Gary Lineker is no longer right. Football is no longer a game in which Germany win in the end. In Qatar, the big nations have succeeded so far. Only not us; as in the two previous major tournaments, Germany were eliminated early.
A pattern can be discerned in the failures of the past four or five years. Germany have lost defensive stability – the team cannot keep anyone away from their goal. Every opponent creates chances, even Costa Rica and (in the only preparation match) Oman. Germany’s game always suffers a break.
In all three group matches Germany showed passion, commitment and aggression. The opponents sensed there were players with quality. But there was a lack of strategy and order; it was never clear who would take on which role. Hansi Flick’s team were not not well organised in Qatar.
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As a counter-example let’s take Argentina, who also lost to an outsider. Saudi Arabia scored twice and three Argentina “goals” could be recognised as offside only with new technology. Luck and bad luck are part of the game. But even in that defeat, you could see that Lionel Scaloni’s team were dominant because they were well organised. They then locked Mexico and Poland in their half at some point to score goals. The superior boxer sets up the knockout.
Germany were not able to do that. They failed to control the game. To control a game you have to develop play from the defence and from the centre. That is a law of football. These positions – in the jargon 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 – must complement each other, pay attention to each other, develop a blind understanding.
Stability comes from continuity. For a long time, however, it was not clear who would defend in the centre for Germany. The midfield didn’t find itself, although the right players were available. I was sure that Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Ilkay Gündogan would complement each other to form a strong unit if left together for three or four games. That was not the case.
Another problem: it wasn’t clear which of our fast wing-backs should contribute to the game and how, and nor was an approach apparent in our offensive play. Germany have four attackers with very good skills in Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala, Kai Havertz and Leroy Sané, as well as the alternatives Thomas Müller and Niclas Füllkrug. I would have settled on that much earlier.
Football is all about the details. For attacking that means, for example: how do I penetrate the box without giving up everything? How do I reduce the danger of a counterattack if I lose the ball while dribbling? A team can only solve risk management problems together, in coordination with each other. Argentina are strong at it. Germany lack the structure to do this or to play a game that suffocates the opponent, which inevitably results in conceding goals.
It will be a challenging task to form a team with a view to the European Championship at home in a year and a half. Germany must reinvent themselves so that Lineker is right again.
Every country has its difficulties in this tournament, even the favourites and former world champions. France have convinced me the most. Their team are complete: they have physicality, structure and technique. The defence is stable, the midfield thinks defensively. The attack around the outstanding Kylian Mbappé has power and creativity. But because the team love to demonstrate their superiority, I wonder what will happen when things don’t go well. Then it becomes difficult to flip the switch. Mbappé still has to prove that he has the maturity to always do the right thing at the right moment.
Spain are celebrating their culture of pass-dominated possession in Qatar. It’s always nice to watch and smaller nations such as Costa Rica hardly ever get the ball against Spain. Sometimes, though, Spain overdo it. They even pass across the penalty area, even the goalkeeper, although he is always the weakest footballer in a team. Then the idea becomes an ideology. This makes Spain particularly vulnerable because they no longer have Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. They also don’t defend standard situations well.
Brazil have an excellent individual lineup, in the forwards, in defence, in goal. The team are no longer as dependent on Neymar. But it has been a long time since they played against a top European team. You don’t know how they will react to the opposition and whether the stars will bring all their qualities to the pitch. Brazil are the great unpredictable after Germany’s exit.
England are a physically strong team with the toughness of the Premier League and a lot of attacking options. This accumulation of quality can be an advantage. But guiding them into a powerful team is not easy. Phil Foden started only the third game and everyone immediately saw why he should always do so. Only when the best – besides Foden, that’s Harry Kane – are regularly involved does a pattern emerge in the team. Another England concern: the defensive centre is struggling to get the ball into the other half quickly. If the opponent stands deep, time is lost in the development of the game.
How a team come to success is well illustrated by Croatia. They are still built around the 37-year-old Luka Modric. Always available, he is impressively good at creating balance with strategic passes, taking pressure off his team and transferring it to the opponents. Josko Gvardiol is also one of the best defenders of the tournament. Croatia again look convincing but the nation is limited in its player selection due to its size.
I am curious to see how all the teams that have reached the last 16 deal with their shortcomings. That’s what makes a World Cup so interesting and exciting.
Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries