Four years on from Germany’s World Cup triumph in 2014, Die Mannschaft crashed out of the 2018 World Cup in the group stages for the first time in history. To say the performances were underwhelming would be an understatement, and ex-Bayern Munich and Germany legend Philipp Lahm recognizes that changes need to be made.
Lahm captained the German team that took home the World Cup title in 2014 in Brazil. He emulated exactly what it meant to be a true leader of a group; he had discipline, authority, respect, and unwavering grit. The group of players who comprised the squad back then, though, he admits, are slightly different then the group that represented Germany in Russia in a number of different ways. Success, he says, is almost impossible to come by in the same manner twice (via LinkedIn):
Success is a delicate affair. It is sweet. It opens up new possibilities. But it also creates new challenges. One of my most important experiences is the realization that it is practically impossible to be successful in the same way twice.
Generational differences in younger players now have shaped the way players view the game and the paths they choose, admits Lahm. Today, less emphasis is placed on family and team values when a younger player is working his way through the ranks. Instead, the fact that academy players make signing a professional contract their number one priority from a young age unfortunately puts other important values on the back-burner:
One hundred percent of the modern generation comes from youth academies. The young men train, play and live at the academy. The idea that is conveyed to them there is clearly defined: they should become professionals. They want to have a career like their great models. They want to climb socially. They want to earn money. A fifteen-year-old player who lives in Bayern Munich’s youth academy has no other goal than to sign a professional contract as soon as possible.
In Die Mannschaft’s 23-man roster for the World Cup, the average age was just over 26, and five members of the squad were below the age of 24 (Timo Werner, Niklas Sule, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, and Julian Brandt). With this newer generation of younger players, Lahm feels, the coaching staff needs to establish a clear identity to create the right type of leadership.
Because soccer is and remains a team sport. It’s the task of the coaching staff to convey to every player the necessary identification with the team. This not only includes their conduct on the field, but of course also off it. The coaching team must motivate and guide their individualists. If they do not move of their own accord in the direction the coaches want them to go, they need to be sent in that direction with clear words.
Lahm also made reference of the situation regarding both Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan that caused unnecessary distractions in the buildup to Germany’s first match in Russia. In Lahm’s opinion, the coaching staff should’ve taken quick, concrete action to put the issue to bed (at least temporarily); instead they let it be, and some members of the DFB even retrospectively blamed Özil for the team’s poor performances:
For example, clear words were necessary when the affair involving Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan over their joint photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boiled over. Özil (and initially also Gündoğan) saw no need to speak and explain themselves publicly. The necessity of doing so should have been conveyed to them quickly and persistently in order to create identity outward — and inward. These clear words were left unsaid. The coaching team was confident that the leadership culture of the previous, successful years sufficed to be successful again.
Moving forward, Lahm believes that the proper tweaks to Löw’s leadership style (and the rest of the DFB staff) can lay a blueprint for success for Die Mannschaft’s Euro 2020 campaign and beyond:
Often very little is necessary to put a team back on track after surprising defeats. Leadership means sounding out the situation vigilantly and putting one’s own methods to the test and reassessing them. I am convinced that Jogi Löw must change his player-friendly leadership style of the past few years, if he wants to have success again with the new generation of national players. He has to make clear to the individualists that they bear responsibility for the whole team. He has to establish a culture of stricter, clearer decisions than he himself was used to. If he succeeds in this, I am very optimistic for the future of our team.