Welcome back! After an extended leave of what has now amounted to six (?!?) weeks of significant global political and sporting development, I’m back to contribute my baseless opinion and jurisdiction to the swirling orchestra of events our world delivers on a daily basis. A massive thank you to those who are perhaps rediscovering the site after my hiatus, and also to the surprisingly vast audience that kept site traffic at a constant throughout the past 42 days or so – your loyalty and support is greatly appreciated, and hopefully I can continue to supply similar content and further my journalistic horizons to maintain your interest over the foreseeable future!
Onto our latest topic then, and in keeping with the theme that has kept me occupied and perhaps sane throughout the first few days post-GCSE’s, we’re tapping into the events of what has been, to date, an honestly lacklustre Confederations Cup; observing the pulse of Die Mannschaft, the reigning world champions and one of the favourites for the trophy in Russia at this summer’s tournament. Amongst a field of seven largely uninspired opposing candidates for the pre-World Cup silverware, each of whom have laid testament to the fatigue of international footballers less than a month after a majority of their domestic seasons have ceased, Joachim Löw’s outfit – largely of trialists for squad positions next summer – have threatened to set alight the soulless party with their industrial yet eye-catching brand of efficient fußball. Granted, an inexperience-smacking 3-2 victory over Australia and laborious 1-1 stalemate with potential title rivals Chile hardly scream ‘undisputed champions of the world’, but in the context of Löw’s approach to the tournament, consecutive world titles appear far from out of the realms of possibility. It is exactly this threat to the likes of Brazil, France, Spain, Italy and Argentina – those notably, and embarrassingly in some cases, absent, despite promise in each of their respective continental and World Cup campaigns, from this Confederations Cup – that inspired my decision to fixate upon the promise of Germany’s aptitude and poise in the build-up to what appears, to paraphrase any number of past pundits, one of the most open World Cup’s little less than 365 days from its inauguration.
Lacking any squad members, prior to the tournament’s initiation, graced with more than 30 national caps, boasting only 8.5 or so caps per member of the 21-strong contingent and resorting to employing 23-year-old Julian Draxler as captain, this is nothing short of a wild experiment from the German national set-up. Certainly, with the loss of long-term stalwarts and on-pitch directors Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski to retirement over the past few years, the crying requirement to usher in a modern nucleus of individuals has been highlighted in brutal circumstances. While a second wave are approaching the peaks of their powers – Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng, Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez each fitting the ‘golden years’ bracket of 27 to 31 – in correspondence with the 2018 World Cup title defence, what those at DFB Medien, the national FA’s base in Frankfurt-am-Main, have realised, in pitiful contrast to the English FA’s hierarchy, is that progress and success can only be ascertained by promoting the development of youth within their system. This is just the first of innumerable basic steps the DFB is taking to maximise the probability of a realisation of typically modest national hopes, and one of many I will address in the forthcoming condemnation of the FA’s slowly improving but ultimately unfulfilling and criminally misguided set-up of self-congratulatory oafishness, a distinct contrast that illustrates the importance of organisational groundwork.
Simply observe the current state of each nation’s senior squad. Despite lacking arguably the foremost goalkeeper in terms of sheer ability in the world currently in the form of Neuer, Germany boast a trio of desperately unfortunate competitors of similar mid-twenties ages in Marc-André ter Stegen, Bernd Leno and Kevin Trapp. Unfortunate in respects of the positions they command at club level – they are, after all, each the respective number one at a Champions League club – in contrast with what they can achieve on the international stage, with a mere 16 caps to show for their net talent. England’s goalkeeping choices? Well, they are desperate for a completely different reason; failing to demonstrate sufficient quality to oust the insufferably gaffe-ridden Joe Hart from a starting berth…
Striking a kind balance between encouraging national team members to remain loyal to their league of origin and explore alternative possibilities to broaden playing horizons in selecting a group of 21 which features 14 Bundesliga-based individuals in equilibrium with those situated in London, Liverpool, Paris, Rome, Barcelona and Amsterdam, Löw’s selection showcases the success of the notorious DFB production line. Gareth Southgate’s miserly pickings, meanwhile, are disgustingly limited to the uninspiring remnants of generations of footballers failed by their clueless national system – Phil Jones, Kieran Trippier, Ryan Bertrand, Jake Livermore and Adam Lallana all of an age in their late 20’s where you have to wonder what could’ve been had they had a clear path presented by FA youth team coaches. To add further distaste to the putrid concoction of confusion and carelessness, England’s squad features some who, unsupported by national systems, only salvaged a professional career through their own persistence in Chris Smalling, Aaron Cresswell, Kyle Walker, Jesse Lingard and Jamie Vardy.
