. Guardiola’s Bayern stand for possession and control, Klopp’s Dortmund for speed and energy.
Guardiola thinks Germans prefer Kloppball, which Klopp described last year as: “fighting football . . . what we call in German ‘English’ football . . . rainy day, heavy pitch, everybody is dirty in the face and they go home and can’t play football for the next four weeks.”
“I’m aware that I’m attempting something countercultural here,” Guardiola said in April.
Germany’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was more reminiscent of Dortmund than Guardiola’s Bayern. But the 2014 team would be dominated by Bayern players. And at least one key member of that group is keen on replicating his club environment on the international stage.
The most striking change Guardiola made at Bayern was moving the Germany captain Philipp Lahm from right-back to central midfield. Guardiola wanted Lahm’s fast feet and tactical awareness at the hub of the team. He buttered Lahm up for the switch by calling him “the most intelligent player I’ve worked with”. Now, Lahm prefers the new position.
Löw’s problem is that the opportunity cost of playing Lahm in midfield is higher for Germany than for Bayern. Bayern have alternative full-backs, Germany do not. Playing Lahm in the middle means leaving out a specialist central midfielder – a position in which Germany are relatively strong – and playing a central defender at full-back.
But Lahm is the captain and the most powerful player. Löw is the coach who has failed to win any of three major tournaments to date. In the first game, Lahm starts in midfield.
Germany 4-0 Portugal
The contest is over after 12 minutes when Portugal concede a penalty. Müller scores a hat-trick and Hummels buries a header from a Kroos corner. Pepe is sent off and Germany play the second half as though it is a training session.
The match showcases how Germany would play under ideal conditions. They create an impression of composed co-ordination. Many moves look automatic, as though they unfold according to pre-determined patterns. Players know in advance where the ball is going to go and where they need to be.
When Germany win the ball, they play fast and short in midfield until their specialist passer, Kroos, finds space to try something more ambitious. Kroos’s precise passing, especially his ability to switch the play from side to side, is the link between midfield and attack.
When the ball goes wide, German attackers stream into the centre. They know a cross will probably come and they want two or three extra players arriving to meet it. Germany nominally play with one striker, but they will be the only World Cup team who regularly have four men attacking the opponent’s box.
If the move breaks down these players stream back, then they do it all over again. Portugal quickly buckle under the relentless waves of pressure.
Not everyone will make it as easy as Portugal.
Germany 2-2 Ghana
Götze gives Germany at 51st-minute lead, but Ayew and Gyan strike back. Ghana’s second goal comes after a mistake in midfield by Lahm. Low sends on Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Klose equalises immediately.
Lahm is disgusted at the loss of midfield control. The last 20 minutes were chaos; Germany could easily have lost. “When the team is split in two, attacking and defensive, when the play goes back and forth at such speed, that’s not what we want,” Lahm says. Midfield is the zone Lahm is meant to control. Nobody has forgotten his mistake. Schweinsteiger has proven his fitness and now most of the media want him reinstated in central midfield, and Lahm at right-back.
Löw insists he will not be swayed by outside pressure. But Schweinsteiger will start every match from now on.
Germany 1-0 USA
The result is decided by Müller’s superb shot. The USA have energy but they lack true quality. Nevertheless, Lahm still has to make a crucial sliding block to deny the Americans an equaliser in injury-time.
The match against the USA will be the only time Germany cover less ground than their opponents in the World Cup. The one area of the game in which the US arguably leads the world is physical preparation. That’s why, 10 years ago, Jürgen Klinsmann hired the American fitness trainers who are still working with Germany in Brazil.
Superior fitness is fundamental to Germany’s play. The personification of their style is today’s goalscorer, Thomas Müller, who covers more ground than any other player in the World Cup. Müller never stops moving but he never gets too tired to be decisive. Whenever Kroos looks up in midfield he will see Müller moving into position to receive a pass. The Bayern forward is Germany’s eternal out ball.
Germany 2-1 Algeria
Germany play badly in the first half. Without the injured Hummels, the defence looks slow and cumbersome, and Neuer must charge off his line to cut out counter-attacks. Mustafi’s second-half injury forces a change: Khedira comes in to midfield, Lahm to right-back. Germany win the game with extra-time goals from Schürrle and Özil.
Algeria last played Germany in the World Cup in 1982. They won, but the (then West) Germans and the Austrians cooked up a cosy result in the final group game that allowed both sides to progress at Algeria’s expense.
So people keep asking Löw about 1982. His team are more popular than the 1982 side, but they are not feared in the same way. Those West Germans knew how to win when they were playing badly. Before this game the world is not yet sure that Löw’s team share that quality.
The win is a close-run thing and the German media are unimpressed. In an interview, Per Mertesacker snaps: “Would you rather we played beautiful football but got knocked out? I don’t know what you want from me – do you think Mickey Mouse teams are involved in the last 16? All that matters is we are in the quarter-finals.”
Mertesacker is upset with his own performance – he won’t start another World Cup match. But Germany have answered another question: they can play badly and win.
Germany 1-0 France
Hummels glances in a header from Kroos’s free-kick. Then Germany play on the counter-attack. France are too nervous to commit many men forward. Nevertheless, Karim Benzema has seven chances – but he cannot beat Neuer.
