Saturday 21 July 2018

Germany learn pitfalls of defending the trophy

Loew’s side are at risk of joining a roll call of recent champions who went backwards after victory

Germany coach Joachim Loew knows his team ' got a bit of luck' against Sweden. Photo: Getty Images
Germany coach Joachim Loew knows his team ' got a bit of luck' against Sweden. Photo: Getty Images

Jim White

Gary Lineker generally gets it right when discussing the world champions.

And, following the country's last-gasp winner over Sweden, a result which kept them in this World Cup, he tweeted a splendid reboot of his own renowned analysis of German impregnability.

"Football is a simple game, 22 men chase the ball for 82 minutes and the Germans get a player sent off so 21 men chase the ball for 13 minutes and at the end the Germans somehow win."

Yet for a long time during their match with the Swedes, following on from a dismal defeat by Mexico, it looked as if the Germans were going to add to a recent World Cup roll call of ignominy.

In three of the past four tournaments, the holders were eliminated in the group stage: France were evicted in 2002, Italy in 2010, while, on their way out in 2014, Spain managed to lose 5-1 to a team managed by Louis van Gaal. And though Brazil may have progressed in 2006, they made it only to the quarter-final.

These are statistics which insist the World Cup is phenomenally hard to defend, and explain why only Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962 have managed to do so. And Mark Nesti, the renowned sports psychologist, has a theory about why failure has so often followed triumph.

Germany's Toni Kroos. Photo: Reuters
Germany's Toni Kroos. Photo: Reuters

"For a start, I'd take issue with the term world champions," he says. "It's very different from being Wimbledon champion or Open champion. They were world champions four years ago. And in sport an awful lot can happen in four years."

Indeed, it was but four years ago that Joe Hart won the Premier League golden glove title for achieving the most clean sheets in a season. Form can fade, players who were champions become also-rans. It is a particularly long time when two of those four years pass without any requirement to hone your methods in competitive fixtures: the champions qualify for the World Cup by right, which can have a disruptive effect on team psychology.

"The burden of assumption and expectation can seep into the minds of some players," says Nesti. "Collectively, they don't need to look at themselves as deeply or as critically as they would if they were the challengers."

And there were times against Mexico when Germany appeared to be living on reputation. But, in the sixth minute of added time in the Sweden game, Toni Kroos scored a goal worthy of victory in the final itself, to complete a Teutonic version of the Great Escape. Now he and his team-mates face a South Korea side already with one foot on the plane home, aware that all they need to do to ensure progress is to better Sweden's result against Mexico. If not exactly back, the Germans, sticklers for keeping going to the last, are at least still in the game.

"Obviously, a bit of luck, but it is also a sign of us believing," said their coach Joachim Loew of the victory.

Nesti, however, would counsel Low not to base his strategy simply on the ability to overcome extremis.

"The best performance mindset is when you can take yourself back to when you were 12, playing without the concern of result.

"When you are up against it, that mindset returns. If Kroos had had a moment to think about the outcome of failure, he might not have done what he did. But there wasn't time. He just executed his skills and it worked. But it is not an approach that can be sustained across 90 minutes."

What Germany need to do against South Korea, he reckons, is refresh the systems that won the World Cup in the first place.

"When they look at the shirt and see the four stars on it, that is an enormous confidence booster: it tells them that, never mind what has just happened, what they do has worked in the past."

Or, as Low put it of the Sweden victory: "We didn't lose our nerve. We didn't start breaking down in a panic after going down a goal. We kept our head."

But there is more to defending the trophy than simply keeping your head.

England in 1970 were arguably better than the team who won four years before, with Alan Mullery, Brian Labone and Francis Lee all representing significant upgrade. But whereas at Wembley in 1966 luck was with them, they had very little of it in the broiling heat of Leon four years later.

"The margins are so fine, luck can make the critical difference," says Nesti. "But, as every coach will tell you, don't think about trying to control the uncontrollables. Stick to what you can control."

And, in that, Germany seem to be on an arc of improvement, looking visibly more controlled against Sweden than they did against Mexico.

From an admittedly low ebb, they appear to be recovering. Fun as it was to see Low's side initially struggle, suddenly schadenfreude seems unlikely to be further applied.

"Betting against Germany is always a dangerous game," says Nesti. Doubtless, Gary Lineker would agree.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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