However, a few recent exceptions to the embarrassing rule, in Dele Alli, John Stones, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, do exist. They represent individuals who have been guided through the FA’s often treacherous corridors – from under 17, for example, through to under 21 and senior teams – and have survived the process in a celebration of clear natural talent, hopefully moulded by coaches who both understand hierarchical instructions yet express personal methods that can deliver these players the skills they require to thrive on such an eventual stage. In this respect, comparisons with the likes of Matthias Ginter, Niklas Süle, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Julian Brandt and Timo Werner (just to name those in the current German squad) become realistic, as these gifted players are the heralded successes of what have often been the same youth groups throughout the years; they have developed as a core of potential senior starters, rather than just one or two stars as may have been expressed in previous set-ups. Continuity that has defined generation upon generation in the German establishment is now, fortunately, infiltrating the stubborn shores of England, to name but one flailing nation resorting to imitating Frankfurt’s formula.
Admiring their style of footballing approach as a side representative of their nation’s innovation, investment and culture, you can’t deny how, whenever a German national team plays, regardless of the age level or stage, they never fail to reflect as a strict unit of supportive cogs collaborating to achieve triumph for the team. Very rarely is there a specific individual who can be pinpointed for their decisive role in a victory, or a player highlighted for their perceived Machiavellian conspiracy for superiority. That is such a perfect affirmation of the German approach to both football and daily life; that greed, want and vanity are virtually non-existent, in contrast with the ambitions of modern Anglo-American politics, as teamwork, collective effort and sacrifice are the required contributions to an ultimate realisation of goals. An underlying factor – this cultural disparity – that could hinder England from ever achieving similar footballing reform? I certainly believe so.
On the theme of the performances of senior sides, seldom does it appear the likes of Kroos, Müller and Mario Götze are flustered, nor unaware of specific responsibilities on even the most nerve-wracking of stages. It could be argued that is a testament to their personal aptitude and standards at club level, rather than the effect of their altogether brief period spent representing their nation, but when contrasted with the English contingent of Theo Walcott, Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling, to name three examples who play similar roles at similarly successful clubs and who have failed, ultimately, to capture the promise that defined their early years particularly as teenage beacons of potential national fulfilment, the only logical conclusion to make is that two drastically dissimilar football association directions have bred drastically dissimilar characteristics in their senior representatives. In the analysis of their careers, so many English players have been, and will continue to be, condemned for their inability to maximise obvious natural talent and taste silverware accordingly on both national and domestic levels. Blame the pressure of the media. Blame poor injury records. Blame individual personalities that hampered undoubted potential. The availability of support, in both psychological and physiological respects, for these players from national systems has immensely unheralded ramifications in the eventual unfolding careers of our brightest stars, and the DFB’s 2003-introduced reforms to national youth organisation deservedly receive plaudits on the way in which they changed the future for Germany’s future first-teamers.
