On August 18, 2004, Joachim ‘Jogi’ Löw was first spotted on the DFB team bench, an animated 44-year old with his hair well-kempt and face full of life. 17 years later, that same man made his final exit; grayed and weary from what felt like an eternity straddling between triumph & disappointment.
Following a 2-0 defeat in the round of 16, Germany were eliminated from Euro 2020, outplayed and out-thought by a measured English side and their symbol of modernity, Gareth Southgate. With the aura of the once-revered tactician who is now only known for his foolish stunts on the touchline Jogi Löw left the Temple of Football, not looking back at the carcass he left behind, not reminded of the delight he had created.
“We Bow to Coach Johi Löw” (Bild) “1954. 1974. 1990. 2014!” (Spiegel Online)
2014 was a pinnacle for German football, marauding through an international tournament with a dominance unseen since the squad of the 70s centered around the illustrious Franz Beckenbauer and goal-scoring phenom Gerd Müller. Whilst Germany had added another 2 European Championships, and a World Cup between 1980 and 2014, these were not won off the back of free-flowing attacking football, but rugged determination and an all too traditional German mentality: win at all costs.
Last-ditch tackles, calm penalty shootouts, and final third efficiency was the prognosis for success, nullifying Dutch Total Football & England’s Euro ‘96 darlings in the process. Yet, by the turn of the century a hard mind & even harder tackle simply weren’t enough anymore, and Germany fell flat in the group stages of Euro 2000 & 2004 with atrocious football that was outmatched against modern technique and tactics.
2006 though was when it all changed, with the duo of head coach Jürgen Klinsmann & assistant Löw propelling a mediocre German side to a third-place medal in that year’s World Cup on home soil. With the second-youngest squad of any European competitor, Germany were ushering in a new generation, centered around Bastian Schweinsteiger’s bleach-blond hair, Lukas Podolski’s thunderbolt strikes, and Philip Lahm’s engine.
Though Klinsmann left after the World Cup to lead Bayern Munich, Löw remained at the DFB, moving into the head coach role as Germany approached Euro 2008 qualification. Over the next two years, it quickly became apparent who the true mastermind was behind Germany’s revival. Klinsmann’s tactical ineptitude led to his dismissal by Bayern after just 9 months in charge, whilst Löw was quietly rebuilding the national team in a possession-heavy style revolutionary for its time.
Over the ensuing years more and more technical footballers would earn their calling under Löw, with the likes of Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil, and Sami Khedira replacing more ‘traditional’ German engines like Thomas Hitzeslperger and Thorsten Frings.
Making it to two semi-finals and one final over the next three tournaments, Löw was cultivating a side primed for a title push come World Cup 2014, calling upon a roster entering its peak, with many hailing from Germany’s dominant domestic league which had just provided both Champions League finalists the previous year. The next 31 days were a blur of tantalizing, fast-paced football, climaxing with the 7-1 victory over Brazil, and Germany’s rediscovery of traditional grit and determination in a 1-0 victory in the final.
The side returned to the country as heroes, with Löw applauded not least for winning a title for the first time in 18 years, but doing so with vibrant modern football which every other nation clamored to replicate. This was by all intents and purposes meant to be the beginning of Germany’s greatest era of dominance, but time would soon show it was just the opposite.
“Speechless” (Bild) “Over & Out” (Die Welt) “The German Downfall” (Frankfurter Allgemeine)
Just 10 days after Germany kicked off the 2018 World Cup, Jogi Löw and his lackluster crew were sent packing, booking luxury vacations around the globe to escape the intense pressure boiling over at home. It had been an undeniable failure, spawned on by the complacency of the man overseeing it all. In his futile attempts to recreate the triumph of 2014 with the same blueprints and personnel, the ever-evolving world of international football gradually slipped by, finally coming to a damning crescendo in Russia.
We saw an aging partnership of Hümmels and Boateng, overrun, and unprotected by the equally cumbersome duo of Khedira & Kroos in midfield. All had quietly slipped past their prime over the past 4 seasons, yet Löw still only saw the image of the four heroes triumphantly hoisting silverware in the Rio de Janeiro sky.
That is also why we saw Germany dominate possession, but do so with little to no penetration, rotating the ball side to side whilst the likes of France & Belgium set the world alight with quick forward interplay to compensate for the defensive solitude which lesser opponents had manifested in the past 4 years.
And most of all, that is why we saw so little from the likes of Leon Goretzka, and Ilkay Gundogan, two players growing in stature for their respective club sides, but rarely given the chance as Löw refused to intrude on his own fairy tale scenario. For the first time ever Germany had been eliminated from the groupstages of the World Cup, a bitter defeat, but one which should have signified the end.
