Pitchside Europe

On Reflection: Will Germany stars suffer World Cup blues?

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Arsene Wenger called Arsenal’s Champions League qualifiers against Besiktas the club’s most important fixtures they will play before Christmas. From a financial perspective, that much was certainly true, as beating the Turkish side guaranteed the Gunners an extra £19.8m in revenue for the group phase ahead.

After the game, Per Mertesacker spoke of his relief at getting through. This was his first game of the season, coming six weeks after his last match: Germany’s World Cup final win over Argentina. He was asked, “Is it hard to motivate yourself for games, now you have reached the pinnacle?” Mertesacker sighed and weighed up his answer.

“It still feels like pre-season. Mentally we have to take some games as friendlies, even though they are not, for sure they’re not,” he said. “They are big for the club. But what can we do? We have just started with pre-season and now we have to be ready for big games. The World Cup was last season. Unfortunately you have to forget about it as quickly as possible. We are back at Arsenal now and it’s raised a lot of confidence. Everyone was very happy with that World Cup but now after two-and-a-half weeks of pre-season, we have to show responsibility to the club.”

Is this a normal attitude for most players? At the weekend, Gary Neville interviewed Sir Dave Brailsford and the pair spoke about motivation after reaching the top of the tree. “I recall United’s 1999 Treble of Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup,” wrote Neville in the Daily Telegraph, “and tell Sir Dave: ‘There’s no doubt there was a dip. We’d won the Treble. What more could we do? We’d won the Tour de France. You’re not climbing the mountain anymore. You’re on the mountain. We won the league the year after that, and the year after that, but we never quite got back to that Champions League level. It took us nine years as a club.’”

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But then, if you are the type of player who has the mental strength to win a World Cup, surely motivation would not be a problem? Or is it only natural that there’s a drop-off in performance after such a life-changing moment? The question is: will the German players be able to lift their performances this season, or not?

What do the numbers say?

First, some disclaimers: one, the sample size is small, because we’re only able to look at the two World Cup winning sides of 2006 and 2010 – there was not enough data collection even in 2002. Two, the search is still on for the ‘magic metric’ that measures an individual player’s effect on a winning result; we know that significant metrics include the number of shots on target, passes completed in the final third, chances created and chance conversion percentage, but even these can be skewed (for example, Spurs under Andre Villas-Boas took more shots on target than almost all opponents because they were encouraged to shoot from outside the area).

Italy players' key stats in 2005-06 and 2006-07:

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Spain players' key stats in 2009-10 and 2010-11:

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What can we learn from this? One thing that stands out is the number of games: only two players, Francesco Totti (nine games fewer) and Carles Puyol (15 games) played considerably fewer matches the following season. There are very few metrics which take a significant dip in the season after the World Cup success; Xabi Alonso’s passes per game going from 73.7 to 60.2 can be attributed to new coach Jose Mouirinho arriving in Madrid and demanding Alonso focus on breaking up opposition play rather than controlling possession.

But look at the Italian players' passing accuracy; the figures of every player, apart from Mauro Camoranesi (who dropped into Serie B with Juventus), improved in the season after winning the World Cup.

The jump in the Barcelona players’ figures is astounding: Sergio Busquets up from 59 to 86.1, Andres Iniesta from 49.5 to 78.4 and Xavi from 83.9 to an astonishing 110. Did success in Johannesburg give further validation to the system and philosophy used by La Roja? Or had the players held something back in the season before the finals, even though they did win the title? Iniesta’s season had been disrupted by injury and he thought he wouldn’t be able to play in South Africa.

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The Zidane dip

Looking back to the France 1998 side, two men who became icons for their country both suffered a drop in performance in the season immediately after winning the World Cup. Zinedine Zidane went from good player to world superstar in one game, but the following season, he struggled for Juventus and for France. He ended the season having a knee operation and took three months off, which he later admitted gave him the proper break he needed.

Thierry Henry was another player who struggled after the World Cup; he scored one goal in 18 games for Monaco, then joined Juventus where he was stuck out on the left-wing. On the international scene, he played most of his matches for France Under-21s or the ‘A’ side. “You just can’t be happy with what you’ve done. You need to get higher,” he told France Football of this period. “The mountain, you have to climb it every time you play a game. After each game, you are back to ground zero, and you just have to climb it better the game after.” Three months after the World Cup final, Henry played against Ukraine for the Under-21s in front of 200 fans. “People erased this part of my career but I am proud of it. I am not pretending it was easy to swallow. I played. Sometimes I was good, sometimes not, and you could hear people saying, ‘He doesn’t want to be there.’ Anyway I was there. But you grow up in periods like that, and you grow up thanks to the others.”

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Good news for the Germans

One clear point of comparison between this German side and the Spain 2010 side is the number of players from one club in it: there were six outfield Barcelona players who started the 2010 final, just as there were six Bayern Munich players who started at the Maracana in July. The 2010-11 season ended with Barcelona winning La Liga and the Champions League – again, with six World Cup starters – and their coach then, Pep Guardiola, is now in charge of Bayern. Of course that doesn't mean Bayern will now conquer Europe, but the intense Spaniard does have experience at motivating World Cup winners to further success – and he has just signed another World Cup winner, Xabi Alonso, to boost the squad.

Perhaps the key is in knowing when they need a break from football. “People can’t imagine that when we need to rest, this is not physical rest,” Henry added. “When you finish the World Cup, you get 10 days of holidays, and you have to be back, it’s difficult. I know we’ve got a big salary but mentally, it’s hard to press the restart button. Look at the Germans. They are world champion. But they have to restart everything. Once again, nothing exists. The supreme goal is behind them. The [world] title, they can enjoy it in 20 years – when they have stopped playing football.”

The implication is clear: the time for enjoying success is in the future. Now, the German players need to capitalise on their golden era.

Ben Lyttleton - @benlyt

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