The press expect Löw to stick to his script that Lahm would play in the middle. Instead, the captain is named at right-back with Khedira and Schweinsteiger in midfield. Thanks to the near-disaster against Algeria, Löw has found his best team.
Germany’s win is comfortable, but France are meek. In the semi-final, Germany will meet the most intense side in the competition.
Germany 7-1 Brazil
Müller scores early from Kroos’s corner, and, as Löw later puts it, the Brazilians “crack up”. Germany score four times between the 23rd and 29th minute. It is the most astonishing half of football in the history of the World Cup. Schürrle adds two more in the second half. His second goal is applauded by the home crowd.
Two days later, reports suggest Mats Hummels revealed that Germany players agreed at half-time to ease off on Brazil, to avoid causing the hosts any further embarrassment.
The truth is rather different. What Hummels actually said is that the Germans reminded each other to stay focused. Even leading 5-0, they would not succumb to self-indulgent over-elaboration. They would not try to humiliate Brazil with party pieces. They’d continue to take them as seriously as though it were still 0-0.
What Hummels said was therefore precisely the opposite of the media spin on his words. Germany would keep trying to humiliate Brazil, but only in the correct way: by playing their normal game, and scoring more goals.
On BBC TV, Fabio Cannavaro complains that Germany should have stopped at 4-0. In Italy they don’t run up the score. There’s no such unwritten rule in Germany. They keep going for a result they know gives them instant immortality. In Brazil, they won’t forget Kroos, Müller and the rest for a long time.
Germany 1-0 Argentina
Germany get that little bit of luck. Higuain, Messi and Palacio miss chances for Argentina. Neuer is fortunate not to be sent off for a flying challenge on Higuain. On 88 minutes, Löw sends on Mario Götze. “Show the world you are better than Messi,” he tells him. “You can decide the World Cup.” On 113 minutes, he does.
A European team at last wins the World Cup in South America because Germany have too much energy for Argentina. They run 12km more than their opponents in the final. As their American fitness trainer Mark Verstegen would put it, that’s like having an extra man on the field.
There are times when Messi stands and watches Khedira or Schweinsteiger trot forward with the ball, looking for a team-mate to pass to. He makes no effort to close them down. Messi is more talented than any German player, but playing like this he would not get in the German team.
Germany have won the World Cup with a more traditional approach than the Guardiola-influenced blueprint they began with. They still have to thank Guardiola, though. By winning the league in March, he allowed the Germany players to relax and conserve the energy that has carried them all the way in Brazil.
Answered every question
It is sweet vindication for Löw, the leader everyone doubted. He was in danger of being, in José Mourinho’s phrase, a donkey who never became a horse. Now he has answered every question, turned every wobble to his advantage. He has defended the tradition of Germany winning the World Cup every 20 years or so. His reputation is made, for life.
The players pose for selfies with Angela Merkel. To a foreigner, Merkel’s visibility among the celebrations looks like shameless political opportunism, like the time Charlie Haughey won the Tour de France.
But these players are used to having her around. She’s been there for all their great moments since 2006, Year Zero for this team. And if cynics see something a little off-putting in the players’ willingness to allow themselves to be used for political ends, well, the players are used to that too.
In 2006, their run to the World Cup semi-finals was the catalyst for a major historical moment in Germany, the spontaneous final stage of the 60-year process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – coming to terms with the past. Germans were moving on. They no longer felt as though they should be ashamed of their national symbols. From now on, they would wave their flags like everyone else.
In 2010, a squad with several players who wouldn’t have been eligible to represent Germany under the old citizenship laws was presented as a model of a modern multicultural Germany, at long last an Einwanderungsland – a country of immigration.
The good times
In 2014 there have been few attempts to politicise what the team has done. According to the German newsmagazine Spiegel, this reflects a loss of interest in politics on the part of the majority of Germans, who are currently preoccupied with enjoying the good times.
Germany is enjoying a long economic boom, which has enabled Merkel to give “presents” to the electorate, as Spiegel puts it, in the form of lower retirement ages and increases to pensions, children’s allowance and other benefits. It’s translated into staggering popularity for the chancellor, whose approval ratings after nine years in office stand at 77 per cent.
It sounds a bit like Ireland in 2002, when 69 per cent of us thought Bertie Ahern was doing a good job.
The Spiegel essay talks about a new mood of “lightness” in Germany, a sort of self-confident ease, but warns against the temptation of slipping into egotistical self-absorption. It speculates that Germany is on the cusp of a new Biedermeier period, referring to the becalmed years between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the rebellions of 1848, when political involvement came to be thought of as being in poor taste, and middle Europe sank into a semi-slumber of complacent, inward-looking domesticity.
Of course, Biedermeier might have been boring, but it wasn’t bad for the people who lived through it. It was a golden age for hobbies, diversions, and peaceable industries. There may never have been a better moment in human history to be a furniture maker or wallpaper designer. Maybe football is today’s equivalent, the grand modern diversion.
Even the ideological debates within German football are livelier than anything that’s happening in the Merkelsphere these days. More people are engaged by possession versus counter-attack than questions of public versus private or Germany’s role in Europe. Not many Germans are kidding themselves that winning the World Cup has any wider significance. But everybody agrees that it feels fantastic.