Germany’s 2018 World Cup Debacle, as the defending champions, is over. As Heung-min Son’s “empty netter” went in, Germany’s historic loss to South Korea felt like a mercy killing. Like everyone else, I didn’t see this disaster coming. The possibility of Germany falling prey to the defending-champ’s hex and fiasco didn’t make a cognitive ripple on me as the tournament started. Three matches later, Germany is out in the group stages for the first time since the format debuted. In the aftermath, Schadenfreude infected nearly everyone on social media. People love seeing Germany (the definition of footballing consistency) fail it turns out.
Thank God the debacle is over. Die Nationalmannschaft never came close to resembling anything like a side worthy of the knockout rounds. (I can’t believe I’m saying this about Germany.) Germany’s result had no antecedent or foreshadowing. Perhaps we should have seen more warning signs from die Mannschaft‘s two pre-tournament friendlies. Perhaps we should have taken more seriously the fact that defending World Cup champs are frequently being knocked out in the group stages during our contemporary era. Perhaps we should have noticed that Jogi Löw had been trotting out an increasingly stale group of players under stale tactics. My list of hindsight reasons could march on … But the point is that we had no reason to notice any of these things prior to the World Cup.
This World Cup was so weird for Germany. Weird is the word I kept lingering on after Germany crashed out. The crash out was weird like Borussia Dortmund’s sudden collapse during the 2014-15 season. Or weird like finally seeing Hamburger SV relegated. Or weird like seeing Kevin Großkreutz as World Cup subsitute to 3rd division peddler. So I want to commemorate the weirdness by underscoring a scene from each match in Germany’s 2018 World Cup debacle. Call it a triptych of weirdness.
Scene 1: Joshua Kimmich, Abroad
Before the World Cup started, I planned to write a piece about why Joshua Kimmich was Jogi Löw’s most important player. One thing led to another and I never got around to writing the piece. Whew. What a happy mistake. Perhaps Kimmich is die Mannschaft‘s most important player, but after the Mexico match, I could only think that he was the national team’s most far-flung player.
My first scene is a composite—a composite of Kimmich, abroad, constantly deep in the heart of Mexican territory. Deep in the middle of Germany’s attacking build up play. But deeply out of position to recover defensively when Mexico countered. And countered. And countered again.
For my money, Kimmich’s work as a thoroughly modern (advanced, attacking) fullback was the root cause for Mexico being able to flood forward and overwhelm the isolated Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng on the counter. Kimmich’s absence meant Germany were playing with a “back two” during Mexico’s counters, which drifted through the central channel and Germany’s right halfspace (thanks, Joshua!).
As a fullback, Kimmich plays this way for Bayern, getting forward more often than defending. Kimmich’s advanced role carries over to the national team, where his position was very high in all three group games. However, his naive positioning against Mexico takes the cake:
And here we see "Joshua Kimmich, modern modern modern fullback." Behold: pic.twitter.com/zqxSYE1fXf
— Travis Timmons (@tptimmons) June 18, 2018
Yes, that’s an average position beyond the center line. Optically, this positioning was evident during the match, as boulevard-wide gaps were left in Kimmich’s wake, which Boateng and Hummels scrambled desperately to cover in 1-vs-1 situations. (Sami Khedira’s slowness deserves blame here, too.)
I don’t mean to blame Kimmich specifically. Surely, he was simply executing Löw’s instructions; nonetheless, the space left in Kimmich’s wake certainly casts blame on the role of the modern fullback on this iteration of die Mannschaft. Don’t forget: four years ago, the legendary Philipp Lahm was holding this flank (after Löw gave up on starting him as a holding midfielder). Where Kimmich bombed forward constantly, Lahm bombed forward selectively; where Kimmich left open territory, Lahm recovered sufficiently in defense. I’m not saying that Kimmich is inferior, but I’m saying that he is taking over for a German legend, which we all seemingly forgot heading into this World Cup cycle.
Kimmich abroad is what I’ll remember from the Germany-Mexico match.
Scene 2: Marco Reus, Mechanisch
As Germany desperately clawed through the death match against Sweden in game 2, eventually winning on the Toni Kroos freekick, the oft-repeated post-game cliche was that Germany “never lost its cool,” or that “the players stayed composed.” Maybe. During and immediately after the match, I was too much of a wreck to determine anything. My eight year old can tell you that when Kroos’ goal went in, I screamed, gripped his arm (I needed some human contact, I think), and flopped around on the couch repeating “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” He was peeved, given that half his fandom consists in anti-daddy fandom (i.e. hate the teams daddy loves). Thus, a Germany win was the last thing he wanted to see.
