The downfall of Boateng, Hummels and Müller: premature or overdue?

Joachim Löw announced that Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller will no longer receive call-ups for the German national team. Our editors square off to discuss whether this was the right move.

Whilst Löw’s decision caught many by surprise, many fans reckon this was an appropriate or even overdue decision. Indeed, there has been much discussion about the manager’s choice of personnel at the World Cup. Löw reverted to his veteran figureheads after opting to take a young team to the Confederations Cup and winning it. The debacle in Russia and the ensuing debate has resulted in decisions like this.

Such a sharp choice naturally entails a healthy (and sometimes otherwise) degree of debate. Our editors, Michel Munger and Juan Pablo González, have differing views about showing these three players the door. Here are their takes.

Juan Pablo: a decision with more flaws than virtues

There is an inherent conflict of interest for Bayern fans who engage in the discussion about Löw’s axing of Boateng, Hummels and Müller. We admire, respect and even love these players week in and week out when they play in red. We also like to see our club contribute a healthy share of the national team’s squads in any given international break or competition (unless they return with injuries, that is).

As a Bayern fan, I share the club’s view that the timing of this decision was ill-advised, at best. Löw assembled his entourage, showed up unannounced in Säbener Straße (per Bayern’s statement) and had small, almost casual talks with the players. There was little to no formality in informing World Cup winners that they were being retired. This happened ahead of important fixtures in the calendar, not least the crucial return leg against Liverpool next week.

Now, it is not Löw’s job to be concerned or mindful of Bayern’s season aspirations. As Germany’s manager, he surely is aware that the interests of German clubs have massive intersections with his own and those of the DFB. Still, the abrupt transition he is trying to move forward allows no time to consider the feelings of Uli Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

So, my complaint about this decision is extricated from the fact that I like Bayern. And it is three-fold.

Why now?

Let me get straight into the point where I disagree with Michel the most. While we both make the question of why now, he argues that the overhaul should have come after the Confederations Cup. I reckon the only player who should have been forcefully retired then is Boateng.

In my opinion, Hummels and Müller still had (and have) something to offer. Granted, they would be on their way out had Löw kept them, but their influence could be positive as the team secures qualification to the next European Championships.

If they went, why not some others?

Boateng, Hummels and Müller are not the only players of the old guard with declining form problems. Toni Kroos has endured the worst season of his career at Real Madrid, compounded this week by three straight defeats that saw the reigning European champions crash out of every single competition they were contesting. Some people even argue that Manuel Neuer has overstayed his welcome between the sticks and that Marc-André ter Stegen should hold the starting spot.

If Löw wants to clean the slate, why are these three players being singled out? Where is the difference in criteria with respect to the likes of Kroos and Neuer? To me, it is odd that Löw should promote such a radical discourse of reform and still carry it out in this distasteful and rather lukewarm manner. The debacle in Russia demanded swift and decisive action. This is neither. And it leads me to my final point.

Form over function

It is a fact of life that football players have a short shelf life compared to other professions. When you factor in the emotions that the sport inspires in entire countries and vast masses of fans, it is difficult to come to terms with the sunset of your favourite players. Managers have this problem as well. This very condition was one of the reasons behind Löw’s poor personnel selection in Russia and, in turn, Germany’s crash-and-burn World Cup.

As it turns out, the manager went from one extreme to the other. From being too nostalgic about his World Cup-winning core, to seeing them as disposable items altogether. The way in which Löw chose to handle his decision not to include these players in his future plans is problematic on many levels.

  • It puts added pressure on both Löw and whichever players he selects to walk in the footsteps of three consolidated veterans
  • It calls into question how much the DFB and the technical staff value players in the long term, as human beings.
  • Löw bears the risk of:
    • A) His move backfiring spectacularly.
    • B) The generational shift being cast in a negative, vindictive light.

In a world where every move is scrutinised to insanity, the form in which Löw announced and executed his decision is distasteful and disrespectful to the players. It also sets a worrying precedent for the future and it minimises the margin of error even more for the manager. Indeed, Joachim Löw went nuclear. It’s make or break from here.

Michel: late and messy reform

Joachim Löw’s decision opens a giant-sized can of worms. The heart of the problem? Timing.

“Sacking” Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller, Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels requires some courage given their status in German football. There is a reason to do it when you put short-term interests aside.

A national team coach’s priority is to groom and organise a team to produce a peak in performance at the next tournament. In this case, at Euro 2020. An illustrious past is far from a guarantee of future success. Many coaches (and fans) fail to grasp that fact.

However, could any of these players still contribute to a productive team, if at least by providing leadership fueled by experience? Probably, especially in Müller’s case, but that is not the problem I wish to put my finger on.

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Strange timing

What can bug any reasonable observer is this question: why would someone shake the team upside down in March of 2019?

The opportunity for a “fresh start” with a slate of new players made more sense after the summer of 2017. Germany won the Confederations Cup with a “junior” team, against the odds. Among the starters and substitutes in that tournament’s final, only Joshua Kimmich, Jonas Hector, Julian Draxler and Timo Werner started at least two matches at World Cup 2018. Others have been ignored. Serge Gnabry was kept in the Under-21 ranks. Then, a few have failed to grow.

Several of the veterans who got the nod at World Cup 2018 have not met the standards of the German national team. On the other hand, Niklas Süle, Leon Goretzka and Marc-André ter Stegen had considerably developed.

At the time, Löw had the chance to make daring moves. He could have used more young players to accelerate an inevitable generational shift. He did not. We still wonder why Mario Gómez and Sami Khedira were in Russia.

Today, there are many uncomfortable questions I would love to ask Löw:

  • If you saw a generational shift as necessary, why did you fail to initiate it in 2017 and 2018?
  • If you felt like you took the wrong path, why did you not correct it right after World Cup 2018?
  • Why did you wait until March 2019, almost at the halfway point between World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020?

Löw’s rebuilding effort looks ill-timed. Time is short. Reform is urgent after the worst German performance at the biggest tournament since the 1930s. March 2019 may be too late.

If you doubt the importance of team-building in the run-up to a major tournament, consider the dynamics of international football.

First, cores of players that enjoy success at club level can “transfer” that success to a national team. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have fueled Spain’s achievements on the biggest stages from 2008 to 2012. FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund did the same for Germany in 2014.

Second, players need time to gel as a group to become successful as members of a national team. The likes of Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Hummels, Kroos, Müller, Özil and Klose had been around for years. They grew together, leading to their ultimate triumph in Brazil.

Joachim Löw’s chaotic rebuilding effort puts the odds against him and whatever squad he will bring with him at Euro 2020. He ignored Leroy Sané, Serge Gnabry, Niklas Süle, Leon Goretzka and Julian Brandt for long. They may not have the time to gain the maturity needed to deliver stellar performances together.

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No excuses

The most disconcerting aspect of this apparent mismanagement is that guiding the German national team is a full-time job. It only gets intense during tournaments. Outside of that, the coach and his colleagues have time to reflect, scout and plan. They handpick league matches to watch. They use international breaks to test and fine-tune their squad. Poor decision-making cannot be explained by the burnout factor linked to the circus of a club season.

Club managers run crowded, high-volume supermarkets on the main street. National team managers run low-volume luxury shops. Joachim Löw and his mates are in charge of a fancy boutique on Maximilianstraße in Munich. While results are never guaranteed, chaos is difficult to justify.

What happened behind closed doors at the German national team headquarters? Who pressed for the change? Who resisted? What were the motivations? I would love to understand that.

In the meantime, the German national team has little time to reorganise itself for an honourable showing at Euro 2020. What could have been an orderly process has become a messy one, and that is a shame.