Jogi’s Black Swan and Germany’s Fragility

The contemporary thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term Black Swan to describe monumental, yet often poorly understood events that changed the course of history. In the context of the historic World Cup exit of Germany – have made the final 8 of every World Cup since 1938 – it is safe to say that the event was monumental. Taleb attributes three components to a Black Swan event:

“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Excerpt From: Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “The Black Swan. Random House, 2007”

Nobody is going to contest the first point, Germany were alongside Brazil and Spain the prohibitive favorites at most bookmakers (4-5 to 1 odds) and models like 538

or Goalimpact, who still had them as the team most likely to win the WC even after the first 2 matches!

Did the elimination have an extreme impact?

You tell me….

The third portion of Taleb’s theory – predicting an unfathomable rare event AFTER the fact – is the most fun, especially if you are say a German pundit struggling to stay relevant in today’s media. Without naming any names, I’m thinking of Lothar Matthaus and Paul Breitner, whose critique – of Kroos this time, not of Özil that was 4 years ago,  who despite his obvious turnovers and proclivity towards desperate long-range shots is leading the World Cup in final third passes played and received, box entries made and plays better/more defense-cutting central passes than anyone – shows an understanding of the game that is as outdated as it is shallow and self-serving (the whole self-aggrandizing/romanticizing the past thing).

I find similar psychoanalysis of “German arrogance” “power” “not wanting it enough\complacency” equally hard to grasp, but they do give that sense of assuredness, that “well we almost foresaw it”.

Look, I am not advocating that observers and fans of Germany should chalk it up to randomness. There are of course legitimate criticisms of Germany that the always eloquent and outspoken Mats Hummels (easy game if your mother basically created DSF’s Doppelpass, the mother of all German football talk shows) has talked about during the tournament, as well as after it:

“The last game we delivered a good performance was in the autumn of 2017.”

Was Germany’s depth overblown?

That brings us to a pivotal talking point in the development of Jogi’s Nationalelf, which had after a somewhat disappointing Euro 2016 rebounded and captured not only the Confed Cup with its B squad, but inspired eulogies all over. Talks of 4 equally strong Germany XIs abounded:

and players like Julian Brandt, Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Goretzka, or the late-blooming “discount version of Thomas Müller”, Lars Stindl became the spine of a team that could defend the 2014 title. Somewhere along the way that development of the B team that was supposed to take over from the 2009 U21 Euro championship starts and World Cup winning spine (Neuer, Hummels, Khedira, Boateng, Özil, Müller) and since then Jogi Löw has been (mostly correctly) accused of not doing enough to incorporate young talent and/or not trusting the young players outside of impact sub purposes (Brandt’s late appearances, Goretzka only getting involved in the third game). Of course, it’s not entirely Jogi’s fault – that

  • Julian Weigl was destroyed by Bosz’ Dortmund,
  • while Mario Götze (who ironically could have helped in a role that Jogi would never use him, as Lars Pollmann correctly pointed out ) and André Schürrle were “at a different point in their careers” to use an NBA euphemism
  • Max Meyer was involved in a messy divorce at Schalke, as was Amin Younes at Ajax
  • Benni Henrichs failed to nail down a starting spot at Leverkusen
  • Timo Werner’s second season at RBL was trying to say the least
  • the oft-injured Leon Goretzka became persona non grata after his  Bayern move in January
  • Emre Can, Lars Stindl, Serge Gnabry all got hurt before the tournament, while Kerem Demirbay was just recovering from an injury

but this photoshoot definitely is.

That is not to say he has necessarily handled his squad selection well, and no I don’t mean the Leroy Sané corollary (patent pending)

Sané would likely have made some difference perhaps with his speed and 1 v 1 skills, but would Löw really have played him if he did not presumably trust Brandt or Goretzka? Would Sané’s poor form for Germany (11 games, no goals or assists) continue? Would it have been a good idea to pin your hopes on someone whose ego\vanity (nose surgery) got in the way of the Confed Cup last year? Do those people grasping at this strawman argument even know that Sané played 17 minutes (11 against France at Euro 2016 and 6 against Azerbaijan in a qualifier)  prior to last summer’s tourney in Russia and just 108 subsequent minutes in 2 of 4 the next qualifiers. But much like Sandro Wagner, who for me had a much better case as the replacement at impact sub in the last 20 minutes in place of the permanently broken Mario Gomez button, Sané’s inclusion would have upset team chemistry.