However, it’s not the goal itself I want remember. At least not exactly. It’s the tiny moment right before the goal—the tiny moment upon which the goal hung. The sliver of contingency that made the goal possible: Marco Reus’ assist. Actually, I should say “assist,” given that Reus made the easiest assist in the tournament. Can we even call it an assist? Watch it:
Kroos rolls the ball about five feet to Reus, who simply stops the ball with his toe tips. Instantly, the ball freezes and Kroos takes the kick. What I want to remember is the mechanical and quiet performing of technique in this moment. Remember: Germany needed a goal on this last play of the game to keep World Cup hopes alive. The stakes were ENORMOUS. But watching the interplay between Kroos and Reus, you’d have no idea. Kroos and Reus simply rehearse technique in this most tense of moments for everyone else. Of course, technically, they are slightly adjusting the shot angle so that a realistic amount of bend can be put into the shot.
Reus especially is mechanical in a lovely way here. His straight leg. His toe tip touch on the ball. His head down in focus. The movements are so small. And utterly without expression or personality, like a robotic arm on an assembly plant floor. But this is the point: the movements needed to be this way for Kroos to get his shot off. By contrast, you’ll notice Kroos himself lurch slightly as Reus stops the rolling ball. There’s a bit of jittery tension in Kroos’ lurch. But not Reus’ “assist.” Even in this most miniature of moments, Reus embodies the depersonalized execution of practiced technique that philosopher Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht calls “grace” in his book Fascinations: In Praise of Athletic Beauty.
Not only that, but Reus does his best imitation of the lowliest position in American Football, the kick holder. (Shout out to the all the holders out there!)
The job is miniature: stopping a moving ball for a kicker, who scores. Yep, Reus is ready for a post-football career in the N.F.L. At least he and Kroos gave us small moment of grace and brilliance during a horrible tournament run.
Scene 3: Mats Hummels, Emblematic
Sometimes, we search for emblematic moments or players that can provide commentary on a larger event, like a World Cup tournament. As emblem, this event or player symbolizes everything that went right or wrong for a given team. Frequently, we must resort to forcing these emblems out of the weft and warp of football. More rarely these emblems speak for themselves, drawing us to consider them as emblems. This latter example was the case of Mats Hummels’ performance against South Korea during the 3rd group game.
Hummels’ play symbolizes everything about Germany’s 2018 World Cup performance: the whole thing was out-of-joint and upside down. Hummels did his usual centerback work, or at least “distributing” centerback in playing defense, but also moving up the pitch to pick out passes. But he also tied with Toni Kroos for Germany most shots during the match (5). Predictably, these shots were inside the box and mostly involved Hummels’ upper body.
In fact, Hummels had Germany’s biggest scoring chances: hitting the woodwork once and humorously (and awkwardly!) glancing a cross off his shoulder, fluffing what could have Germany’s winning goal during injury time.
That Hummels took on the bulk of Germany’s scoring chances during crunch time in the South Korea game is emblematic of Germany’s woeful attack for the entire tournament. Amazingly, Germany generated the most chances in the group stages, but in terms of Expected Goals, was 4th worst in the entire the tournament. This discrepancy speaks volumes about Germany’s struggles, as Ryan O’Hanlon explains in a piece in The Ringer. For Germany, it was a tournament of firing blanks in which one of its centerbacks took on the lion’s share of attacking duties in the must-win final game.
However, it was also a tournament in which some players were possessed with the superman syndrome, as they alone could save Germany’s World Cup. I’m think specifically of performances by Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng, and Mats Hummels. Especially the South Korea game for Hummels. Take a look at his touches:
Hummels roamed deep across the pitch, which isn’t unusual per se, but in this particular game and given how frequently Hummels crashed the box in this game, it’s emblematic of a system-wide breakdown in which individual tried to take over the game. (Surely Kraftwerk has a song for this event?) Desperation ruled the day, and the tournament eventually for Germany.
Of course, the causes of Germany’s debacle are manifold and interacting. However, this weird, weird tournament is now a permanent part of die Mannschaft‘s storied World Cup record. And for the sake of us who follow the Bundesliga with deep love and attachment, and by extension, the German national team, we hope this debacle is a very singular episode (and never to be repeated!) within a long tradition of footballing success.