The biggest shock in the history of the Women’s World Cup. That’s what Germany’s group stage exit on Thursday was. The two-time champions had never tasted failure like this, always reaching at least the quarter-finals of the tournament. But after they could only muster up a 1-1 draw against South Korea, and Morocco beat Colombia, the unthinkable happened. They were out.
Only 12 months ago, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s side were in the final of the Euros, so close to winning a ninth title on the continent. With a young side that was a year better and a year more experienced, they were one of the biggest favourites to win this World Cup. They were the favourites to win their group, at the very least, sat 15 FIFA world ranking places higher than South Korea, 23 above Colombia and 70 above Morocco.
But an uninspiring performance in Brisbane, which followed a dramatic 2-1 defeat to Colombia, was their downfall. The stunned looks on the faces of Germany’s players at full-time said it all. A handful were reduced to tears but most simply stood there in disbelief, unable to fathom their fate.
How do you go from being the front-runners to win the World Cup to crashing out in the group stages for the first time in history?
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At Wembley last July, Germany were so close to a ninth European title. Exciting winger Klara Buhl had to miss the final due to Covid and Alexandra Popp pulled out with an injury in the warm-up but it still took an extra-time goal for England to come through and win their first major tournament.
With the likes of 23-year-old Giulia Gwinn, 20-year-old Lena Oberdorf and 19-year-old Jule Brand starting the game, while several young talents also came off the bench, it felt like Germany were in a good place. Voss-Tecklenburg certainly thought so.
"We’ve already said this tournament is a stepping stone in our development," she said afterwards. "It wasn’t enough now but this leads us to the next step.
"At the World Cup, I think we will be able to look back at today’s game because such a game changes personalities. These situations make you grow no matter the result - but even with a negative result, that’s why we will continue on this path."
As well as those talented youngsters, several in this Germany team came into the World Cup in a wonderful place. Wolfsburg, who had more players in the squad than any other club, just reached the Women’s Champions League final, after all. No wonder expectations were high.
But one thing that did hinder Germany at this tournament was injuries – all of them in defence.
At right-back, they were missing Gwinn, who tore her ACL last October and didn’t recover in time for the trip to Australia. On the opposite flank, Carolin Simon suffered an ACL rupture in the team’s final friendly before the World Cup, a surprise defeat to Zambia, and Felicitas Rauch picked up a knee problem in training after the team’s opening game.
In the heart of defence, there were also problems. Marina Hegering, who shone at the Euros last summer, was unavailable for the first two games due to an ankle injury and Sara Doorsoun had to come off at half-time in the shock defeat to Colombia because of a muscular issue.
None of this was ideal, of course, but with the depth in Germany’s squad, surely there would be a solution…
The solutions that Voss-Tecklenburg opted for, though, were certainly questionable.
Despite trialling both Sarai Linder and Sophia Kleinherne at right-back in the build-up to this tournament, she opted to start experienced winger Svenja Huth there in all three games instead. Kleinherne was in the World Cup squad but didn’t see a minute of action. Linder was left at home. Maximiliane Rall, the Bayern Munich right-back, was also not called up.
Meanwhile, Chantal Hagel, a left-footed midfielder, was deployed at left-back in a four-player defence. It meant that Germany had just two recognised defenders in their starting line-ups for the defeat to Colombia and the draw against South Korea.
Was this really the best solution? It seemed slightly baffling that Voss-Tecklenburg had not opted for a change of formation to mask her team’s weaknesses. After all, holding midfielder Lena Oberdorf has a lot of experience at centre-back and could’ve easily slotted in there to form a back three, with there plenty of strong options in the squad for wing-back roles.
But the flat back four left the two centre-backs exposed and resulted in a dysfunctional back line, something which both Colombia and South Korea exposed.
Flaws on show
These weaknesses were not exactly a secret, either. South Korea boss Colin Bell certainly knew about them, anyway.
