Every World Cup has its defining image. In 2014, it was Mario Gotze buzzing through the Maracana night like a drunk bumble bee. Four years later, the picture that will come to sum up Germany’s campaign in Russia—if you can even call it that—doesn’t depict a football scene. Quite the opposite, in fact: it shows Joachim Low in sunglasses, interrupting his morning jog in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to lean on a street lantern, posing for an agency photographer.
The photo, taken before Germany’s second Group F game against Sweden, was supposed to project calmness. “I’m in control,” it said. “Don’t worry.” But the mantra-like belief in that sentiment, in the idea that everything would be alright on the night, was exposed as naive and misguided in Kazan.
Germany were wrong to take things easy, Low confessed. He was wrong. They went into the tournament in the same off-duty mood he exuded on that encounter with a paparazzoand never mentally made it off that beach. The reward for their failure is a much longer holiday than expected, but that won’t outweigh the shock of delivering the nation’s worst World Cup since 1938.
“We have turned up with a sense of arrogance,” admitted Low after Germany’s shameful exit from the competition. “We thought we could just turn a switch after the bad friendlies.”
Those two pre-tournament games, a defeat by Austria and a narrow win over Saudi Arabia that felt like a loss, as well as undistinguished showings against Spain and Brazil two months earlier were clear warning signs that something was very wrong. But Low assured his public and the dressing room that things would turn out okay once the World Cup came along.
Didn’t he pick up on the lack of tempo in the final third, the huge gaps in midfield or the general lack of cohesion and energy? Maybe he didn’t want to at this late stage. “Our last good game goes back to March 2017,” Mats Hummels said after the loss vs. South Korea.
Looking back on the three games as a whole, carrying on as if there were no problems to address, was the first and biggest mistake. It was the coach’s fault, rather than his players. Having experimented successfully with a young squad in the Confederations Cup, he persisted with a starting XI of tried and trusted personnel and a stale formula that was rendered formulaic by Mexico’s intelligence and application in their opening game.
Ultimately, Germany never recovered from that blow.
Drastic changes in the second game — Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil were benched — as well as the late dramatic win over Sweden brought some momentum at last, and there was no doubting that Germany were not trying to do everything in their power to beat South Korea, but a puzzling team selection in Kazan only served to inhibit their fluidity. They had shots and half-chances but in pure footballing terms, Germany played as poorly and helplessly as they have done since Low took charge.
Once again, his half-time substitution amounted to an admission that he had not picked the right team to begin with. In years to come, the World Cup will be seen as a tournament in which Low second-guessed himself a few times too often. Having found that plan A (patient build-up, control of the tempo) didn’t work, he came up with a series of half-baked line-ups that were neither here nor there and did nothing for Germany’s togetherness.
No-one in Germany will seriously argue that Leroy Sane’s inclusion would have led to a different outcome but the footballing reasons for the decision have to come under scrutiny. If Sane was really too fast and direct for Low’s system, as some tactical experts argued, maybe his system was too slow and elaborate to begin with.
As ever in defeat, other issues will become the subject of the inquest, from the FA’s handling of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan affair to the choice of Vatutinki as a base camp. It is no secret that Low wanted to be in Sochi instead, but the some of the underlying financial considerations of the contentious choice are yet to see the light of day.
The good news, if there is any, is that Germany’s footballing fundamentals are sound. There are enough players of sufficient quality to contend for trophies for years to come. Whether Low will still be in charge remains to be seen, however. The German FA very much want him to continue — they have no alternative candidate waiting in the wings — but he will have to decide if he can stomach the disappointment to try again in two years’ time.
Low would no longer be the World Cup-winning coach at the Euros, but the coach who oversaw both Germany’s biggest triumph and biggest failure in recent years. A part of his aura was lost in Russia, where his team never looked as good on the pitch as he did on that fateful morning jog.