A day after a historic disaster, there were still precious few answers.
Captain Alexandra Popp told reporters shortly before boarding a commercial flight home it would take a few more sleepless nights before anyone could get to grips with Germany’s worst-ever showing in a Women’s World Cup.
The German FA had been so certain of progress beyond the group stage that no charter plane had been booked to be on standby for Friday, the day after the team’s final group match. The governing body’s chairman, Bernd Neuendorf, hadn’t even set foot in Australia by the time Germany were eliminated. His plan had been to join the team as the tournament started in earnest with today’s arrival of the knockout phase.
Going out at the hands of Morocco, Colombia and South Korea had felt utterly inconceivable before the World Cup began, a one-in-a-million freak accident that didn’t warrant much worrying over, not even after the last-minute defeat by Colombia in the middle group game had ramped up the pressure. “Germany is not a nation that needs to tremble,” midfielder Lena Oberdorf had said after that 2-1 loss.
Such confidence proved misguided. The precise nature of Germany’s exit on Thursday — a failure to defeat the all-but-eliminated Koreans combined with tournament newcomers Morocco beating Colombia, 1-0 — might have been a tad unfortunate. Injuries to defenders Giulia Gwinn, Felicitas Rauch, Sara Doorsoun and Carolin Simon didn’t help coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s cause either.
But many of the problems on show in Australia looked quite familiar.
The runners-up at last year’s European Championship have, in truth, been rather poor for the past six months and, as it turned out, the 6-0 opening win against Morocco masked some severe shortcomings.
Beyond crossing balls towards star striker Popp, Germany had precious little going for themselves in possession, especially against sides who defended with intelligence and commitment, as Colombia and South Korea did. Gegenpressing, a key component of their success at Euro 2022 against more dominant teams, was almost wholly absent, as was sharp combination play through the middle of the pitch.
Germany were so desperate to hit Popp that they bypassed the central areas far too quickly. As a result, the game felt constantly stretched and players had few options in close vicinity. “The passing distances were too big,” Oberdorf said in the aftermath of Thursday’s 1-1 draw.
Voss-Tecklenburg’s tactical ploys also backfired, with players unhappy with the frequent changes and having to play out of position.
She introduced a second striker in Lea Schuller in place of Bayern Munich midfielder Lina Magull against the Koreans, making Germany’s game even more direct and stodgy.
Worst of all, though, was the sudden introduction of a hybrid three/four-strong back line, a complex system that can work if you have hugely versatile players and lots of time to train at your disposal, but is less effective if you have neither.
For most of Thursday’s match, the players looked at a loss to make the formation work; nervousness and poor first touches riddled their game. “There was a mental block,” national teams director Joti Chatzialexiou said. Perhaps confidence within the team wasn’t quite as strong as their public statements suggested.
Recent failures by the men’s national team have tempted commentators into a sweeping discourse about German football’s wider ailments. The usual tropes — problems in youth development, not enough “street footballers”, too many extracurricular activities in the base camp — are all getting rolled out.
Newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung even tied these poor tournament showings to the lacklustre performance of the economy. “The women’s group exit is symptomatic of a country that believes itself to be far more competitive than it probably is,” the broadsheet wrote with an unusual amount of cultural pessimism.
But the only parallel truly worth pursuing is the poor level of coaching for both elite teams.
Voss-Tecklenburg, it shouldn’t be forgotten, oversaw Germany’s quarter-finals exit at the previous World Cup in 2019 — their worst result in the competition up to that time. The performances leading up to the Euros last summer, a surprise success that few had felt possible, hadn’t been inspiring either.
Over the course of her five years in charge, Germany have only convinced as a unit for one month — last year in England. One positive blip in all that time can’t be enough.
Voss-Tecklenburg, to her credit, has taken personal responsibility for the debacle, but it’s unclear whether her superiors are prepared to draw the necessary conclusions.
German FA figures, always happy to not rock the boat, have rallied behind her thus far. A more ruthless approach to evaluating the work of the national team manager would be advisable.
Especially now that other nations are making rapid progress and half-baked plans to rely on the prowess of one particular player are unlikely to make much headway.
(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)