Just under two years ago, at the under-20 World Cup in Korea, some of the German coaches made sure they sought out Argentine coach Claudio Ubeda. They had a big question. How exactly was Argentina producing pure old-fashioned strikers?
It at that point seemed the last problem that Germany’s hugely productive football infrastructure had to solve, amid so much excellence. It was instead the first of many, that have built up in brutally quick manner in the time since.
With the German national team in disarray and having just suffered their most embarrassing calendar year since 2000, their club teams have just endured a disastrous season in Europe, with no Bundesliga sides in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2005-06. Amid some bad beatings, even Bayern Munich were thoroughly outclassed by Liverpool in what is clearly a transition season for the national champions… and yet they are still on course to reclaim the domestic title.
Therein lies just another problem.
So, how has it got to this, just a few short years after a peak of performance for what remains the most heavily industrialised national football project the game has yet seen – and when they are still producing players of such a high technical level?
To a degree, there is an element of coincidence to this, and a number of individual factors – from form to players coming through – combining at once. It is partly just the kind of lull that every system will periodically go through, no matter how perfect you do things. The best youth coaching will similarly only ever give players the best technical base, but won’t indefinitely produce a stream of world-class stars.
That isn’t to say they are still doing everything so perfectly, though. Some argue that a certain stagnation has set in, to match that in the Bundesliga, and that there are a few structural issues.
Sources close to German academies argue that, from age-groups of 15 to 19 right now, only a handful of players are expected to become real elite players. That is a huge change from 10 years ago, and may reflect an inability to change with coaching.
Many youth officials feel kids are now being overcoached, with too much focus on possession, and too much time in academies. It’s all a bit too hermetically sealed. There are fewer players with that extra edge, or innovation. This, Ubeda pointed out in Korea, was one ironic advantage of Argentina’s own problematic under-resourced system. There has still been a rawness, and requirement to fight, in the way Germany lacks.
The current generation that it is hoped will re-energise Joachim Low’s national team almost sum this up. Players like Julian Draxler, Joshua Kimmich, Goretzka and Brandt are supremely trained both tactically and technically, but a little bit one-dimensional. German coaches have been worried that they are no longer seeing the “quick, versatile and decisive players”. It is one reason Bundesliga clubs are so interested in the pacey wide forwards like Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi that England is now producing in abundance.
A stodginess in playing style has also corresponded to a perceived stodginess in the Bundesliga itself, that has lost some of the electric vibrancy it was famous for a few years ago.
Going even deeper, as regards the potential upward mobility of the clubs, one of German football’s great virtues has led to other problems.
The rules on ownership and investment have creditably kept clubs as protected local social institutions in a way many countries would envy. It is at the same admirable that supporters actually protest compromised financial interests in a way that contrasts with some of the moral dilemmas now visible in England and Paris. That, however, then becomes an issue in itself when one club is so much bigger than the others.
It is a pity for the competition that Borussia Dortmund are now so tailing off, because what does it say for the Bundesliga that a Bayern suffering these problems – and looking at their worst since they were very much a second-tier European team in the mid-2000s – are still probably going to claim the title?
What does it do for the health of the competition? What does it do for the marketability of the competition?
The Bundesliga still has this problem there.
Bayern are meanwhile capable of solving their own problems. A huge overhaul is already in process, and they will again look to pick off the best players from elsewhere. They will spend big. So they will in all probability return big, restoring a credibility to Germany’s European performances.
But restoring German football’s place at the very top? That is suddenly more problematic than could have possibly been presumed back in just 2017. There has been an abrupt landing, from a multitude of issues coming together. Some of them go a lot further back than goalscorers.