Is German Football in Crisis (Again)?

In the space of one week, all three Bundesliga clubs–Bayern, Dortmund, and Schalke–were eliminated from the Champions League round of 16, and German national team head coach Jogi Löw caused a shitstorm for his awkward dismissal of Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, and Mats Hummels from Die Mannschaft. Of course, these dismissals came on the heels of the German national team playing one of its worst calendar years (2018) ever, failing to get out of the 2018 World Cup group stages, then getting “relegated” in the UEFA League of Nations tournament.

Oh, and for the first time since September, Bayern Munich regained the top of the Bundesliga table, passing Borussia Dortmund on goal differential. Until this moment, many of us thought it was finally the season when someone else wins the Bundesliga after Bayern have won six consecutive titles.

Nope. Probably not.

So here at The Fanatic, we asked some of our editors to weigh in on these recent events, as well as the past year in German football.

New Era Slow to Blossom

Or is it?

Between the lofty expectations of the German game and the nature of our modern always-connected society and 24-hour news cycle, it feels like German football has been in a tailspin for ages and the World Cup victory in Brazil seems like something we saw only in grainy black-and-white footage from another era.

Exacerbating the dread lingering from the 2018 World Cup flame-out was German’s performance in the UEFA Nations League, where die Mannschaft was among the first-ever teams to be relegated from the competition’s top group alongside traditional powers such as Iceland, Poland, and Croatia.

But once we remove the emotional reaction from things, it’s easier to remember that things in this game are, by and large, cyclical and that these cycles take longer to rotate than we would necessarily prefer.

Before the 2018-19 Bundesliga season started, I wrote about the historical precedence of a strong Bundesliga season following Germany coming up short at the World Cup. Ignore the Champions League and Europa League disappointments. We’re talking about the Bundesliga itself . . . for now.

Despite Borussia Dortmund stumbling enough to put Bayern back in the driver seat of the league’s title chase, the two giants are level on points and have just one match day before they will meet head-to-head at Allianz Arena with a chance for both to make a resounding statement going into the final six match days. The races for the final Champions League and Europa League spots are shaping up to also be hotly contested.

On a broader note, the Bundesliga has returned to its much-beloved goal-scoring ways. Among the “top five” European leagues, only the Bundesliga is averaging more than three goals scored per match (3.12). A cynic might say that is due to subpar defending or an ability to realize the last World Cup showed that the modern game needs to be more about defending and counter-attacking, but eschewing rhetoric and analytics for a more-anecdotal view, the Bundesliga and German football are better off when goal-scoring is up.

Fans of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76’ers coined a phrase years ago to help keep a long-term perspective in the face of what seemed like a never-ending rebuild. They have yet to see the ultimate return since deciding to “trust the process,” there is no denying that their franchise is well-positioned for greatness.

International football is a vastly different animal than the NBA, but the main idea behind “trust the system” is very much the same. Remember that heading to Brazil, Joachim Löw was widely criticized for a team selection that brought charges of his being unable to cut ties with older players in favor of new talent. All he had to do to respond to that was raise a trophy.

Now (those same?) critics don’t like how he dispatched some team veterans and see little hope in the new youth movement.

Maybe the critics will prove to be right. After all, when Germany followed their 1990 World Cup with an unexpectedly early exit in 1994, the rebound was slow and painful (Anybody care to argue the 2002 finalists were a juggernaut, by the way?).

But things ARE changing, as things tend to do. A snapshot tells a story but doesn’t always capture the surroundings or depth.

German football will be just fine, trust me . . . or the process.

(by Randall Hauk)

Bundsliga? Nah, It’s die Nationalelf

Is there a crisis at club level? The teams that fell in the Champions League Round of 16 are not in such bad shape. FC Bayern are probably a few transfers away from having a more competitive team. Borussia Dortmund have a young, extremely talented squad that is most likely to overcome a dry spell and grow. Both teams may be in the thick of the action again in 12 months. As for Schalke, this season’s European results are in line with recent history.

The real crisis may be found at German national team level. The worst World Cup results since 1938, failure to promote young stars such as Leroy Sané early enough, a public fallout with four stars, terrible communications and apparent improvisation have diminished a formidable organization.

The real question, in my opinion, is what contribution Germany’s flagship clubs can make to the national team in the future. Neither Bayern nor BVB may be able to provide the Nationalelf a core of German players anytime soon. It matters since national teams can piggyback on club success. Barcelona and Real Madrid players fueled Spain’s golden age from 2008 to 2012. Bayern and BVB fed Germany in 2014.

