Germany seek their famed World Cup spirit
Eight finals, four titles and four third-place finishes show why they should never be underestimated
Never count Germany out. Come the World Cup, they are always among the teams to beat; the one opponents never take lightly; the one that is always ready for the fight.
Four titles, four-time runners-up and four third-place finishes in 19 appearances vouch for the threat they possess.
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They have failed to go past the group stage just twice. The last time it happened was in Russia 2018 but that doesn’t mean they can’t be among the favourites at Qatar 2022.
Hansi Flick’s side may not have the star power of his predecessor Joachim Loew’s 2014 World Cup-winning outfit but it’s quite balanced and has a nice blend of experience and youth.
The well-rounded unit is unlike what Michael Ballack described them in his early international career: “They wanted me to win the ball at the back, dominate in the centre, play a pass to myself in the final third, and score the goal.”
Indeed, Germany were at their lowest ebb before and after Ballack’s debut in 1999. The high of winning in 1990 was followed by quarter-final exits in 1994 and 1998. While the runners-up finish in 2002 did paper over the cracks, footballing standards were plummeting and the results were unsatisfactory.
Euro 1996 was the only solace in an otherwise below-par 90s for a team, for a nation, that was used to putting in dominant displays. The triumphant feeling was short-lived as they were knocked out in group stages of the 2000 and 2004 editions.
It led to a complete overhaul of German football. They also changed their approach towards football — at all levels — going from a team that put physicality first to one that adopted a more intricate and technical approach.
Juergen Klinsmann first pioneered it at the home World Cup in 2006 where Germany finished third. But by the time Klinsmann handed over the reins to Loew and by then Germany was oozing with fresh talent that dazzled at the 2010 edition, making everyone fall in love with the squad which played a different brand of football compared to World Cup-winning teams led by Fritz Walter, Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus.
Germany’s overhaul was complete when the same set of players, under Loew, won the 2014 title with a 1-0 win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina. The highlight of the competition was their 7-1 demolition of Brazil, on their home turf, in the semi-final.
After the disaster of 2018, Germany started another round of rebuilding which saw the likes of Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Marco Reus and Jerome Boateng making way for younger players over the last four years. It was overlooked by Loew before he handed the baton to Flick—his 2014 assistant—after Euro 2020.
Flick will hope that under his tutelage Germany will once again regain its glory days as it did under Klinsmann and Loew.
The former Bayern Munich manager will depend on the experience of Thomas Mueller, Manuel Neuer, Ilkay Gundogan and Antonio Rudiger to help the team navigate through tough phases. The likes of Joshua Kimmich, his midfield partner Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry will be integral to his strategies while he will bank on youngsters Kai Havertz, Jamal Musiala and Youssoufa Moukoko to provide the X-factor.
They had an easy qualifying passage as they topped the group consisting of North Macedonia, Romania, Armenia, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
They drew with the Netherlands during a friendly in March and in the Nations League matches that followed they held Italy and England 1-1, beat Italy 5-2 and then held England 3-3 in their last competitive match towards the end of September. But a draw and defeat against Hungary during the campaign mean one isn’t sure what to expect from them.
If those results are considered minor blips, then Germany are on the right track. Since Flick took over, they have won nine, drawn five and lost one. Flick’s preferred formation has been 4-2-3-1 in most of those games. That was his go-to shape during his stint as Bayern manager as well.
Among the sureties in the squad is centre-back pairing of Niklas Sule and Rudiger. Kimmich and Goretzka will man the middle of the park. He will have a happy headache while choosing his forward line which is full of talent. While Sane and Mueller will be his first choices it remains to be seen who among Gnabry, Musiala, Havertz and Moukoko start beside them. The injury to Timo Werner is a setback for Germany as he was Flick’s first-choice striker. He may opt for Chelsea’s Havertz, who netted twice in 3-3 draw with England.
Flick suggested that everyone will see a different Germany in Qatar. "When we start preparing on Saturday, everyone will be focused on the game against Japan and we’ll see a different team and a different physicality. We’ll need that as well to compete in the tournament,'' Flick said after a 1-0 win over Oman in a friendly on Wednesday.
They are placed in Group E and begin their campaign against Japan on November 23 before facing off against Spain (November 27) and Costa Rica (December 1).
Spain will pose a tough challenge even though they are going through a transition phase of their own. La Roja were knocked out in the group stage in 2014 and round of 16 in 2018 but a semi-final appearance in Euro 2020 and runners-up spot in last year's Nations League and a semi-final run this year seems to suggest that they are also on the way up.
Japan and Costa Rica can be tricky ties but Germany should have enough firepower to see them off.
Whether Germany turn-up when the tournament kicks off on Sunday remains to be seen but after dismal outings in the last two major competitions the only way for them is up.