In a system that features 366 local set-ups, over 1,000 at least UEFA-B licence trained coaches and countless thousands of 8 to 14-year-olds nationally, the DFB has employed a wide-spanning web of information which enables them to pinpoint outstanding talent and funnel such potential into results. In the latest available figures –the 2015 statistics link failed when I attempted to study it on the UEFA website – in 2013, the DFB boasted 28,400 B licence-certified coaches, 5,500 with the A licence and 1,070 Pro licence-qualified experts at their disposal. The FA, comparatively, had just 1,759, 895 and 115 respectively of the same calibres. It is no wonder, then, that the tactical awareness and reversibility that defines the German senior XI is second to none in the world, while England’s sorry outfit under the seemingly adventurous Gareth Southgate rarely strikes their viewer as confident, nor comfortable, in any formation they are posed with – Roy Hodgson’s 4-2-3-1 and Southgate’s 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 more akin to the enemy rather than weapons at the disposal of their employers in the visual uncertainty that has pervaded amongst players, who must be frustrated in a system with a shocking lack of direction.
Surveying alternative reasoning behind such a dramatic disparity between two nations whose recent histories prove the importance of adapting to changing times and high-profile failures, a number of questions arise. What is the importance of Germany’s senior team Sporting Director Horst Hrubesch? And the three assistant coaches; Thomas Schneider, Marcus Sorg and Klose, in his first post-retirement role? What role does business manager and national legend Oliver Bierhoff play? Hrubesch, to begin with, is only in the role on a temporary basis after the departure of Hansi Flick, one of the masterminds behind the 2014 triumph, following managerial successes including a Silver Medal in the 2016 Olympics (more on that later), but assumes a position overseeing the continuity of the national effort for future titles at all levels, in close conversation with Löw. The deployment of a trio of highly respected assistant coaches, rather than a single assistant manager at the FA who, up until the end of this season, held a secondary position in Chelsea’s staff in Steve Holland, surely allows for more tailored and effective senior training to place every tool for success in a matchday situation, while Bierhoff, in addition to his business role - essentially of PR -, has recently accepted a position as project manager of the DFB’s academy, marking him out as quite possibly the most useful tool in German football right now. An aspect that each of these individuals and roles represent in the German system, in a broad sense, is that two heads, or more in this case, are better than one in terms of accomplishing the objectives of the DFB – a lesson England must grasp, most immediately by drastically overhauling their faltering coach-production structure. Rough figures, I stress, of 0.03 B-licence, 0.02 A-licence and 0.002 Pro-licence coaches per 1000 English people are diabolical compared to the 0.35, 0.07 and 0.01 respectively of every 1000 of the German population, and must be addressed presently.
I’ll be fair to Dan Ashworth, FA Technical Director and Director of Elite Development, for a minute. It has been reported that he is pressing the association for drastic change, and indeed travelled to Frankfurt to discuss the approach of his German counterpart in the past, noting how other organisations operate in order to maximise the potential of the teenagers, under-13’s and even unborn future footballers who will attempt to bring triumph back to the British Isles. His efforts to rejuvenate the entire framework of the national scene – including the post-Brazil unveiling of the ‘England DNA’ continuity philosophy – haven’t gone unnoticed, and as a remnant of the early Roy Hodgson era upon appointment in September 2012, Mr Ashworth represents the ambition that wasn’t yet crushed by senior embarrassments at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championships, and can claim a hand in the unprecedented achievement for England’s under-20’s recently in lifting a World Cup. A tournament-winning squad marked, intriguingly, by its inclusion of seven under-17 2014 European Championship winners and ten under-19 2016 Euro semi-finalists – showcasing a refreshing tonic that achievement is being maintained.
Where were Germany in South Korea last month though? Knocked out in the round of 16 by Zambia (4-3 AET), having squeaked out of their group in losing to eventual finalists Venezuela, drawing a blank against Mexico and only emerging victorious over minnows Vanuatu 3-2 in what was a highly demoralising tournament for the DFB. Do the contrasting fortunes at the under-20 age bracket threaten to suggest a changing of the guard in subsequent years? Nothing can be taken for granted. With constant reshufflings in both the FA and DFB’s internal affairs, little can remain consistent for long. Superior generations of teenage German footballers will come – this summer’s under-20 squad featured only six players from 21 who had notched up senior appearances in the Bundesliga, whereas 13 of England’s 21 had Premier League experience – while this current crop may be slightly later bloomers. In a practical sense, the World Cup triumph means nothing for England’s senior side. Despite finishing as runners-up to Germany in the 2009 under-21 European Championships, for example, only 10 of the 23-strong squad went on to make senior debuts, and only three – Joe Hart, James Milner and Theo Walcott – have amassed more than 13 caps, while 12 Germans were rewarded with senior caps (four others having senior careers with other nations), including Neuer, Hummels, Boateng, Khedira, Özil and Benedikt Höwedes, who each – barring the injured Khedira – played in the 2014 World Cup final. If that statistic doesn’t speak volumes about the continuing development and nurturing of players from youth squads to the pinnacle of senior national service, I cannot fathom what will.
