The German squad that triumphed over Argentina in the World Cup final in July was a collection of players who, up until that extra-time victory, had been tinged with an air of underachievement. After failing to make it out of their group at Euro 2004, the German footballing machine manufactured a team that made, at minimum, the semi finals in the next five major tournaments. In Brazil they delivered on the promise that their generation held, and Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Muller, Klose, Ozil and Neuer were finally the brides instead of the eternal bridesmaids. But with such long-awaited victory inevitably comes the relieved, rushing release of breath afterwards, and Germany lost Lahm, Mertesacker and Klose to retirement in the wake of the Cup being snatched. Additionally, Schweinsteiger is now striding onto the wrong side of 30, and Ozil is constantly being questioned for allegedly under-performing for the Nationalmannschaft. These personnel losses and downturns in form are hard to deal with, Lahm’s in particular. The captain embodied the sort of professional, tested quality that made this fine German team into final-four tournament mainstays, and, if nothing else, the loss of the experience that Lahm brought is a very difficult thing for German manager Jogi Low to compensate for.
Germany are not without a deep pool of incredible young stars from which to source replacements for all those outgoing or under performing, but immediate success with a new group, without the presence of Lahm and the others, will be difficult to get working. Also, a less tangible effect seems to be plaguing the German’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign; there seems to be a sort of hangover that lingers in the wake of the World Cup, one that has seen the Germans only narrowly beat Scotland, lose badly to Poland, and draw meekly to the Republic of Ireland. A team of Germany’s calibre (even with marked player changes) should be beating these teams with ease, but their fatigued, lackadaisical performances now see them sitting third in their group. They will still qualify for the tournament, of course, and will likely fight their way back to the top of the Group D, but the current sluggishness is concerning.
Like a slightly deflated balloon, its helium now stale and tired, that bobs morosely just above the living room floor, what the Germans need is a fresh gust of buoyancy. Julian Draxler, the youngest member of that champion German squad, is nothing if not uplifting, an exquisitely leggy dynamo whose marched, breathless midfield surges seems to flap great waves of whistling energy around a stadium. His bull-rushing performance against Chelsea for Schalke in the Champions League have made the European teams in need of a such a player salivate even more profusely than normal. But, as Spain’s damned recent plight has shown, having a bevy of excellent youth products doesn’t necessarily mean dominance is easily sustained, and Germany might look to Spain’s decline as a lesson on how not to exchange eras.
Spain’s under-21 team recently lost their U-21 European Championships play-off to Serbia, which means they have not secured a chance to retain the title they won in 2013, and before that in 2011. It is a wholly unexpected failure, because their U-21 team is one that nearly every other country’s national senior manager would pine after, with Isco, Iker Muniain, Alvaro Morata, Javier Manquillo and Gerard Deulofeu just some of the names featuring in the squad. When the senior Spanish national team played Italy in March 2014, the group of Spanish contenders that weren’t picked in the team were nearly as glittering as the actual side chosen: David de Gea, Juan Mata, David Villa, Isco, Fernando Llorente, Javi Garcia were just some of the stars left out for that match. In short, depth of talent has never been a problem for Spain, or Germany, with their bench-warmers the envy of the world, and a conveyor belt of hungry young-un’s poised and waiting for their chance.
So why did Spain falter so badly in Brazil, seem to decline so sharply, and why have they, like Germany, stumbled in Euro 2016 qualification, losing 2-1 to Slovakia? It seems that the complicated changing of the guard, from one generation to another, is proving incredibly tricky. For Spain, the team that did the Euro/World Cup/Euro treble was always bound to shake the earth when it finally succumbed, dropped heavily to its knees and broke down. The spine of that team, Casillas, Puyol, Xavi and Villa, all have either departed the international stage or are limping badly off it as we speak. Evidently for Spain, it’s proving much harder to replace these icons than it looks, no matter how talented or experienced the incumbents are.
Generations have to nod as they pass one another, one exiting with medals jangling, the other walking into the light with big shoes to fill but even bigger ambitions. A lot of people questioned Vincente del Bosque’s decision to continue as manager after the Brazil debacle, and perhaps a clean cut should have been made. Jogi Low is now a seasoned international overseer, and ought to bring through Draxler, Timo Werner and the other young players into permanent starting roles. Mercifully for Low, Germany’s champion generation is more spread out in terms of age than Spain’s was, but even so, he still should actively seek to freshen the squad constantly, bedding in the young with the old to make sure that the sort of guillotine decline that Spain have suffered doesn’t happen to his team. A period of sustained success for German football, maybe even to rival the Spanish dynasty, is possible, if they can firstly survive this nagging World Cup hangover, and then more importantly, successfully negotiate the transitional traumas that the passing of time enforces.