How Germany were torn apart by Spain - and what it means for the future of a mighty nation

Florian Neuhaus of Germany reacts during the UEFA Nations League group stage match between Spain and Germany  - GETTY IMAGES
Florian Neuhaus of Germany reacts during the UEFA Nations League group stage match between Spain and Germany - GETTY IMAGES

In the aftermath of the footballing bloodbath, Oliver Bierhoff compared Germany’s 6-0 defeat by Spain to his country’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. Yes, really. It was that bad for the Germans, whose humiliation was described by Der Spiegel as their biggest debacle since 1931.

Bierhoff, the German national team director, could only express his hope that it was a “singular event”. He insisted that manager Joachim Low retains their trust, even claiming that the game “changes nothing”.

Time will tell on that. For now, Germany are still trying to come to terms with how 90 minutes of football could go so badly wrong for so many players of world-class ability. After all, this was no reserve side. Their starting lineup included Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Leon Goretzka, Ilkay Gundogan, Timo Werner, Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane.

Low’s attempted explanation afterwards certainly brought to mind that defeat of Brazil in 2014, when the home side’s defenders lost their heads in a swirl of emotion and panic. “We threw away our concept after the 1-0,” Low said. “We stormed out of position, opened spaces. There was no organisation. There was no communication. Every aspect was bad. It was a dark, dark day.”

The nature of the goals, especially in the second half when Spain ran through again and again, brought to mind Liverpool’s recent drubbing at Aston Villa. That 7-2 loss was evidently a freak result, but there are similarities between the two defeats.

In short, this is what happens when pressing goes wrong. As the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich have shown in recent seasons, a slick system of intensive pressing is perhaps the most effective way to win games in the modern era. But with those high rewards come genuine risks.

The key to an effective pressing system, according to Bayern Munich head coach Hansi Flick, is “complete unity”. Pep Lijnders, Jurgen Klopp’s assistant at Liverpool, says it requires all 11 players to operate with “one mind”.

The consequence of this is that, if even one player fails to fulfil his individual role, the system falls apart. Press the wrong player at the wrong time, and the game-plan crumbles to pieces. Defences are suddenly exposed by their high lines, trying and failing to protect an entire half against attackers with space to run into and the pace to cause chaos.

Spain’s fourth and fifth goals were perfect examples of this. The first starts with the ball on the edge of Spain’s penalty box, and six Germany players high up the pitch. Within two passes, the entire Germany front-line and midfield has been cut out of the game. After one more pass, Spain are running into the penalty box with a three-on-one situation. Ferran Torres could not miss.

For the fifth, also scored by Torres, it is a similar story. Germany try to defend high, but their pressing is not sharp enough. Spain are therefore able to turn and thread passes into the final third. By the time the ball reaches Torres in a left-sided position, the closest player to him is central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

“We wanted to be courageous,” said Low. That courage to press looks terrific when it works, as Bayern showed in their Champions League campaign last season. But when it does not work, and a team does not adapt their approach within the game, things can turn very ugly indeed.

That said, this was far from Germany’s only problem on the night. Indeed, the lack of coordination in their pressing cannot be blamed for the first-half defensive disaster, when Spain were twice able to score with free headers from corners. That is not a pressing issue. That is just basic defensive ineptitude.

In terms of their squad balance, it certainly seems fair to describe Germany as “top-heavy”. Low has plenty of elite attacking options, but does he have many elite defenders? Their back four against Spain of consisted of Borussia Monchengladbach’s Matthias Ginter, Bayern’s Niklas Sule, PSV’s Philip Max and Leeds United’s Robin Koch.

Mesut Ozil, long since retired from the international game, made his feelings clear on Twitter. “Time to take Jerome Boateng back,” he wrote. There were also instant calls for Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller to return to the fold. All three were axed last year as Low tried to build a “new” Germany side. “We want to give the team a new face,” he said at the time.

Speaking to Bild, former Germany midfielder Lothar Matthaus said he had “never seen such an overall failure”. He added: “The discussion about Hummels and Boateng will continue. You need these leaders after such a defeat. In terms of team leadership, Müller will be mentioned. A loudspeaker like Muller is missing.”

After a remarkable 14 years in the job, Low now faces pressure from all sides. He has considerable credit in the bank for winning the World Cup in 2014, obviously, although it should not be forgotten that Germany then crashed out of the 2018 tournament at the group stages.

“We still trust Joachim Low, no doubt about that,” said Bierhoff. “With the national team, you have to think and analyse from tournament to tournament. We want to achieve the maximum at next year’s Euros.”

Can Germany be considered contenders after a night like this? It would still be foolish to write them off, although Gnabry’s assessment of his own team was telling. “We don’t know what level we are at right now,” he said. “It is not normal to lose a match by so many goals.”