What killed Germany’s 2018 World Cup campaign?

KAZAN, RUSSIA - JUNE 27: Thomas Mueller of Germany and Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany look dejected after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
KAZAN, RUSSIA - JUNE 27: Thomas Mueller of Germany and Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany look dejected after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images) /

The reigning world champions had an absolute disaster of a campaign this time around. Expectations were high for Germany, but what went wrong? The answer is a number of factors.

The weight of expectations were heavy to say the least for the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions. Germany had a successful conquest of Brazil four years ago, and Joachim Low’s men were expected to run deep yet again. However, Germany fell devastatingly short of expectations this time around, crashing out in the group stage.

With this shocking upset, Germany continue the recent curse of defending champions at returning World Cup campaigns. In 2014, it was then defending champions Spain who crashed spectacularly out in the group stage. In 2010, it was then defending champions Italy. With Germany, another giant has fallen.

But what exactly went wrong for Germany at the World Cup in Russia? With previous champions having trouble keeping up expectations at their next outing, a trend must be forming, not superstition. However, if something has to be pinpointed, the answer lies in a few factors.

Let’s take a look at what killed Germany’s World Cup campaign.

Lack of defensive midfield coverage

This issue was most evident in the opening group stage match against Mexico. However, remnants of the problem surfaced throughout each of Germany group stage performances. The most damning piece of evidence for this lies largely with Sami Khedira.

The Juventus player looked a shadow of his former self, particularly against Mexico. Khedira looked as if he had aged more than just the four years that have gone by since the last World Cup. He lacked the pace and defensive prowess to help shield the back four in defense from oncoming threats.

This is especially detrimental to Germany’s play due to the fact that their biggest weakness, much like Bayern Munich at club level, is with defending against counter-attacking sides. This is where the defensive midfielder(s) in the 4-2-3-1 formation come into play. Their job is to soundly shield the back line from pressure and help thwart counters before they begin.

In addition, the defensive midfielder in this situation is also responsible for covering the full-back positions when necessary. Considering Germany tend to play with their full-backs bombing forward to provide width, a defensive midfielder should be able to slot in and help provide cover when defending in transition.

Against Mexico, this lack of defensive midfield coverage largely hurt the Germans, as Mexico are a quick countering side. When called upon, Khedira was nowhere to be found, leaving his defense exposed.

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No sense of urgency or drive

Motivation and drive is one of the most important factors for any squad to have in any competition, let alone the World Cup. And given the fact that this was the World Cup, arguably the largest sporting event in the world, and the sport’s biggest stage for sure, motivation and drive should have been consistent throughout. This is part of what made Germany’s games so painful to watch — their lack of urgency.

Perhaps this is an issue faced by the last three defending champions on the World Cup stage. By winning the previous iteration of the Cup, maybe the the squad begins to feel too entitled. Beginning with the match against Mexico, Germany looked lackadaisical until it was too late. It wasn’t until the dying minutes of the match that Germany looked like they were actually trying to score.

But in large part, every match — save for maybe the second group stage match against Sweden — Germany never looked sufficiently motivated to actually win the game. Granted, Germany were far from their best in that match, as with all of their games this campaign, but they at least looked hungry in the end. The biggest offense of this, however, was in that dreadful match against South Korea, which ultimately saw the reigning champions bow out of the 2018 tournament bottom of their group.

Insufficient squad rejuvenation

Given how Germany have looked as a whole in recent years, this issue was one of the least expected. Germany have a wealth of successful and promising young talent. They’ve shown that in tournaments ranging from youth to the senior national team levels.

Germany’s successful 2017 conquest of Russia in the Confederations Cup with a “B team” is a perfect example of this. The Germans were never expected to win that tournament, given how Joachim Low used it as an opportunity to develop young and unproven talent. However, the Germans did just that, shocking the rest of the tournament favorites.

And the squad development did not end there either. That same summer, Germany showed their youth depth in the U-21 Euro cup as well, where Germany were crowned champions after defeating Spain in the final. With all this young talent, how was squad rejuvenation a problem at this World Cup?

2017 was marked by exciting, new and young blood rushing through the German ranks. Meanwhile, 2018 showed Germany’s reliance on aging core players from 2014. An example of this was Low’s lack of using more decisive players like Leon Goretzka and Julian Brandt. The latter looked dynamite in his short spells of play. However, Low never allowed him a starting position despite his one-on-one abilities.

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With the UEFA Nations League and UEFA Euro the next major competitions, Low will probably want to take more of the 2017 approach to revamping the squad. It’s time for new stars to shine through.