Supporters of German football will be pleased by the boom of Bundesliga clubs in the Champions League and Europa League this season, but that success has come at a cost. Indeed, with all seven Bundesliga teams still alive in international play this season, and with many German stars succeeding with top clubs abroad, Joachim Loew's team is playing at a lower level than it has in previous years.
In Wednesday's friendly with France, a disjointed Germany struggled, especially in the first half, despite ultimately winning 2-1 at Stade de France. With as many as six out of Loew's first XI absent due to injuries, illness and fatigue, die Mannschaft looked a shadow of their previous selves.
The absence of many of Joachim Loew's key players is no new occurrence. Vice-captain Bastian Schweinsteiger, for example, has missed his country's last eight friendlies. Three (Mario Goetze, Marco Reus and Marcel Schmelzer) out of five Dortmund players typically in the Germany squad missed the France match. Not by choice, Loew was forced to field a makeshift squad on Wednesday.
And oh, how it showed.
Before his substitution, Lukas Podolski looked like a player who had lost his starting role months ago. And for good reason: He was supported on the left flank by the hopelessly one-footed Benedikt Hoewedes, whose left foot serves no purpose other than for running.
Although they later improved, in the most critical area of the pitch Sami Khedira and Ilkay Gundogan began the match looking like holding midfielders who had never started a match together. And indeed, they hadn't until Wednesday.
To say Germany looked disjointed on Wednesday would be an understatement. But what is to be expected when a group of largely unfamiliar players comes together and, after a minimum of time training together, is expected to play at a high level?
The class in this Germany squad is undeniable, and player-for-player, die Mannschaft have not been so strong since the 1970s. And yet, but for a brief stint in the fall of 2011, their best football was played at the 2010 World Cup—long before Reus, Goetze and Toni Kroos emerged as world-class stars.
In a sense, the immaturity of the German players in 2010 served as an advantage. At the time, fewer played regularly in the Champions League, and most benefited from the Bundesliga's winter break. When it came time for the World Cup, the players had weeks to prepare in a training camp before the tournament kicked off in South Africa.
They developed chemistry, internalized Loew's system and learned exactly where and when to make runs in a set system. The fact that the final match played by any Germany international came on May 15, 2010 meant that players had almost exactly a month to rest and train before Germany's first World Cup game on June 13.
Last May, by contrast, Germany's Bayern Munich contingent played a pointless friendly against the Netherlands three days after their last competitive match, on May 22. Germany's first group stage match was played on June 9. Real Madrid duo Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira also arrived to training late, their reason being a similarly needless friendly against the Kuwait national team.
While it's true that a lack of match practice and fitness for several key players—Schweinsteiger, Klose and Goetze all had been out of action for long spells during the spring—hindered Germany's performance at Euro 2012, it was evident at the time that too many changes without sufficient practice was even more harmful. The addition of Toni Kroos to the midfield and a tactical switch to 4-3-3 coincided with their worst performance of the tournament, and with it their exit at the hands of Italy.
Since last summer, Loew has not started with the same lineup in consecutive games. Not a coincidence that between occasional dominant performances (their 6-1 drubbing of Ireland was a masterclass), Germany have lost to Argentina and drawn with the Netherlands and Sweden.
Perhaps the greatest problem Loew now faces is that of a changing culture within his team. Goetze, Reus and Schmelzer put in a tremendous effort for Dortmund over the weekend as they edged Leverkusen. Could they have played on Wednesday? Perhaps. Has Schweinsteiger really been unfit for Germany's last eight friendlies? Probably not.
And one can see from the way Germany played on Wednesday—end-to-end, not attacking and defending as a unit as they typically have during tournaments—that there is a certain amount of complacency in the squad.
As disappointing as it may be, the shifting of priorities among German players is with reason. And some of it is due to Loew's methods of management. He has always led Germany as a club team: Temporary increases or decreases in form were ignored, and the trainer kept faith with key players even if they rarely played at club level. Consider Miroslav Klose, who made just 11 starts for Bayern Munich in 2009-10 before starting in every match he was eligible to play in during Germany's run to the World Cup semifinal.
As such, many players have been able to become comfortable in their roles. The most obvious example is Schweinsteiger, who only bothers to show up and fulfill his duties as vice-captain when there is a competitive match. But with his Bayern team competing for Champions League glory and his individual quality proven to Loew long ago, Schweinsteiger does have reason. It's a situation different from a few years ago, when German players were competing more for progress to the Round of 16 or quarterfinals than for the Champions League trophy.
The trouble now is that Germany's "prestige-friendly" matches against teams like the Netherlands and France are wasted. Instead of gauging the class and preparedness of his team and experimenting with one or two tweaks to his squad or tactics, Loew is forced to field massively experimental lineups that say little of the Germany that will actually play at the World Cup, provided they qualify.
Consistency in coach, squad and tactics were once Germany's biggest advantages on the international stage as die Mannschaft entered matches vastly more prepared than their opponents. That advantage is fast fleeting now, however, as club commitments have begun to conflict with international duties.
Much has been said of the obstacles Loew must overcome if Germany are to win the 2014 World Cup. The greatest is coping with minimal time to prepare his team. For all the beauty in the modern German game, it is ironic that efficiency is the factor that can make or break die Mannschaft's World Cup hopes.
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