Löw aims for highs
Joachim Löw has failed to deliver a major tournament for the German people and looks to be facing an uphill task in this summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil
Germany’s national football team coach Joachim Löw. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
The German national soccer team greets fans waving German flags in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 2006 Photograph: by Seán Gallup/Getty Images)
German fans greet their national team in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin following their 3-1 victory over Portugal in the third- and fourth-place play-off game at the 2006 Fifa World Cup finals.
Germany’s midfielder Marco Reus. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
Germany’s final game of the 2006 World Cup had not even been over long enough for all of the supporters to get home for a bit of shuteye when the celebration of what they had achieved together began. It was eight o’clock on the morning of a final they would not be involved in and quite a few of those who lined the streets of Berlin, as the team made their way to the Brandenburg Gate, looked more than a little weary; players, after all, aren’t the only ones that month-long tournaments take their toll on.
Still, they’d come, and in their hundreds of thousands. Over half million, in fact, were reckoned to have turned up to greet Jürgen Klinsmann and his players who repaid the compliment in part by sporting t-shirts that celebrated the way their efforts had apparently unified the nation with the slogan: “Team spirit, 82 million.” Eight years on, the people are a little more divided about the team and, in particular, its manager.
Klinsmann, of course, is long gone and now coaches the USA who Germany will face in the group stages of this World Cup. Sensing, perhaps, that he was going to struggle to top such a universally-acclaimed third-place finish, he resisted all calls for him to stay on after 2006 and was replaced by the highly regarded but rather less charismatic Joachim Löw.
The 54-year-old has had three attempts at ending Germany’s long, long run without a major title and there is a growing air of impatience as he and his players head to what is arguably the least winnable one of the lot.
“I think the general feeling has changed a bit,” says journalist and author Ronnie Reng. “In 2010 I think people were overwhelmed slightly by the fact that the team performed better than anybody had expected with the way they beat England and Argentina to make it to the semi-final, but that changed a little bit in 2012 which the supporters felt should be the pinnacle of the team.
“Then, the semi-final against Italy proved to be such an anti-climax because they looked so overwhelmed and technically outplayed. Since that day there is a bit of a backlash; people looking with a bit of suspicion on the team and suspecting that maybe they are just one of those most un-German of teams, one that looks good but never wins anything. People still hope and many expect but the crazy love affair is over.”
Löw, he says, has become the focus of the frustration and criticism for all sorts of reasons but mostly because for fans, being fans: “The buck stops always with the coach,” adds Reng.
He retains considerable support within the German association (DFB), though, where his approach is generally admired, says Kicker magazine’s head of international football Manfred Münchrath, and the limitations he faces more appreciated. Still, the feeling is that his employers could find keeping him in place impossible in the face of overwhelming public support for a change in the event that things go poorly in Brazil. “Sure,” he says, “the expectation amongst the fans is very high but it’s not the fans who are deciding if Löw has to go. Their feelings do matter to the federation, though, and so the results matter a lot of course.
“I think Germany have a good team but there are some deficiencies which we are not used to,” he continues. “In a typical German team you have a very good striker, which we don’t have because Miroslav Klose is 35 now and not at his very best anymore but there are no others of the highest level. And then we have some deficiencies in our central defence because you can name whoever you want but they are not at the highest international class.
“So I think Germany are good but not good enough to win this World Cup, but if they reach the semi-final or even the quarter finals and go out with a big fight against a good team then it should be enough for people.”
The biggest potential threat to Löw’s position, he suggests, could be their resurgent neighbour Belgium. “If Germany qualify for the knock-out stages, and they must do that at least, they will play someone from Belgium’s group in the last 16. And if it is Belgium then it could be a real problem for the manager because Belgium are really a strong team but here, because of their history, they are only Belgium, and so to go out to them would be regarded as a failure.”
The supporters could do with remembering real failure felt like. Between 1996 and 2006 their side lost tamely enough to Croatia in the quarter-finals of France ’98, came home from not one but two European Championships without winning a single group game and, although they were eventually to reach the final of the 2002 World Cup, they suffered a traumatic time when in a qualifying group eventually topped by an England team that won 5-1 in Munich. They did make it through but only via the play-offs.
The team was old, the tactics increasingly outdated and any hint of change was resisted with established players, Philipp Lahm recalls: “Defending their position come hell or high water, sometimes with questionable methods.”
Then, when Rudi Völler went in the wake of the team’s dismal performance in Portgual, Klinsmann set about changing everything.
At its heart, even the current group has a small group of survivors from the squad he picked in 2006: Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, Marcel Jansen and Lukas Podolski, all of whom were 22 or younger when the former Tottenham striker included them. Eight of his squad for that tournament were under 23, in fact, just five over 30; almost a precise reversal of the respective figures for 2004 when Völler had been in charge. The change in style of play was just as dramatic with a new sense of excitement generated by a new, more attacking game-plan based on pace and swift passing.
