"I'm in a state of shock," said German national team coach Joachim Löw immediately after his squad's 4-4 draw with Sweden in the World Cup qualifier Tuesday night. "This is inexplicable."
His players were similarly stunned by the biggest collapse in the country's footballing history; no other German team had ever squandered a four-goal lead before. TV reporters and journalists seemed lost for words, too, initially, before a number of reasons for the embarrassing result were put forward. They ranged from a suspected "psychological crack" inside the players' heads (Bild) to Löw's inability to change the course of a game from the bench (FAZ) to the age-old cry for "a boss on the pitch" (Spiegel) who should have taken control. Süddeutsche Zeitung's take was the most interesting of all, however. "The German national team had a normal game against Sweden," the Munich-based tabloid wrote laconically.
It's an odd statement in light of a match that followed a barely credible course, with 60 minutes of devastating combination football and four excellent goals followed by an unprecedented panic and four goals conceded in the final half hour. But, as Süddeutsche pointed out, verging from one extreme to the next has actually become a habit for this team in recent months. There might not be method in this madness, but there is certainly a pattern.
Germany lost 5-3 in a friendly against Switzerland in the summer. It was beaten 3-1 by Lionel Messi's Argentina in August. And of course it caved in shambolic fashion 2-1 against the Italians at the Euros after winning its four previous matches. It's a side, in other words, that has become a bit of a soft touch at the back in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- all its mesmerizing attacking play. For a nation which has built its entire post-war footballing philosophy on a never-say-die attitude and resolute defensive principles, this state of affairs amounts to a serious identity crisis. As a consequence, this game will continue to reverberate with enormous after-effects that will go far beyond the results' relative irrelevance in the grand scheme. Germany is still atop its group and in an excellent position to qualify for the World Cup, but the three main debating points over the next few weeks won't reflect that.
1. Bayern Munich/psychological problem?
With the exception of Arsenal's Per Mertesacker, Germany's defense in Berlin was made up exclusively of Bayern Munich defenders -- Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng -- plus goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and the two central midfielders -- Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. All six of them endured such a traumatic half-hour against Sweden that their mental toughness was put into question. Do they suffer from some sort of a mental block after finishing runner-up in all competitions with their club last season? It's almost funny that Bayern, for a long time so synonymous with "lucky" last-minute wins in Germany, should now be seen as perennial losers, but then that's perhaps par for the course in Löw's topsy-turvy world.
The bigger problem with this theory is that it doesn't quite stack up, however. No team recovers from being 3-0 and 2-0 down away to Manchester United and Real Madrid, as Bayern did in 2010 and 2012, respectively, on its way to two Champions League finals, without some degree of backbone. In addition, 13 successive wins in qualification games and very accomplished showings in a devilishly difficult Euro 2012 group (Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal) for Germany don't suggest that there's a problem to deal with pressure. Nerves were hardly the determining factor in the defeats against Spain in 2008 (far superior opposition), in 2010 (extreme counter-attacking tactics that didn't quite come off) and Italy in 2012 (tactical follies by Löw) that routinely are cited as evidence for the team's supposed mental weakness, either. But that won't stop an army of armchair psychologists diagnosing a severe case of "bottling it," of course, until Germany actually wins a title. As this will be hard enough in Brazil 2014, this current crop might have to get used to being seen as soccer's equivalent of the pre-U.S. Open Andy Murray for a few more years.
2. Lack of leadership?
Löw's idea of a "flat hierarchy" within the group is essentially a tactical concept: he, like most modern coaches, believes that top teams must develop collective mechanisms for taking responsibility and rely on the strength of unified purpose rather than one or two all-conquering supermen who bark out orders to eight or nine good soldiers. Unfortunately, tabloid journalists and ex-pros who hark back to an idealized German footballing past that never quite existed, have misinterpreted this program as some kind of dystopian locker-room communism, where no one's in charge and thus no one is in control. This distortion is then used to undermine Löw's main football idea, too.
With unintended irony, Oliver Kahn compared Schweinsteiger and Co. unfavorably with Xavi's and Carles Puyol's Spain, even though Löw has explicitly modeled Germany on the reigning World and European champions' collective approach. Xavi and Puyol might well be powerful figures in the dressing room. But on the pitch, they don't have to "lead" anyone. As Arsene Wenger once observed, football has become far too fast for impromptu team meetings in the center circle. The moment that Schweinsteiger had to shout at Mesut Özil and Kroos to defend deeper -- as he did against Sweden, in vain -- Germany had already lost its way badly.
There's a dark, fairly troubling longing for a strong savior in German football that pipes up every time results don't go the right way. But if anything, this team needs less even less hierarchy, in a strict footballing sense. Only when it moves, attacks and defends with the silent, instinctive and utterly "unlead" fashion of Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and Vicente del Bosque's Spain, will it fulfill its true potential.
3. A revolution gone too far?
While Löw's project deserves to be defended against this wave of reactionary, out-dated criticism, it must also belatedly face its own short-comings. The 52-year-old manager has refined Jürgen Klinsmann's gung-ho style into a possession-based, short-passing game that can deliver moments of unprecedented brilliance -- but he's been guilty of neglecting the game's basics, too. For years, his Germany hasn't trained dead-ball situations extensively -- "we don't have time," Löw said once, dismissively -- and now an inability to defend properly has become chronic.
Löw must draw the necessary conclusions from the Sweden game just as he, Klinsmann and captain Michael Ballack did after Germany's 4-1 defeat at the hands of Italy in a March 2006 friendly. Some critics asked for a return to the sweeper system in that match's aftermath, but those in charge realized that the Bayern midfielder simply needed to play in a deeper, less glamorous role alongside Torsten Frings to give the back four the necessary protection. The current Germany needs a very similar rebalancing in the center. Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira have to drop a lot deeper and quicker when the team cedes concession. It also helps, obviously, if key players don't suddenly lose their men in the box, as Schweinsteiger did before Rasmus Elm's 90th-minute equalizer. It's now down to Löw to temper his and his player's over-enthusiastic style and re-introduce a dose of realism back into the squad.