(by Michel Munger)

Deutschland (Creeps) Forward

Anytime all the Bundesliga sides crash out in the same round, the optics always give us pause–regardless of context. Call this phenomenon a sort of “simultaneity problem,” i.e. X, Y, and Z are related (Bundesliga clubs!) and have something similar happen to them all at once (crash out of the round of 16!). Next, link this event to Jogi Löw covering himself in all sorts of inglorious light by canning the ol’ Bayern boys, Müller, Boateng, and Hummels from the national team. (Damnit, why didn’t Jogi throw Neuer in for good measure?) Put it all together and, for like a week, it looks like German football is fouuuuuucked. Not so fast.

First, we gotta disaggregate. Start with the simultaneous UCL exits. Obviously, all three exits are independent events, not directly influencing each other. If there’s any similarity involved with BVB, Bayern, and S04 stubbing their toes collectively, it’s that they all faced Premier League clubs, and the three best clubs at that (Spurs, Liverpool, and Man City). A horrible draw and spectacularly bad luck. Thus, if there’s any overall meaning here, it’s that England’s three best domestic clubs are better than Germany’s two strongest clubs (Schalke doesn’t deserve to occupy this sentence). But it’s not like we didn’t already know this.

However, drilling down into individual exits, it’s Bayern that caused me the most concern. Against, Kloppo’s Liverpool, Bayern again looked like the aged toothless unit from mid-Hinrunde. You know, the one that Gladbach tortured 0-3 in the Allianz. Bayern lacked creative ideas around the box, and while the feeding-the-ball-to-Lewa plan wipes the floor in the Bundesliga, it’s consistently failed in the Champions League for half a decade, as opponents nullify Lewa’s seemingly vanishing ball hold-up abilities, while forcing Bayern to play through less effective outside channels. Thus, Bayern’s scoring ability in Europe that most concerns me; and my hunch is that it’s this facet of Bayern’s game the club is most overconfident about. Look, we all know Boateng, Hummels, Rafinha, Ribéry, and Robben are all out. The defense and wings are being overhauled. But I’m more worried about the attacking front. Bayern is stale here and is certainly drifting away from the well-publicized five year identity plan it supposedly completed under Pep.

Going back to the Bundesliga, let’s not forget that this season became the title race that wasn’t supposed to be, thanks to Bayern’s accelerated ageing and Favre’s BVB out-performing all the metrics, especially expected goals (at least until like a month ago). Crisis? Bayern monopoly? Let’s pause this particular crisis, at least until May.

Although I’m just as disappointed as you that Bayern has won its last three Bundesliga matches by a combined score of 17-1, we should all be heartened to see how “average Joe” Bundesliga clubs approached their Bayern encounters earlier in the season by using speed and aggressiveness to disrupt Bayern’s rhythm-heavy fame. If only these clubs would boycott transferring their players to Bayern (collusion, please!).

As a BVB lover, I’m all in on black-yellow madness this season; however, I’m very excited by Eintracht Frankfurt’s success. My hope is that the Eagles have discovered a new model for Bundesliga success: shrewd use of league retreads (e.g. Kostic, Hinteregger, Hasebe), recruiting young players and loanees at just the right level of skill (e.g. Haller, Rebic, and Jovic)– who are not too gaudy in the media hype machine sense–combined with a distinctively physically bold and speedy playing style. The result is a defensively solid unit with one of the league’s best attacking lines. My hope is that the likes of Leverskusen can follow this template and consolidate their identity (sorry, Peter Bosz); while the likes of VfB Stuttgart and other traditional clubs with large supporter bases can follow this template to catalyze their own resurrections. The result could be a more competitively deep Bundesliga–one that Bayern will have to take more seriously on a weekly basis.

Finally, die Mannschaft. Let’s be honest: 2018 was an entire CRISIS YEAR (of historic proportions to boot). My hindsight-blessed argument is that more of the Confederation Cup-winning squad should have been the World Cup squad; however, back in June 2018, such a possibility was neither socially acceptable nor warranted given the “proven” winners Löw had on his Russia roster. If anything, we learned that German international football is also prone to the historical object lessons of sustaining greatness, which is always already nearly impossible to sustain. Complacency comes in cycles and die Mannschaft was due for a new cycle after the 2002-2014 narrative played out. My law here is that when a book (or books in this case!) is published about a success, said success is already crumbling. Call it the Das Reboot law? At least as applies to the sports world …

Finally, I’m also a subscriber to the argument that Bayern’s problems become the national team’s problems, at least as long as the spine of die Mannschaft is made up of Bayernisch. The Neuer-Boateng-Hummels-Müller-Kimmich-Kroos (come on, guys, he’s formerly big-time Bayern) spine is what Löw leaned heavily on. Psychologically and sociologically, I’m sure you could say stuff that I’m not qualified to say, so I’ll simply say that die Mannschaft needs to be diversified. The latest roster is a good step in this direction, even if Bayern is still represented heaviest. Löw finally seems willing to “kill his darlings.”

Deutschkrise?

I’m not buying it. If anything, the present points to a slightly better future for everyone in love with the Bundesliga.

(by Travis Timmons)

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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