There was to be no melodrama. There were few tears and even fewer words. “Dead silence,” was how Jonas Hofmann described the Germany dressing room in the aftermath of its most pyrrhic victory, a 4-2 win over Costa Rica that still led to their elimination.
“It’s so bitter, I have no words,” said a crestfallen Serge Gnabry. Ilkay Gündogan, his belongings wrapped in a bin bag, dragged himself through the mixed zone mumbling a few things about disappointment. Kai Havertz posed with his unwanted player-of-the-match award like a man clutching his divorce papers.
Others were simply mourning, wondering what more they could have done, what it all meant. “I joined in 2016,” Joshua Kimmich considered. “Before that Germany was always in the semi-finals. Then I come along and we are eliminated twice in the preliminary round, and last year in the round of 16. I’m personally connected to this failure.” The next few days will be the toughest. Germany will grieve. Germany will reflect. The really interesting part is what Germany does next.
Because – paradoxically – a lot of things actually went right for them here. Their expected goals and expected goal difference were the highest not just in their group, but in the whole tournament. With the exception of 20 minutes against Japan and maybe 15 against Costa Rica, they played pretty competent football. This was the month when a brilliant 19-year-old called Jamal Musiala put the world on notice. And yet in the post-match debriefs the same word kept cropping up: efficiency.
You can write your own jokes there. But this has been Germany’s fatal flaw: a failure to convert attacks into chances and chances into goals, a failure to get a grip on the game when it begins to tilt against them, a failure to make the most of the players at Hansi Flick’s disposal. “It’s not just bad luck, it’s also a lot of incompetence,” Kimmich went on. “We concede goals very easily. An opponent doesn’t have to invest a lot to score cheap goals against us.”
There are two schools of thought developing in Germany over their World Cup exit. The first is that this failure is merely the symptom of a long-term sickness in German football, an inability to produce the right sort of players, the right variety of players. This was the line taken by Flick when he pointed out that Spain and England were years ahead of Germany in terms of youth development. “The problems we have had at the World Cup are not only at this World Cup,” agreed the team manager Oliver Bierhoff, who may be the first casualty of this debacle. “It has been happening for the last three years.”
A lot is made of Germany’s wealth of talent, a first XI that could stand comparison with any team on the planet. And yet a little interrogation is demanded here. Antonio Rüdiger aside, who is Germany’s next world-class defender? Is the 29-year-old Niclas Füllkrug really the answer up front? How, in a 26-man squad, did Germany end up in a situation where Kimmich had to return to right-back, leaving them with only two holding midfielders? “Do we really have as many good players as we think?” Thomas Hitzlsperger asked on German television. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
The other school of thought is that very specific things went wrong in Qatar that will not require years of surgery to fix. There remains a suspicion that Flick, in trying to implement his intense, integrated, high-pressing style on the national team, is essentially trying to recreate Bayern Munich on an impossible deadline. Preparation has been minimal; the relationships simply have not had time to develop. Gündogan hinted at this when he said Germany were “not able to perform as a team”.
So really there are two ways Germany can go from here. There is a European Championship on home soil in barely 18 months. Germany will again be among the favourites and most of the current side – Flick included – are keen to continue. So do you rip things up and start again with a new coach, a more pragmatic style, a departure from principles? Or do you keep the faith in a process that has now produced three straight tournament failures? There are no easy answers. Whatever it does, German football is about to embark on a monumental gamble.