The work of Billy Beane, with whom he was friendly, at the Oakland Athletic baseball team, persuaded Klinsmann of the importance of research and statistical analysis and so Professor Jürgen Buschmann from Cologne’s Higher Institute of Sport was recruited. To this day he and students provide dossiers, sometimes hundreds of pages long, on opponents to the German management team – the piece of paper slipped to Jens Lehmann before the penalty shoot-out in Berlin against Argentina when he saved twice is perhaps the most famous example of their work (its sale later raised €1,000,000 for a children’s charity). Every other aspect imaginable of the team’s coaching, preparations and logistics were reassessed and improvements invested in.
Klinsmann was simply lucky in one key regard. There were terrific young players like Lahm and Schweinsteiger coming through. Löw has been similarly fortunate with a group, of enormously gifted youngsters that included Sami Khedira, Mesuit Özil and Mats Hummels helping Germany to the 2009 European under-21 title.
For a while that year the country held the under-17 and under-19 continental titles too and the ethnic mix of the young teams only added to the sense of pride felt by many in a new Germany and a new German team. And the emphasis on youth has continued, accelerated even with the squad Löw named two years ago for Euro 2012 having an average age of barely 24 and a half, the youngest the country had ever sent to a major tournament.
The team, though, has ultimately been very well beaten in their most recent semi-final appearances, by Spain in South Africa and Italy in Poland, and the coach’s determination to strike upon a combination that can deliver a more successful version of the faster passing, generally possession-based brand of football he wants has made for constant upheaval. Roughly a third of the already young squad sent to South Africa was discarded for Poland and Ukraine. The manager has shown he can be ruthless again ahead of the trip to Brazil, with Fiorentina striker Mario Gómes, for instance, quoted in one of the many World Cup magazines talking about how special a role Löw has played in his career and saying how he would like to repay the favour with goals this summer. The 28-year-old has been struggling with injury but he must still have been surprised when he failed to make even the initial squad of 30.
Löw has apparently decided that most of the alternatives are simply not up to it and he has been increasingly inclined to ask one of his many talented attacking midfielders – Özil, Marco Reus, Thomas Müller or André Schürrle amongst them – to play as a “false number nine”.
He did it in several of the qualifiers and the Germans, with a little help from the Irish perhaps, outscored everyone. The difficulty is that they conceded more than any other group winner too and central defence where Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng, Hummels and Benedikt Howelles all have a tendency to blow hot then decidedly cold remains a major problem area.
Back at home their remarkable 4-4 draw with Sweden is held up as a warning of what a capable side might do to them in Brazil. Neither the 5-3 win in the return match nor the friendles last year, in which they conceded four against Klinsmann’s USA team then three against Paraguay, did much to reassure the growing number of doubters and even the big wins against the Republic of Ireland were far from flawless.
More recently, his team did keep a clean sheet against a very capable Chile team that could well be amongst the contenders over the coming weeks. The Germans won 1-0 but they were actually completely outplayed and booed off at the end by their own fans.
There is little time left now for Löw as he works to produce what he requires: a team that both looks good and wins. Remnants of the wave of optimism that swept through the nation in 2010 and 2012, meanwhile, are indeed difficult to detect.
There is still widespread pride in the contribution of the “new Germans”, with young stars like central defender Shkrodan Mustafu (once of Everton), Liverpool striker Levent Yesil and Stuttgart goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachomidis just three of many examples of the diversity evident amongst the next generation.
After all the talk, though, about the DFB’s big budget, brilliantly organised, widely trumpeted elite development programme leading to an era of dominance across the various youth levels, there have been no more titles and the next two under-21 groups actually both performed disappointingly.
Instead Spain and the Netherlands have again impressed with England, Russia and Serbia all also enjoying success at one level or another.
“People sometimes think that other countries have been sleeping but Germany is not the only country with talented young players,” observes Löw plaintively.
Of his established stars, several, like Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Özil have struggled this year with injuries or form. Then there is issue of location with Löw and many others acknowledging the advantage that the location of this year’s competition will confer on the South Americans.
“I believe that we have a very good national team,” observed former West Germany striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge when asked about his nation’s prospects a little while back, “and I think that we have a very good chance in Brazil but it’s not easy to play there for Europeans.
“I remember in Mexico playing the final at 12 noon (for European TV, which will again be a major consideration) in 40 degree heat 2,200 metres above sea level. It was very difficult but we did it and the game was quite good although we did not win.”
The challenges may not be so severe this time and the preparations, which include a multi-euro purpose-built team village on the coast – Campo Bahia – will undoubtedly be a lot better better but Germany will still do well to end this, their longest ever run of major tournaments without a title.
Be certain of one thing, though. If they do manage it, the crazy love affair will be back on with a vengeance.