World Cup 2018: Glory made Germany's class of 2014 soft, and only new blood can turn them into conquerors again

Joachim Low relied on the core that lifted the World Cup four years ago rather than refresh his team, and a shock group stage exit reinforced the sense that many of them are in decline

Stefan Bienkowski
Friday 29 June 2018 12:37 BST
German football fans in tears as national team is knocked out the World Cup

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The fourteenth-century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, had a theory about the manner in which empires rise and fall. After a nomadic tribe had conquered a capital city or region the conquerors would establish themselves as the ruling class. However after about three generations, Khaldun argued, the once battle-hardened class of warriors tended to grow soft and plump. The descendents of the rulers that had won their reward never knew a world that needed defending and before too long the next conquerors would knock them off their perch.

Although football isn’t war - despite how hard Piers Morgan may try to compare the two - there are similarities between such a theory and the tendency for World Cup winners to suddenly lose their edge. Within four years a single squad of players can go from being the very best in the world to looking utterly abject and devoid of purpose. It happened to France in 2002, then Italy, then Spain and now Germany. History has a habit of repeating itself if we don’t learn from it and in Joachim Löw’s case he certainly allowed the annals of history to catch up with him.

Indeed, the German manager looked a spent force following Wednesday night’s 2-0 defeat to South Korea, but it wasn’t so long ago that the turtleneck-wearing coach from the Black Forest region of Germany was the right-hand man in Jürgen Klinsmann’s bright new football revolution.

Like an unknown force from across the ocean, Klinsmann (re)announced himself to German football and set about rebuilding the national team in a new light. Gone were the days of die Mannschaft being an exclusive club for older, established Bundesliga players. And with Löw’s help, the German coach with a peculiar American accent introduced the world to a new-look German side with young players at the fore in their opening game of the 2006 World Cup.

As we know, Germany did not win that World Cup, but Löw then took those young foundations and after eight years of tinkering and constantly adding new, exciting players from the Bundesliga pipeline, a squad finally came of age and overcame the rest to win the World Cup in Brazil. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira and Manuel Neuer were all in their peak and had finally won the greatest prize in football.

And that’s when Löw should have wiped the slate clean and began again. Rather than resting on their laurels and growing content with their achievements, Germany should have immediately identified who the next Schweinsteiger or Khedira would be and got to work on making sure they’d be ready to defend the title. Yet Löw never did that. And under the guise of a relatively decent Euro 2016 campaign, in which Germany ultimately went out to France, many assumed the calm, reassuring coach had things under control. But the cracks were undoubtedly there.

In France, Germany didn’t have Lahm and the only other notable leader from the 2014 squad, Schweinsteiger, was little more than a cheerleader from the bench until the quarter finals, when, against Italy, he helped his nation overcome their most intimidating foe. Yet in the semi-final it was the battle-worn midfielder who was at fault for the opening goal when he handled the ball in the box, only for Lahm’s young replacement, Joshua Kimmich, to lose the ball in his own box later in the game and, ultimately, allow France to score a second to win the match.

Many of Germany's 2014 stalwarts appear to be in decline
Many of Germany's 2014 stalwarts appear to be in decline (REUTERS)

If Löw was ignoring the warning signs then, they would only become more apparent as he watched his world champions slowly diminish on the domestic scene over the next two years.

In the season after Euro 2016, Thomas Müller scored just nine goals for Bayern Munich. And although that increased marginally under Jupp Heynckes’ reign the following year, the German forward looked a shadow of his former self and far from the Raumdeuter (interpreter of space) that had scored 10 goals in seven World Cup games. Khedira had long since settled in to a role at Juventus that hid his diminishing pace in the middle of the pitch, Mesut Özil was the focus of debate and derision at Arsenal and Neuer, the famed goalkeeper, had missed an entire season through a nasty metatarsal fracture.

Yet Löw stuck by his players. Neuer kept his spot despite Marc-André ter Stegen’s clear progress at Barcelona, Khedira was favoured over Emre Can, the man the Italian giants have signed to replace him, and skilful, attacking midfielders like Serge Gnabry, Amin Younes and, yes, Leroy Sane were overlooked for Müller, Özil and a 29-year-old, injury-prone Marco Reus.

While all of these senior players weren’t poor all of the time - particularly Özil and Reus - they did characterise Löw’s changing mindset as a coach. The former right-hand man to Germany’s youthful revolution was now the steward of a team that creaked and ached in Russia this summer. In almost every circumstance an older, established player had been chosen over a left-field, younger alternative. Like the squad he watched from the touchline in each of those three, fatal games, Löw had grown predictable and lacking in any intuitive inspiration.

Although there were a few exceptions - Kimmich, Timo Werner, Leon Goretzka and Niklas Süle are all outstanding, young talents - they tended to either play for Bayern or were almost certainly on their way to Munich this summer or the next. And, ultimately, they never suggested that the German coach was at all interested in building a new squad from scratch. The remnants of his 2014 side were still front and centre of this team. Yet they had long since enjoyed their time at the top of the game and were on their way down.

Löw may be given the chance to redeem himself with Germany, but based on the past two tournaments it seems as though he and the squad of players he cherished have grown complacent with success. This national team needs new face and fresh blood. And it needs new conquerors to reclaim football’s most cherished prize.

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