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Be Wary of Overreacting to the World Cup

Germany’s exit will sting, but the Germans should not go fetching pitchforks just yet.

Costa Rica v Germany: Group E - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Marvin Ibo Guengoer - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

As football fans, we love to assign blame. We love it. You, yes, you, reader, love it too. Don’t deny it. As much as we all love winning, and as much as we all hate losing, there’s something gratifying, deep down, about dumping all your anger and frustration about a result towards one player, or a coach, or a sporting director, or an owner.

The World Cup is one of the most fun times to assign blame. The stakes could hardly be higher, with arguably the world’s most coveted trophy up for grabs. Every four years, at least one major favorite falls out of the tournament without making it to the knockout stage. In 2014 it was England and Italy, in 2018 it was Germany, and in 2022... well, quite a few teams are leaving Qatar much earlier than they would have liked. In each case, the media is whipped into a frenzy. Should the coach be fired? Should this player retire from international football? Was this our last hurrah? Is our country doomed to footballing obscurity forever?

This year, Germany is one of them. I am not a German fan, but the rage and frustration coming from real German fans is palpable. Deutsche Welle dubbed Germany’s exit from the tournament “The End of a Great Footballing Nation.” Thomas Muller called it “An absolute catastrophe.” While I definitely agree that it is disappointing and surprising, I would not be so quick as to pronounce the death of Germany as a footballing power.

I’m not saying that if you’re a German fan you shouldn’t be upset. You have every right to be upset. Angry, even. The World Cup only comes around every four years, and watching your team, which achieved the pinnacle of footballing glory only eight years ago, succumb to its second straight group stage exit, must be extremely frustrating. While the fans have every right to be upset, I would caution both them and the DFB from jumping to any rash conclusions about what “should” or “needs to” be done.

Take the emotion out of it, and look at it from 30,000 feet. Germany played three matches this tournament. In a vacuum, that’s already a small sample size. Go look at Borussia Dortmund’s results in the Bundesliga this season, laid out in sequence. There are three-game winning streaks, three game winless streaks, and everything in between. Imagine now trying to form an entire analysis of BVB’s situation based only on any three of those games, randomly selected. You can come to virtually ANY conclusion - you can probably find three games where Jude Bellingham looks like a total bum, or three matches where Nico Schlotterbeck is either the most or least promising defender on Earth.

This is the danger of the World Cup. The stakes are high, every moment matters, but at the end of the day the results are just as random as any other football match. That makes the ability to take away concrete conclusions surprisingly elusive. There are certain exceptions. For instance, if Germany had simply been steamrolled in all three games, then the need for heads to roll might be a bit more apparent. This wasn’t the case.

Germany played three total matches. One of those was a comfortable 4-2 win over Costa Rica. That means that Germany’s failure to make the knockout stage resulted from their 1-1 draw to Spain and their 2-1 defeat to Japan. That’s two periods of time totaling 180 minutes where they were outscored 3-2.

Blaming the results of any football match, let alone a World Cup, on finishing, or the lack thereof, is seen by many to be the ultimate form of excuse. Finishing is, in individual matches, basically random, and therefore when a result is decided by finishing, many who wish to avoid accountability might rush to point to it... but crucially, that doesn’t make them wrong.

It’s deeply unsatisfying, but at least with Germany at this World Cup, it really is the case. That’s what the expected goals say, and the shot counts for that matter, even though I know many readers don’t want to hear what the aNaLyTiCs say. So let’s just visualize it.

Germany lost to Japan because this shot from Gundogan hit the post...

... and neither Serge Gnabry or Jonas Hoffmann could find a way to finish this chance...

... but Takumo Asano could finish this:

I hate to be so reductive, but that’s basically it. Germany created more chances, and arguably the better chances (not even arguably, really.) If you had simulated the game 100 times, and held everything but the finishing constant, Germany would have won a significant majority of the individual simulations. Unfortunately, in our reality, Gundo hit the post, Gnabry chose to pass to Hoffman instead of trying to get a shot off, and Asano sniped one top shelf above Neuer. Flip those results and it’s 2-1 or 3-1 Germany, and Die Nationalelf are heading to the knockout round on top of the group. This is to say nothing of the coat of paint of difference that allowed Japan to beat Spain:

Source: FIFA

This randomness is part of why the World Cup is so much fun! An entire well-coached team full of superstars can be undone by one moment of brilliance, while another organized team of unremarkable players can keep pace with the big boys just long enough to take their chances and bury them. If the best team won all the time, it would be boring, which is why it’s so great that it doesn’t always happen. But that doesn’t mean the best team still isn’t the best team.

According to Kicker, the DFB have assembled a crisis meeting following Germany’s exit. This is probably the right course of action, as any time a team crashes out of the World Cup early, an analysis should be conducted, but it will only be productive if its members come to the correct conclusions. I’m not here to diagnose what those conclusions should be, whether it be Hansi Flick’s resignation, a total restructuring of the DFB’s upper management, or even maintaining the current structure. I’m here to say that any decisions should not be made in a vacuum, only considering the events of the past two weeks in their proper context.

Take Hansi Flick, for example. Hansi Flick has a long, largely successful career, first as an assistant coach and then as a head coach. He won the World Cup in 2014 as an assistant for Joachim Löw, and won the treble for Bayern Munich with an incredible run of success in 2020, marching his way through the Bundesliga and Champions League. Despite that proven track record of success, there are, at the very least, rumbling that Flick should be sacked for his performance, all because of what I just established was a few unfortunate bounces.

Now I’m not saying that Flick should keep the job, or even that his performance doesn’t deserve criticism. But I think immediately giving him the sack now will be a very reactionary decision that could backfire in the long run.

I didn’t intend this article to only be about Germany specifically, although it definitely ended up reading like that. In fact, overreactions to small sample sizes at the World Cup happen all the time. It happened back in 2018, when Löw decided to hang his team’s failures on a group of veterans including Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels. It happened in 2014, when the entire world became enamored with James Rodriguez, who became a transfer sensation overnight but never quite lived up to the promise he appeared to show in Brazil.

The key takeaway is that anything can happen at the World Cup. Despite the importance we levy on them, they’re just 90 minute soccer games, no different from any other Saturday in the Bundesliga. Jumping to conclusions based on a few results that could have swung either way is a recipe for poor decision making. There will be a time and a place for Germany fans and the DFB to make a decision about Hansi Flick, or the role that various players will have at the EUROs in 2024, but now is not that time. I’d recommend sitting back and enjoying as all the countries who managed to take their chances push onwards for the Jules Rimet trophy.