“Our strategy was to press and get behind the full-backs if we could,” he explained after the game, adding that he started Casey Phair and Chun Ga-ram, two young forwards, specifically to expose Germany’s defence with their energy. “We knew we could put the centre-backs under pressure and that mistakes were possible if the pressure was there.
“[Huth and Hagel] are not full-backs. They are not learnt full-backs and don’t have the schooling of a full-back. We wanted to target those areas and it worked. We wanted to target both full-backs because they are very good players, but they are not full-backs.”
“That’s some input we will accept and think about alternatives but we created the formation in the way that we thought was best,” Voss-Tecklenburg said when told of Bell’s comments. “If the result is not what you want you have to accept the responsibility.”
Lack of creativity
The defence was not Germany’s only flaw. Needing to score two goals to ensure qualification to the last 16, their play was stale. They dominated possession but most of their passes were safe, sideways or backwards. The main idea appeared to be to get the ball out wide and cross it in for Popp or Lea Schuller to attack.
This did result in Germany’s equaliser and several chances but South Korea did well overall to defend a lot of the deliveries into the box while stifling any play through the middle.
It was a game crying out for a creative midfielder. Germany started with Oberdorf in the holding role, with Sara Dabritz next to her to help dictate play without carving out many opportunities for the forwards. With Popp essentially playing in a front two with Schuller, rather than as a No.10, there was no one to unlock the defence.
The significant impact Sydney Lohmann made in these areas when she came off the bench only backed this up. She was arguably her team’s best player despite only coming on just past the hour. Why this was her only appearance at the tournament is perplexing.
Huth’s restricted full-back role and the unused substitute roles both Lina Magull and Laura Freigang had on Thursday were equally confusing when Germany were in desperate need of some magic in attack.
It all resulted in a failure of epic proportions. Germany have never been eliminated in the Women’s World Cup group stages. In fact, this is their first group stage exit in any major tournament, with it never having happened in the Euros or the Olympics, either.
“Please don’t expect that I’m going to provide analysis, how we continue, where we start to work,” Voss-Tecklenburg said in her post-match press conference. “Today, there were aspects missing, aspects lacking. Precision was one. Maybe we were a bit too uptight, trying to force things. There’s a feeling that something is missing. There was great intention but sometimes that led to us losing ease and confidence.
“That is, of course, something I want to discuss with each player and the team overall. With the coaches, we’ll talk about what we could’ve done differently and better. But that’s not something I can do an hour and a half after we exit in the group stage. Of course I’m disappointed and I’m frustrated because we were expecting more from ourselves and that’s very clear.”
But while Voss-Tecklenburg wasn’t ready to analyse things so soon, and Popp admitted that she didn’t have any answers yet either, the post-mortems have already started from the outside.
Why did this team set-up with two non-full-backs? Why were certain players not used more? Why were some not used at all? What was the plan? What was the spark that was missing, in comparison to the Euros last year?
One member of the German press put it to the coach that this huge disappointment came just eight months after the men’s team also crashed out in the group stages of the World Cup in Qatar. “If you want to see it as a disaster in terms of sports, it’s hard to argue against it,” she admitted.
Her words to the players after the game were to thank them for their efforts and also to prepare them for the criticism that will come, to remind them to stick together as a team.
“It’s a part of the game and it's also what we wanted for women's football,” Oberdorf said. “Ten years ago nobody would criticise it really and now it's the real business, kind of. We have to face that and have to live with that and make the best out of it.”
Voss-Tecklenburg said several times that she wasn’t going to make excuses. She said she was “happy to face [the] responsibility” of this exit. How much will she bear that?
The coach signed a new contract earlier this year, to keep her in the job until after the Euros in 2025. When everyone involved sits down to analyse this embarrassing exit, we’ll find out whether she will indeed lead the team for two more years.
And what of some of these players? Popp wouldn’t be drawn on questions around her own future. She’s only the fourth-oldest player in this squad. Could we see significant change in personnel as the next cycle begins?
Those are all questions for the coming weeks and months. For now, all that can be said is that this was a huge, incredible failure. Indeed, it was the biggest this tournament has ever seen.