Joachim Löw’s Germany face up to their moment of truth against France

Has the Germany coach brought his much-admired team as far as they can go?

Germany coach Joachim Loew says up to a third of his team had been suffering from sore throats, but that after an improvement all players were able to train on Thursday, the day before their World Cup quarter-final clash against France. Video:Reuters

 

In an age when professionalism and TV have caused the different styles of football around the world to converge, World Cup dugouts at least remain pleasingly diverse.

Brazil have their benign caudillo Big Phil Scolari, who is both stern father and doting mother to his team, alternately screaming abuse and tearfully clasping them to his bosom.

Russia have the cold mercenary Capello, who accumulates World Cup points like he accumulates precious works of art – selectively and at monumental expense. Argentina have the misty-eyed Alejandro Sabella, a genial, janitorial presence who looks after administrative minutiae on behalf of Lionel Messi.

Different as they are, the thing these men have in common is that they are all, to a certain extent, pretending they’re something they’re not. Football management is a kind of confidence trick. You have to turn a collection of individuals into a group by persuading them that you’re worth following, that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re someone they can believe in.

The best managers can persuade their players they possess supernatural abilities. Didier Drogba used to talk in awed tones about Jose Mourinho’s ability to foresee specific incidents in games.

Wizard of Oz moment

You have to convince players that you have their best interests at heart, even though you intend to play some and throw others to the scrapheap. Each little U-turn and deception costs you a little more credibility until the day comes when a critical mass of your squad can no longer take you seriously. Abraham Lincoln (almost) said it best: you can fool all of the players some of the time, and some of the players all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the players all of the time.

Which brings us to Germany’s coach, Joachim Löw.

Löw is one of the longest-serving managers in international football. Of coaches at this World Cup, only Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay can match his eight years in the job.

International coaches who are successful are usually headhunted by a big club; most of the best managers want to work in club football. Unsuccessful international coaches are sacked.

Löw has lasted this long because his team has spent eight years roaming in the gloaming between success and failure. They played well in most of the tournaments and almost won a couple of them. But Löw has never enjoyed the ultimate vindication of a title. How long before failing to succeed eventually becomes failure by default?

When Löw succeeded Jürgen Klinsmann, for whom he had worked as assistant manager, he had the reputation of being the brainy half of the partnership, while Klinsmann was the motivator and cheerleader. The stylish German football at Euro 2008 and particularly the 2010 World Cup enhanced that image.

Something went wrong at Euro 2012 though, when Germany’s defeat to Italy in the semis was followed by a series of rumours about rifts within the squad. For the first time, questions began to be asked about Löw. Was his tactical brain really as huge as everyone thought? Did his man-management skills leave something to be desired?

Löw might have moved on then, while his stock was still high. But to walk away from a team that looked so close to winning something big was too much of a wrench.

Unfortunately, he has been unable to restore the sparkle of 2010. Germany’s play so far has been somehow both mechanical and flimsy. Their attacking has been predictable, and their defending has not.

Lahm’s role

Philipp Lahm

Few in Germany can see the logic of playing your best full-back in central midfield when you are then forced to play central defenders on the flanks and leave one of Bastian Schweinsteiger or Sami Khedira on the bench.

There’s a little of the dog in the manger in Lahm’s supposed stance and a stronger manager might tip him right out of there. It smacks of an uneasy bargain between the coach and one of his most influential players. This is not the kind of story that comes out of camps where the coach wields unconditional authority.

Löw remains a polished media performer, answering questions in yesterday’s press conference in flawless paragraphs of corporate-speak.

Then again, it wasn’t the toughest grilling a manager has ever faced. Asked where Lahm would play, Löw referred to the debate in Germany, insisted that none of the players or management were concerned by media agendas, declared that he would make the decision in the best interests of the team, and finished by saying “you’ll find out tomorrow where he is going to play, I think you’ll see relatively quickly”.

For some reason the last part drew laughs from the German journalists. Nobody will be laughing if France send Germany home tomorrow. Löw has a contract until 2016, but staying on would make little sense when so many signs suggest he may already have worn out his welcome.

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