Leading us on to the other international tournament that is currently ongoing, the Under-21’s European Championship in Poland in which England just qualified for the knockout stages in high-profile circumstances, how are Germany – whose media place a far less considerable burden on such generations for success – fairing? Squaring off against Italy tonight, only a victory for the Czech Republic against Denmark and a defeat by a three-goal margin to the Italians would eliminate them post-consecutive 2-0 and 3-0 victories against the Czechs and Danish; a fairly faultless campaign to date, then. Providing a draw or better is achieved against the Italians, either England or the intensely impressive Spain will be their semi-final opponents, where you’d fancy their chances are fairly even in either draw.
Bringing a squad that has, in keeping with tradition, grown up together as every individual has featured in three to five national youth sides from under-17 to their present position, for example, and in which every player, bar their second-choice goalkeeper, has experienced Bundesliga football (not all to the same extent as Max Meyer and Max Arnold, with a cumulative 248 German top-flight runouts, however), theirs is a group bolstered by depth in comparison to England’s – who can point only to 17 of their 23 when it comes to Premier League playing time. When it comes to a decisive match-changing moment, too, England may find themselves lacking, as you would presume them to be far from the unit that the Germans have developed when considering seven of their 23 have been effective afterthoughts to this squad, having not been capped at three or more levels of England duty; notably including Mason Holgate, Rob Holding, Alfie Mawson and Kortney Hause, an entire defence’s worth of players only capped at under-21 or under-20 level. For these reasons, I estimate the Germans to depose England of a final place providing they meet in the semi-final, only to fall to the glorious Spanish proposition.
Besides age tournaments such as the under-20 World Cup and under-21 Euros, German youngsters have platforms including the Olympics upon which to showcase their worth to the national system and to stake claims in both senior and under-21 squads that are invaluable when exploited correctly. Five of last summer’s silver medal-winning squad appear in Poland presently, while the trio of Süle, Ginter and Goretzka, captain in Rio, are busy in training for their nation’s tie with Cameroon on Sunday night, and when ascertaining the importance of the Olympics in this fact, just realise that the 2012 Olympics gave the platform for Jack Butland, Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose, all uncapped at that point, as well as Daniel Sturridge, honoured with two caps by that stage, to launch senior England careers. Until the United Kingdom hosts the Olympics again in many decades’, up to a century’s, time, no such opportunity will arise as the Scottish and Welsh FA’s have made it explicitly clear they don’t wish to undermine their devolved sovereignty by involving their players in Great Britain side, so while Germany profit from their involvement in the tournament in opening doors for the previously uncapped Süle, Davie Selke and Jeremy Toljan, the FA can only be left to rue the constraints of their existence for failing to offer the same to Jordan Pickford, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathan Redmond, for example.
While the remainder of the German squad is renewed with a youthful, optimistic glaze this summer, though, the question surely on many a punter’s lips was; why call up 29-year-old Sandro Wagner and Lars Stindl, 28 years young? Why the lack of young strikers, barring Timo Werner? Wagner and Stindl, both uncapped prior to a friendly against Denmark and qualifier against San Marino days prior to jetting off to Russia, are sourced from clubs, in Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively, that don’t carry the most glamour, while neither boasts considerable goalscoring callousness – both returning hauls of 11 goals from 31 and 30 league matches respectively – so why this experiment? Assuming positions up front in the gaping shadow of Klose, perhaps the former striker’s presence in the coaching team has reiterated the fact to Löw that there can be no more refusal to address the issue of a number nine in the side; stimulating the reserved tactician to cease persistence with Götze and Müller in leading roles and, in recognition of Podolski’s retirement and Mario Gomez’s lessening years, revert to alternative options in what has been perhaps Löw’s only problematic position. Under Klose’s tutelage, too, their performances in front of goal have certainly belied their meagre domestic returns, with Stindl, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, notching up poachers’ goals against both Australia and Chile, while Wagner bagged an exploitative hat-trick in San Marino. These performances are unlikely to guarantee them even a place in next summer’s squad, let alone starting berths, but selection headaches, at the very least, are being created, and as any cliché-ridden pundit would remind you, selection headaches are advantageous to managers in such situations.