Of course we have now since learned that it arguably created tensions and reportedly divided the locker room into “team bling bling” consisting of Özil, Khedira, Boateng, and Draxler (I would have so much time for someone posting a video of explaining bling bling to Franz Beckenbauer for example) and team Bavaria feat. Hummels, Kroos, Neuer and Müller. The pre-tournament diplomatic crisis of the Erdogan photo, the Neuer/ter Stegen debate, the choice of Germany’s campsite (Bierhoff’s choice, Vatutinki prevailed over Jogi’s choice of Sochi) all could have been handled better by Jogi and his staff – who were, as Manuel Veth noted, short of Hansi Flick, the set-piece specialist who left after the WC win and has since left Hoffenheim as well. Flick publicly defended Löw and Özil after the first match, but you have to wonder how much of a downgrade it was to Thomas Schneider, especially in the World Cup of Set Pieces…..

The World Cup of Set Pieces

Conceptual failings aka Jogi thinks this is a league, not an elimination tournament?

Losing to Mexico was certainly an inauspicious start but in my thorough analysis I (and others) did not yet detect what perhaps was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bundestrainer regarding the nature of the World Cup.

Like many others I had chalked up the loss to Mexico jumping on die Mannschaft, whose poor structure created unfavorable scenarios (Khedira and Kimmich playing too high and never having a chance vs the speed of Mexico’s counters, just as Juan Carlos Osorio drew it up, Kroos needing to defend 65 meters of space vs 2-3 opponents). This was exacerbated by an ineffective counterpressing scheme and several failures in Restverteidigung (sufficient structure to prevent counter situations by taking up good counterpressing positions up the pitch and quick access to the ball by usually 1-2 midfield players.)

Things hardly improved (Reus and Kroos played better, and Werner looked livelier on the wing) in the Sweden game – Sebastian Rudy did provide much better structure prior to his unfortunate exit, Ilkay Gündogan (who a lot of us would have liked to have seen play much sooner) did not. The modified Lineker saying “now 21 players chasing the ball, but the Germans always win,” and Kroos’s wonderstrike papered over the very much visible cracks. In essence, as Ryan O’Hanlon astutely observed at the Ringer, Jogi’s fatal flaw (to the extent that there was one, remember the absence of this is kind of the point of this piece) was that he essentially believed that he can “Bayern” his way through the tournament, through superior philosophy, structure and players who would pass the opponent into submission. It’s very much an en vogue belief, one that tactically and analytically savvy teams (Guardiola) have employed to rule modern football.  Germany did have all kinds of great shooting volume (72 shots is the most in the WC) and high overall XG numbers, that was misleading. As Mike Goodman and James Yorke pointed out that volume came LATE, in all 3 of their matches Germany failed to reach the ONE XG mark and was either trailing in XG or tied in the first 60 minutes. The chance quality was a measly 0.008 or 8% per shot, the average is around 10%, a number that Yorke likens to lower end of the table Premier League teams. A couple of years ago, the Bundesliga average was around 10.5%, per our friends at the Challengers Podcast (RIP)

and what’s staggering is that no German player accumulated over 0.7 XG TOTAL! You can see the low-quality chances in bunches here:

The meticulous and careful passing that was supposed to pound opponents into submission was neither meticulous –

Khedira is playing too deep, and further limiting the buildup structure almost similarly to Javier Mascherno’s pointless dropping back into an already crowded 3 chain, which left his midfield partner (Toni Kroos) in a 1 v 2 or 1 v 3 and the center exposed

nor careful – remember Toni Kroos’ turnovers against pressure that nearly cost them the Sweden game. By the Korea game, it was evident that Jogi had miscalculated the flaws of his squad (slow fullbacks who can’t get back, Khedira’s limitations, the struggles of the front four in a box with 7-8 defenders) and  the variance of tournaments favoring the “Mourinho way” of sitting back and patiently and taking your chances on the counter. Of course, Jogi is not the only one making this error, the struggles of Argentina, Spain (look at the goals they have conceded) are further proof that international football tournaments with short training camps, tired players on the backs of 55 games played are perhaps a different breed.

Whether or now Löw, who just extended his contract until 2022 in May is still the best man for the job is very much an open question. Uli Hesse, correctly pointed out in his piece that Jogi getting sacked after a historic disaster is kind of an unwritten rule, although the lack of replacements is downright scary. Perhaps what we should realize is that maybe a NT job, or even the Germany NT job just isn’t that great anymore, and we might have to separate the best coaches into great club coaches and tournament managers. That is a discussion to be had at another time though, when Manuel Neuer’s haunting words have stopped ringing true into the long night:

“‘We deserved to be eliminated. We didn’t convince in any game. This was not the Germany we know. It was pathetic. We lacked commitment. Even if we had gone through, in the next round or the round afterwards, we’d have been knocked out.”

Black Swan is so 2007, Antifragile needed

For those Germany fans who wish to seek the positive, I’m happy to report that Nassim Taleb is once again here to help you: his 2012 book Antifragile is in many ways an evolution of the Black Swan, seeks to explore the upside of the rare event (black swan) and discusses how we can gain from disorder.

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure , risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. ”

from Antifragile Random House, 2007”

I can always send you mine, Herr Löw, if the DFB library doesn’t have a copy….



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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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