Germany failed to balance squad harmony and competitiveness in doomed World Cup
MOSCOW -- If Germany has 83 million national-team managers, as the football cliché goes, the Nationalmannschaft's untimely exit from the World Cup has led to almost as many explanations and reasons being put forward. A myriad of meta-factors (such as the leading clubs in the Bundesliga having lost ground quality-wise since 2014) and sub-factors (wrong lineups, substitutions, injuries, bad luck) are indeed worth mentioning, but the view emerging from inside the camp is that Joachim Low, above all, got one of the main tenets of his man-management philosophy wrong.
The balance between harmony and competitiveness he has craved throughout his 12-year tenure was never right in Russia.
Sources close to the Germany camp don't speak of a "rift" in the team, unlike some reports suggested. Talk of two warring camps is likewise much overblown. The picture is much more subtle, comprising disappointment in some parts of the squad and the very lack of drive that Manuel Neuer -- "the commitment from all of us wasn't strong enough" -- bemoaned in others.
Low's pre-tournament decision to leave out outspoken striker Sandro Wagner and the more silent but equally confident Leroy Sane, combined with an intense focus on getting the starting XI veterans Neuer and Jerome Boateng fit for the start of the group phase sent a clear two-pronged message to the dressing room: substitutes had to contend with their lot, and the ancient regime of the 2014 winners was still in charge.
The Bundestrainer's policy was described to ESPN FC as having a slightly demoralising impact on some of the novices' motivational levels. They went into the tournament with their hopes curtailed. More gravely, however, as it turned out, was the knock-on effect on the established pros.
Secure in the knowledge that they would be trusted to defend Germany's crown, they adopted an overly relaxed mindset, and Low's "everything's gonna be all right" melody got stuck in their heads. "Complacency" is the word the 58-year-old used repeatedly. The heroes of the Maracana made a mockery of the "Best NeVer Rest" marketing claim the German FA's primary sponsor employed.
Germany had gone to Brazil with a similarly fixed hierarchy. Low, understandably, sought to replicate the formula four years later. But in 2014, the much more uneven distribution of talent between starters and obvious substitutes, shared bungalows of five people each and Germany winning six out seven games, kept rivalries at a minimum. In Vatutinki, by contrast, the poor performance of the big guns in the 1-0 defeat vs. Mexico made it much harder to keep the two-class system intact.
To make matters worse, some of the leaders in the dressing room, such as Sami Khedira, had their authority instantly eroded by the miserable showing in the Luzhniki Stadium. When it came to conducting the inquest after the opening loss, most of the big voices were not in a position to tell others to up their game. Captain Neuer, the one member of the players' council who came out relatively unscathed, is not really the type for big rallying speeches, either.
The result of this corrosive process wasn't so much strife or conflict but a breakdown of communication. The normal channels of command that keep things moving smoothly during the game and in between matches no longer functioned. That made it more difficult, if not impossible, for the team to get to grips with the constantly changing lineups as Low kept reacting to bad luck (injury to Sebastian Rudy in the Sweden game) and to his own mistakes (first-half lineup vs. South Korea).
It's futile to imagine if the situation could have been better if socially competent players such as Per Mertesacker or Bastian Schweinsteiger -- who had a knack of connecting with players across all age groups, cultural camps and sporting tiers -- had been around. But men of such traits were certainly missed in the Moscow suburb.
ZSMMN -- the German FA's social media arm's play on the word "zusammen", which means "together" -- didn't just have vowels missing. It sounded just as hollow as the "Best NeVer Rest" line when it became clear that Germany had indeed rested on their laurels. The capital V, incidentally, was supposed to signify the fifth World Cup trophy. It was a presumptuous, over-confident missive, echoing Low's belief that the final-third oomph of Marco Reus could be kept in reserve "for the important games," as the Dortmund forward revealed.
Instead of adding a shiny new star to their badge, the sun set on the holders before the group stage was over. They didn't go home early. They had never arrived in Russia as a team in the first place.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein