Hansi Flick left in limbo as Germany fail to find new winning blueprint | Jonathan Liew
Everything is connected. A whistle blows in Doha and within fractions of seconds, via a lattice of mobile phone networks and whispers and nudges, its sound has somehow travelled the 30 miles to Al Khor. And the cheer around the stadium gives the game away, and on the Germany bench Hansi Flick senses a change in the air, and he takes a look around, and he glances at his bench, and he knows, he just knows. He turns back to face the pitch. But his hands are in his pockets, and his thoughts are elsewhere.
Everything is connected. A World Cup group stage consists not simply of three discrete games but one cogent narrative, and if you don’t pay attention at the start you may well miss something that you need later. Here Germany loaded all their usual programmes, moved the ball with pace, did their jobs, scored four goals. But although they didn’t know it yet, none of it was any use to them. The game had already gone, and it had gone in eight wild minutes against Japan at the Khalifa International Stadium nine days earlier.
The great German sides could raise their game to suit the occasion, do whatever it took, squeeze every last drop out of their resources and system. Everyone does their job, and you win. For better and for worse, this team feel like its polar opposite. And so the problem comes when you combine the classic German mentality with a modern style of football that demands perpetual intensity, that needs every part of the machine to be 100% switched on at all times.
This game, as futile as it proved, was ample evidence of this. Germany were utterly dominant in the opening minutes and yet had just a single goal to show for it. Meanwhile Costa Rica went up the other end and scored twice in 12 chaotic minutes as the gloomy news filtered through from Doha and Germany allowed their minds to drift. Flick had withdrawn Ilkay Gündogan and Leon Goretzka in an attempt to engineer greater attacking thrust but in so doing had hollowed out his midfield and left Germany vulnerable to the counter. Everything is connected.
Kai Havertz came on and burgled two sharp goals; Niclas Füllkrug added a fourth with a classic poacher’s finish. Germany had saved Spain but they were powerless to save themselves. There was, perhaps, a bitter symmetry in the scoreline. Germany 4-2 Costa Rica: the first game of the 2006 World Cup in Munich, the game that brought the curtain up on Germany’s summer of love, unleashed a wave of footballing fervour that would carry them to a World Cup win in 2014 and a decade of golden memories. Now, ironically, the music has stopped on the very same chord.
And so the postmortems can begin, the fingers can be pointed, the scapegoats sought. Flick may just pay for this debacle with his job, although the smart money is on him being given one more crack. There is, after all, talent to be mined here. Havertz, the wonderful Jamal Musiala, the teenage Dortmund striker Youssoufa Moukoko, the marvellous Leverkusen playmaker Florian Wirtz: technical players, modern players, players a good coach can build a team around.
Meanwhile others will fall by the wayside. Thomas Müller has already hinted at retirement. Manuel Neuer and Gündogan may even go too. Mario Götze has surely played his last tournament. There is a tactical blueprint, a base to build from, a home Euros in 2024 to work towards. German football has often prided itself on its composure, its refusal to press the panic button, its refusal even to acknowledge the existence of a panic button. Even after a third successive tournament failure it is possible to spin an enthusiastic yarn around this team, paint this setback as the inevitable collateral damage of a longer reinvention.
Yet it is impossible to shake the feeling that something essential has been lost here, too. Everything is connected. The grounds for German optimism are also the grounds for pessimism. The technical qualities of the new generation have come at a price: a lack of defensive rigour, a chronic absence of genuine strikers, an inability to capitalise on dominance or see out the tough periods, a naivete that at times has strayed into the realm of complacency.
These are not bad players. But for too long they have lacked direction, purpose, a safety net. Germany brought just a few thousand fans out to Qatar. The indifference back home is palpable. Since Euro 2016 they have been behind in every single tournament game they have played. And by 2026 it will be 12 years since they last reached the knockout stages of the World Cup. Everything is connected. And here, the four-time world champions learned that lesson in the cruellest of fashions.