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Observations on Germany’s crushing World Cup knockout by South Korea

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A 2-0 loss on a sunny afternoon in Kazan has ended Germany’s reign as World Champions.

Korea Republic v Germany: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
The agony of Germany’s bench.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images,

Repeating as World Champions is just as difficult as achieving the enviable status of defending champions in the first place. Germany learned this footballing lesson the hard way as they shockingly crashed out of Group F following a soulless 2-0 defeat to South Korea. Goals from Son Heung-Min and Kim Young-Gwon eliminated Die Mannschaft from the prestigious international tournament, while Sweden’s 3-0 thrashing of Mexico will see both teams progress to the next round.

Sloppy first half — shocking second half

You wouldn’t have known this was a must-win game for Germany with the way the first half of this one played out. The World Champions of 2014 parked themselves in Korea’s half for the opening period but showed little desire to create or put their opponents under serious pressure. Apart from a couple of half-chances, Germany’s performance in the first 45 minutes was dreadful. They, not Korea, resembled a team that was on its way out of the tournament.

That scenario turned into a reality as Germany were unable to better their showing in the second half. Upon learning of Sweden’s surprising routing of Mexico in Ekaterinburg, Joachim Löw’s side went desperately in search of a goal that might change their fortunes. It never came. Thomas Müller was brought on shortly after Mario Gomez made his introduction, but despite the change in personnel, Löw never altered Germany’s overall system. Passes were still going to-and-fro, swaying side-to-side, and South Korea’s defense were treated to a more relaxing afternoon than they were expecting.

As Germany threw everyone but Manuel Neuer forward — though even he slotted in as a supporting midfielder in the closing minutes, which allowed for Son Heung-Min’s finish — it left the space that South Korea required to counter. A sloppy clearance by Toni Kroos, who had already made some crucial missteps in the previous games, led to an unmissable opportunity for Kim Young-Gwon. VAR delayed the inevitable before confirming Germany’s exit. But Löw and Germany have only themselves to blame for such a lackluster showing.

Löw put Goretzka in a position to fail

Start Leon Goretzka they said; it’ll benefit Germany they said. And they were right. If only Joachim Löw had realised that starting Goretzka on the wing nullifies all his skill and talent. Goretzka, a central midfielder by nature, typically likes to control play and get forward. Instead, he tried to impose himself on the game by looking for quick passes with Timo Werner or Marco Reus and linking up with his new Bayern teammate in Joshua Kimmich on the right-flank, but there was only so much impact he could have when played out of position. It was no surprise to see him hooked shortly after the hour-mark. It was hardly his fault that he is clearly not a winger. Which leads me to...

Have you ever had the feeling that Löw makes changes simply for the sake of making them? If you do, this tournament will have done little to change your mind. From placing Goretzka on the right wing to flip-flopping on the failing Sami Khedira-Toni Kroos partnership and refusing to start Mario Gomez — which would allow Timo Werner to operate as a winger, where he excelled during the win over Sweden and also widened Germany’s attacking shape — Löw’s selections this summer have baffled many. For a manager who has had four years to prepare for this tournament (two if you count the European Championships in 2016), it looks as if he still wasn’t sure what his best team was.

The Mexico game wasn’t a fluke

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico at the start of their World Cup campaign, which seems so far away now, there wasn’t as much panic in the German camp as one would have expected. Players were raring to go for their next contest versus Sweden, while the fans were calm and collected as they convinced themselves that the defeat was just a rare occurrence. Germany allowed Mexico far too much space to counter-attack, which was something they’d learn from and it wouldn’t happen again. A lack of conviction and creation of clear-cut opportunities? Pfft, that will all be fixed against Sweden, and all will be forgotten.

But it wasn’t. Germany’s group-stage exit was delayed by Kroos’ stunning free-kick, but there was no saving a team that under-performed as badly as this side has. Germany’s performance versus Sweden was very similar to their performance against Mexico. Germany left themselves short at the back, relied on the opposition missing golden scoring chances to keep themselves in the game, and had little creativity to break down the defensive blockade in front of them. They needed one of the goals of the tournament to keep them from another deflating result, but in truth all Toni Kroos did was kick the can down the road, as they delivered yet another mediocre performance in Kazan.

Change is needed, and most likely coming

This may just be a part of the grieving process from such a disappointing campaign, but changes simply have to be made. Whether it involves the roster or the coaching staff, or even both, it’s obvious that the foundation on which Germany built their World Cup success has been undermined. Opposing teams know how to deal with Germany’s possession-based system; they aren’t afraid to pack the box, given their advantage in height and strength over Germany, while they rest assured that Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, though skillful, will not continue to run at them.

Germany is a side built on passing between the lines. Their complete lack of direct wing play was telling this summer. Countless times in all three matches, perhaps more so in this clash with South Korea, Joshua Kimmich received the ball out wide but had little impetus to cross, since Werner simply could not win aerial duels against much taller centre-backs. Instead, he passed back to a midfielder — and several more passes between Germany’s central players ensued. The result of that unwillingness to send in a cross, and inability to convert one anyway, ultimately allowed Korea to return to their 4-5-1 defensive block. The same can be said regarding Germany’s refusal to work the opponent’s goalkeeper. Germany simply tried passing the ball into the back of the net at times. Against a defensive side, you require a good amount of luck to succeed with such a strategy.

Löw probably will now either receive his marching orders or walk away before the DFB can fire him. Özil, Khedira, Müller all faced the embarrassment of being dropped for crucial matches in this tournament, and will likely have to work very hard to return to the squad. Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus will be well into their thirties by the time the next World Cup rolls around. They may well reconsider their international futures following this disappointing exit.

Change is coming.