Ten years. That’s how long the German team, their head coach, and the entire backroom staff have worked – worked hard and determined, that is – to reach the ultimate goal: World Champions.
We have seen it before. In the late 1990s France began to dominate the European and World scenes. Then Spain took over. Now the cycle has got Germany’s name on it. As with France and Spain, so in Germany: It all began with small revolutions within the youth development systems. If Brazil 2002 and Italy 2006 were “coincidences” (but still beautiful events, of course), France 1998, Spain 2010, and Germany 2014 were the results of organic developments that culminated in the World Cup finals. It may be that Germany will be dominating the scene in two year’s time, maybe even in four year’s time. But then evolution will probably see another country come to the fore. Teams always have their own cycle, as Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked – rise and fall are inevitably linked.
Joachim Löw must be given a lot of credit for Germany’s triumph. I was disappointed with the tactical finesse of Luiz Felipe Scolari (too naïve) and Alejandro Sabella (too dependent on Messi), whereas I was impressed – hugely impressed – by Löw and Louis van Gaal. Those two managers were among the main reasons why Europe eventually triumphed over South America, in South America, since they always had a tactical masterplan. Löw showed adaptability during Germany’s campaign, for example when replacing Mario Götze (as a “false” number 9) with Miroslav Klose (a traditional number 9), which also meant a slight change in tactics, and when moving Philipp Lahm from midfield to his old position as right back. Adaptability was not Löw’s only strength, though. If he showed flexibility, he did indeed also stand by his basic philosophy, a philosophy that has characterized the German team in recent years. Inspired by Spain and executed by the “new generation” of German soccer players, Löw (and Jürgen Klinsmann) has prioritized ball possession, flair, and fluidity (but in contrast to Spain, the German team has been more physical and direct in their approach). In short, we have seen a red thread in Germany’s World Cup campaign, a soccer identity. This identity can be traced back to the World Cup in Germany in 2006, and it is a proof of how successful the Germans have been in their “re-branding” that the German team has become the favorite team of many non-Germans.
The German victory was a result of team effort and a collective approach. In a way, no German player is a star. In another way, they are all stars. Eleven (Germans) showed that they were more than Messi plus ten (Argentinians). I have written about this difference in style and approach before, but let me repeat it: Germany and the Netherlands are teams without a Messi or Neymar, and in a way this sets them free tactically – or, in another way, it obligates their manager to actually work hard with team tactics in order to get the best out of every player. Messi and Neymar can be sedatives for a manager. The German team has been set up by Löw to function as a team, to work like a team, to defend like a team, and to attack like a team. We see it, sometimes, when the “automatisms” suddenly work and the epiphanies of form materialize. All the players are in it together. Of course some players incarnate this quality more than others. Thomas Müller may be the epitome of German collectivism, but even Mesut Özil is part of it.
Some players stand out, it cannot be denied. Manuel Neuer is surely one of them. Whether he is the best ever goalkeeper, as Franz Beckenbauer said on the evening of the German triumph, or not, he is definitely the best goalkeeper in the world at this moment. With his stature he reminds me of a compatriot of mine, the great Peter Schmeichel who was twice elected the best keeper in the world. Neuer also has an ability to almost frighten his opponents by way of his sheer size. Like Schmeichel, he also seems to be in possession of a larger than normal portion of self-confidence bordering on arrogance. His shotstopping skills are second to none, and he dominates the penalty area. Compared to Schmeichel, he is a more modern goalkeeper, though, since his technique and passing skills are better. He even takes on the role as sweeper quite often, a role required of him as a result of the German team’s attack-oriented and risky approach.
It used to be said that you needed a good goalkeeper and a good goalscorer to win tournaments. Nowadays it has become increasingly evident that you also need a good bench. Several games during the World Cup in Brazil were decided by players coming off the bench, and Germany’s bench was definitely among the most decisive benches. Schürrle had earlier done what Götze did in the final, come off the bench to score. A good bench is both a question of squad quality and depth and a question of managerial cleverness. As to the latter, just think of Van Gaal’s substitution of Jasper Cillesen with Tim Krul just before the penalty shootout between Costa Rica and Holland. Löw’s decision to play Klose from the beginning against Argentina was perhaps what allowed Götze to become the match winner for the Germans since he benefitted from Klose’s tireless work upon the Argentinian defense. Germany won the World Cup partly because they had the best bench and a manager who knew how to use that bench.
To me, another player also stood out. Toni Kroos was the best player of the tournament. He dictated the rhythm and pace of Germany’s matches like Andrea Pirlo does it for Italy and Paul Scholes used to do it for Manchester United. FIFA’s decision to name Lionel Messi the best player of the tournament was disappointing in several ways. Messi did have his moments of magic, but in general – and in comparison with his own previous standards – he had a substandard tournament. The most disappointing thing to me about FIFA’s decision, however, was that they made the easy choice. They elected an individualist. But it was not the individualist and his team of ten servants who won the World Cup, it was a team player together with his ten teammates (and his coach and backroom staff). A German team without a Messi and without a Neymar (who can decide matches in splitseconds through individual actions of genius) is dependent on someone who can control the rhythm and pace of their collective game. Kroos did that (although he had a substandard final), and without him Germany would not have been so convincing and appealing to watch. Kroos, in that sense, is the epitome of Germany, the World Champions, and instead of the automatic choice of Messi, the genius number 10 who had a substandard tournament and no gold winner’s medal, FIFA should have honored the World Champions and their different approach with the election of Kroos, the rhythm-dictating number 18 who has a brilliant tournament and a gold medal, as the best player of the tournament.
If Germany won because of the culmination of an organic development, a tactical masterplan, team effort, the world’s best goalkeeper, their bench, and the best conductor, they may be short of two things in order to be the perfect team. I mentioned before that it used to be said that in order to win tournaments a team must have a good goalkeeper and a good goalscorer. Germany got away with not really having a “true” number 9. Klose is a goalgetter but past his best (and he was, in my opinion, never among the best in the world). Müller managed to score five goals, but he is more like an extremely efficient utility man than a real goalscorer. The Germans did score goals, though, and perhaps their fluid style is a reminder that the typical number 9 is dispensable, if you have the best goalkeeper, the best conductor, and the best bench.
The second weakness of the German team was their left back, or, rather, the fact that he was right footed. Benedikt Höwedes is a really good player, but he is not really a left back, instead his favorite (and normal) position is central defense. Höwedes did his job in defense, but when Germany attacked they would have been better off with a left footed left back. It would have given them more penetration and better crosses. But again, no team is perfect, and because of Löw’s tactical cleverness and his team’s collective profile, Germany could get away with a couple of small “compromises”.
Editor’s note: Søren Frank is author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which is available from all fine booksellers.