Hummels, who missed Germany’s game against Sweden due to a neck injury, and Khedira, who inexplicably started against both Mexico and South Korea, were among the locker room combatants as Die Mannschaft’s cohesion withered away. Kicker reports,
The fact that there were “clashes” within the German national team after the disillusioning 0-1 against Mexico is now well-known to the public thanks to the open remarks of captain Manuel Neuer. What has remained less public, however, is that there not only was tension between the World Champions and the Confederations Cup winners, but also between established players, as for example between Mats Hummels and Sami Khedira. Two regulars, who — deservedly — see themselves as spokesmen. Their problem is that they don’t speak the same language. Such frictions between leading players can create energy. Or sap it — Hummels missed the following game for health reasons; Khedira, for tactical reasons.
Being a “spokesperson” for a team is a slippery slope to navigate. Performance and leadership often inherently create that role; but Khedira was one of Joachim Löw’s most head-scratching selections to start the opener against Mexico. While Khedira’s experience may have warranted such a role, his performance did not. Khedira’s view of his own standing on the team was likely over-inflated and also may have induced some eye-rolling among the players who could see he was no longer a top-caliber option on the field.
In addition to the tension surrounding Hummels and Khedira, midfielder Toni Kroos was also the subject of sniping behind the scenes for his apparent lack of interest in defending the counter-attack, which Mexico expertly exploited:
On top of that: there not only was friction between the two alpha males, but fierce criticism of Toni Kroos also flamed up. In the past months, Kroos had often verbally raised the sore spot (of defending counters), yet he himself regularly failed to show the discipline in tracking back that he demanded from others.
Kroos, however, would probably argue that a better defensive midfielder alongside him would have allowed him to roam more freely to contribute to the offense. Tactically, this is was one of Löw’s greatest failures with this squad: his only attempt to create more balance in the central midfield was a quality 30-minute stint by Sebastian Rudy against Sweden, before the Bayern Munich man left the game with a broken nose.
Germany was never right
The whispers of team schisms were there all along. The rumors were downplayed by the media, because Germany had previously shown the ability to revert to its machine-like tendencies where emotion and off-the-field issues were less important than being part of — or supporting from the sideline — the overall unit performing on the field. Without the massive veteran leadership presence that emanated in 2014 from players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, and Lukas Podolski, Germany had no consistent and outspoken “core” to keep the team stable.
Perhaps this was one reason that Löw opted against keeping Leroy Sané. Löw had perhaps already begun to see the differences of attitude and entitlement within the squad, but did not know how to manage it once the team roster was set. Sané’s departure was examined by Hummels, who seemingly tried to get out in front in identifying that there was an issue among the players on the squad.
With so much previous success, however, it just appears that Germany’s collective ego had swollen to the point where Löw could not prevent a meltdown or even stop himself from allowing the problem to grow. Löw’s starting alignments probably only helped fester any lingering discontent in the locker room, and his attempts to make adjustments were always too little, too late.
Khedira should have never been in a position where he was a focal point
It could be strongly argued that Khedira’s presence as an important player on the roster was one of the driving forces of dissension on the team. Clearly past his prime and coming off of a completely underwhelming season for Juventus, Khedira did not perform adequately for Germany, yet started over younger, hungrier, and better players like Leon Goretzka, Sebastian Rudy, and İlkay Gündoğan.
The fact that Khedira viewed himself as an “Alpha” presence on the team is more than enough of a reason to create tension on squad that was already struggling to meld the 2014 World Cup winners and the 2017 Confederations Cup champions into a cohesive team. In addition, the totally ludicrous “Bavarians vs. Bling Bling” nonsense that was allegedly going on behind the scenes cannot have helped foster team unity.
Hummels was visibly frustrated many times during the Mexico and South Korea contests; and chief among the reason for Hummels’s discontent was the lack of support he received from Germany’s alleged pivot, Khedira. For the 30 minutes he played against Sweden, Rudy was more effective than any period of time Khedira was on the pitch; but Hummels missed that match on account of his neck ailment.
Hummels, who is no stranger to confronting teammates, could be defined as the pulse of this particular German team. He was outspoken and critical of the squad publicly from the time the roster was selected and before the group stage even began. He likely saw what was going on around him, but ultimately no intervention from Hummels or any other player could salvage this group.
The future rests on Löw’s shoulders
How Löw addresses these issues for the future of Germany’s soccer team is key to how the program moves forward. Hopefully Löw has learned that it is often better to sever ties a little too early than a little too late, especially in the cases of players like Khedira, who — in retrospect — brought no athletic, strategic, or intangible value to the squad.
A more targeted, less sentimental, approach to forming the 2022 squad and what tactics to employ are the areas where Löw should dedicate his focus. Otherwise, he could damage his own legacy further and typecast himself as yet another “coach who stayed too long.”