Defending champions Germany were knocked out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup at the group stage against all odds. Manuel Neuer had shaken off a foot injury to be fit in time for the tournament while a Marco Reus returning to full fitness was preferred to Manchester City’s Schalke-hewn prodigy Leroy Sane…
bundesliga.com takes a look at the players that got Joachim Löw’s men to Russia, and who the coach leant on once they got there.
Germany's Road to Russia
Germany were in imperious form in qualifying, winning a perfect 10 games out of 10 in UEFA Group C. No fewer than 37 players were used by Löw on the journey to Russia, with 21 different names getting on the scoresheet. Despite the sheer strength and depth of talent the coach had to call upon, he nonetheless showed certain predilections.
First among those was the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been the formation du jour in German football for the last few years. Familiar faces from the 2014 triumph in Brazil racked up the minutes – Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller started eight and nine games respectively – while their Bayern teammate Joshua Kimmich removed any doubts that he would be the natural successor to the retired Philipp Lahm at right-back, scoring two and providing a team-high nine assists.
Löw initially wrestled with who his first-choice centre-forward as with a Miroslav Klose-shaped gap to fill, though. Mario Götze, Sandro Wagner and Lars Stindl started three games apiece. Götze played the most minutes with 323, Wagner scored the most goals with five, yet none of the three went to Russia. Stindl tore ankle ligaments, while others were preferred to Götze and Wagner.
Strength in Depth
Löw had a distinct Plan B in qualifying, trying out a defensive system with three at the back in victories over San Marino, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. Personnel-wise, there were five big winners when Löw changed tack: the aforementioned Wagner and Stindl, as well as Julian Brandt, Emre Can and Matthias Ginter.
Brandt played 90 minutes all three times that Löw elected to play with his widest possible midfield. With Müller inside him, it was the Bayer Leverkusen man who hugged the touchline. Kimmich was trusted to fill in as a third centre-back although he spent the majority of the campaign overlapping, with Stindl’s Borussia Mönchengladbach teammate Ginter on the other side.
With San Marino and Azerbaijan currently sporting FIFA world rankings of 205 and 105 respectively, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some of the players used to dismantle them failed to make the cut for Russia. Juventus midfielder Can, Arsenal defender Shkodran Mustafi and Ajax winger Amine Younes joined Wagner and Götze on the sidelines. Brandt’s ability to play across the midfield punched his ticket to Russia ahead of Sane, meanwhile.
Germany's final 23-man World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Kevin Trapp (PSG)
Defenders: Jerome Boateng (Bayern), Matthias Ginter (Gladbach), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Mats Hummels (Bayern), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha), Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), Niklas Süle (Bayern)
Midfielders: Julian Brandt (Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (PSG), Leon Goretzka (Schalke/Bayern), Ilkay Gündogan (Man City), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Mesut Özil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern)
Forwards: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Thomas Müller (Bayern), Marco Reus (Dortmund), Timo Werner (Leipzig)
Cut from provisional 27-man squad: Bernd Leno(Leverkusen), Nils Petersen (Freiburg), Jonathan Tah (Leverkusen), Leroy Sane (Man City).
Even accounting for the absences of Sane, Götze and Wagner, Löw’s final 23-man squad boasted 945 caps between them, as well as nine players who had lifted the trophy in Brazil four years ago, and a further 13 who won the Confederations Cup in Russia last summer.
The top-scoring German in the Bundesliga last season with 15 goals, Freiburg’s Nils Petersen was a surprise call-up to the provisional 27-man squad in the weeks leading up to the Finals, but Löw ultimately preferred veteran VfB Stuttgart striker Mario Gomez. Phillip Max ended the season just gone as the Bundesliga defender with the most assists since records began, usurping Lahm, but the Augsburg could not displace Hector at left-back – a player relegated with Cologne but whom has never let Löw down in 37 caps.
There were no real surprises in Germany’s starting line-up for their opening game against Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, then. Löw went with the 4-2-3-1 formation that served him so well in qualifying. Hector was ill so Hertha Berlin’s Marvin Plattenhardt stepped in at left-back; Julian Draxler and Mesut Özil were preferred to Reus, despite the Dortmund man being arguably Germany’s best player in the pre-tournament friendly win over Saudi Arabia.
Mexico took a 35th-minute lead through Hirving Lozano, but Löw stuck to his guns until the hour mark, when final third operator Reus came on for defensive midfielder Sami Khedira. Striker Gomez replaced left-back Plattenhardt with a little more than 10 minutes to go as Germany’s formation got progressively more attacking, but by the time Brandt replaced Werner the game was lost.
With Sweden Germany’s next opponents, would Löw stick to the old adage of not fixing something unless it was broken? How broken was it? Germany had twice as many shots as Mexico despite the 1-0 reverse.
Reus to the Rescue?
The system remained the same, with a sprinkling of personnel changes at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Hector recovered in time to regain his place ahead of Plattenhardt, Antonio Rüdiger deputised for Hummels, who had strained his neck, and Sebastian Rudy replaced Khedira with more defensive cover needed after playing a counter-attacking Mexico.
“If seven or eight players attack then it’s clear the attacking force is greater than the defensive stability,” Hummels said after the loss to El Tri. “We often talk about that in the group. Our cover wasn’t good. Too often it was just Jerome [Boateng] and I at the back.”
Further forward, Reus was given a maiden World Cup start ahead of Özil, who had begun each of Germany's previous 26 matches at major tournaments. The Borussia Dortmund forward's inclusion was vindicated. Reus put in a livewire display and scored to cancel out Ola Toivonen’s opener early in the second half. Toni Kroos then scored a stunning injury-time free-kick to give Germany all three points.
Löw Sticks to his Guns
Germany against South Korea (4-2-3-1): Neuer - Kimmich, Süle, Hummels, Hector (Brandt 78') - Khedira (Gomez 58'), Kroos - Goretzka (Müller 63'), Özil, Reus - Werner
With three points on the board, Germany’s progression rested on the final match against South Korea, and Löw again played to his team's recent strengths. Boateng was suspended, so Niklas Süle was drafted in at centre-back alongside Hummels. For the most part, the rest of the team picked itself, while Leon Goretzka was preferred to Müller in the withdrawn attacking role behind Werner on the right-hand side.
With the hour mark approaching and no opening goal in sight – by which time Sweden were already leading Mexico and on course to join the Central Americans in the last 16 – Löw began to send on the attacking reinforcements. In the space of 20 minutes, Gomez (striker), Müller (forward) and Brandt (attacking midfielder) replaced Khedira (defensive midfielder), Goretzka (attacking midfielder) and Hector (left-back) as Germany’s formation got progressively more attacking.
Despite Germany coming close, it was South Korea who found the target with a pair of injury-time goals – both scored on the counter – thanks to Young-Gwon Kim and former Leverkusen hero Heung-Min Son.
Against all odds, Germany - the most successful European football nation in history - were knocked out. It remains the case that the Bundesliga is home to the most comprehensive youth academy structure in world football.
That accounts for the future, but what about the here and now? If there were any lingering questions on Germany’s strength in depth, how about the above for a team of players who didn’t even get on the plane to Russia?
How quickly Die Mannschaft bounce back remains to be seen. Löw may not have got his selections dead right this time; although perhaps luck simply deserted him. One thing is for certain though: with the embarrassment of riches outlined above, the German national team shouldn’t be licking their wounds for long.