Upon the return of what is effectively an entire first-team in Neuer, Boateng, Hummels, Höwedes, Kroos, Khedira, Özil, Leroy Sane, Götze and Müller, as well as possibly Gomez, Andre Schurrle, Marco Reus and İlkay Gündoğan, then, what are Germany’s realistic chances of repeating such hallowed and unrivalled glory next summer? Only twice has a World Cup title been retained; by an Italian side overshadowed by Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship and the abstention of Uruguay, the British Home Nations and latterly Argentina in 1934 and 1938, and most recently by the all-conquering Brazilians, including Pele, Vavá and Garrincha, in 1958 and 1962, and with the tendency for such a rapid turnover of tactical revolutions in the 21st century, German chances should, theoretically, be incredibly slim. In contrast to the defences of Italy and Spain, their two predecessors, however, in which both sides departed in the group stage after failing to adequately replace legendary generations of the ilk of Fabio Grosso, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero, Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila, nor reignite ageing individuals including Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Gerard Pique and Xabi Alonso, Germany, in my perception, are primed to overturn such fortunes.
In credit to their youth promotion programme, replacements have been discovered and groomed for many years to step into the boots of Lahm (Kimmich), Schweinsteiger (Gündoğan, Emre Can, Goretzka or Meyer) and Klose (Werner), ensuring they receive the support and experience required to cope with the weight of expectation in a World Cup defence where many have crumbled before them. The generation dropped this summer for the sake of rest and trialling their eventual replacements are not of the years of the aforementioned Italians and Spaniards, and at 28, 29 and 30 in most cases retain a balance that is critical to lasting four hard weeks of tournament football. They are in far superior positions currently than their predecessors – who, coincidentally, failed in Confederations Cup campaigns by exiting at the group stage and being ousted in the final respectively – were and can take advantage of this. They don’t face the pressure of being world number ones like five of the last six defending champions did, with Brazil quiet favourites at this stage, and run a national organisation that is purring to the tune of adept management and learned judgement. They have all the resources to go one significant leap further than any side since 1962; whether they can survive the next twelve months’ tribulations and apply performances befitting of their promise is an unpredictable reality, of course.
I despise pandering to prejudgement, but if it does come to fruition – a second global triumph, that is – will it finally spell the departure of the wildly underappreciated manager affectionately nicknamed Jogi Löw? Will he have accomplished a feat of such unprecedented magnitude that any future developments would be rendered meaningless, or would he continue to plough a methodical furrow towards further triumphs? His nation hasn’t achieved a European Championship title this century, is that a target in guiding the current generation of under-21’s to glory? All is left to the realms of fate, or rather, determined and continued graft within the confines of DFB walls for now. With a mission plan that supersedes all that went before it, Germany’s affection for an ambition, and the realisation of both a logic and those willing to supply the requisite loyalty and skill, the DFB have mastered modern football with organisational reform in both the Bundesliga and their regional organisation, a coaching revolution, continuity through the age groups, the recruitment of methodical and resonating staff and the harnessing of a national culture that thrives on rationale, passion and talent in perfect equilibrium. Other nations are rightfully envious in their courting of similar approaches, yet none can yet envisage comprising the ingenuity that has raised a German monolith in the history books – one that will be reminisced more for its origin in failure and erudite management than for its deployment of inexorable playing flair. As Germans, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!