That was, until the DFB quickly declared their decision to uphold the pre-tournament contract extension Löw had signed, an odd decision before the World Cup, perplexing once the disaster had unfolded. Like a gambler whose balance read definitively in the red, Löw’s only chance at rescuing his reputation was to return Germany to the prominent path he had once forged. But, we would all soon realize that getting back in the green was a task which would only lead him, and the nation, further in debt.
“Jogi Merciless! Löw sorts out three Bayern stars” (Kronen Zeitung) “0-6 in Spain – DFB Team is Dismantled” (Der Spiegel)
Change had to occur, whether Löw remained at the helm or not, and within 10 months, the first shock hit the headlines. Three of the biggest stars in the 2014 World Cup camp: Jerome Boateng, Mats Hümmels, and Thomas Müller would no longer be a part of the national team, forced into retirement in the most humiliating fashion.
Whilst it didn’t come as a shock that shaping a new era would require new protagonists as well, it felt cold-blooded the way in which the DFB team vacationed three of its biggest stars, with the then Bayern trio learning of their fate mere hours before news went public.
It was a clear stamp of authority from the Bundestrainer, but the next 2 years would prove little in the way of a significant tactical overhaul to match his banishing of the old guard, leaving his antiquated ideas to rot onto the national team just the same. Tired displays of monotonous possession, and a baffling ability to crumble in the final minutes of matches made Germany look like an out of tune tribute act compared to their buccaneering displays of years past.
Perhaps Covid-19 gave Löw a shallow excuse for the lack of progress his side had made, but neither the chopping and changing of system nor the flip-flopping of personnel did much to cast Germany in an image of prominence as the days kept counting down to Euro 2020. Then of course came that fateful night in November, with a relatively unexceptional nation’s league fixture turning into a new nightmare in the Löw regime:
17′ – Goal! Alvaro Morata scores from a corner to make it 1-0.
32′ – Goal! Ferran Torres makes it 2-0 for the Spaniards.
38′ – Goal. Game over for the Germans, this could get ugly.
45′ – We’re back! I wish we weren’t.
54′ – Goal. Spain making it ugly. The Germans have no structure, Torres easily makes it 4-0.
71′ – Goal. This is tragic. Ferran Torres makes it 5-0 and completes his hat trick.
88′ – Goal, Spain make it six.
Under the stars of a Seville sky Germany endured a schooling, outplayed by a Spanish side who had taken their own disappointment in 2018 to heart by enacting tangible change in the ensuing two years. For the longest time the DFB had concealed the Russia debacle as an attitude problem amongst their senior players, but 2 ½ years later with altogether different personnel, Germany looked even more incompetent.
“Germany Needs Help” (Frankfurter Allgemeine)
March 31, 2021: 72 days out from Euro 2020, the final competitive match before Germany opens the European Championships against reigning World Champions France. The heavy defeat to Spain still lingers in the air, unabated by two required victories over Iceland and Romania to kickoff World Cup 2022 qualification.
It is a tournament Löw will not get the chance to see, announcing earlier that month his decision to step away at the end of the European Championships. Whilst the DFB formulated it as a decision dictated by the man himself, there is no doubt that the very possible reality of another public disappointment would see him walk regardless with Löw’s link to the National team now thinner than ever.
For now though, the task of North Macedonia lies at hand, plucky underdogs who somehow managed to qualify for the upcoming Championships, despite being even younger than their star striker Goran Pandev (37). And Pandev would be the one who put his name in headlines, opening the scoring moments before halftime after the German defense parted without the slightest hint of organization.
A second-half penalty drew the German’s level, but some wasteful finishing from Timo Werner coupled with more lackluster defending allowed North Macedonia the last laugh, scoring to make it 2:1 and send their 2 million inhabitants into ecstasy.
A few months ago this would be viewed as another damning indictment of Löw’s incompetence, but as the empty stands in the MSV-Arena suggested, nobody could even rouse oneself to care anymore. 72 days before Euro 2020 starts. Or as German fans saw it: a maximum of 103 days before Löw cleans out his office.
“It is Over, Jogi” (Bild)
What do you do if every time you try to enact change it just sends you deeper into the hole of mediocrity Well, if you’re the German national team manager, you rip up all your plans weeks before an international tournament and start from scratch.
As most sides were nursing their stars into full fitness after a grueling club season, Germany were embarking on a race against time, going full-throttle to erase the embarrassment of the last 3 years with unending tactical tweaks and personnel changes, For a start, Löw switched to a 3-4-3 formation, a setup which fit his squad most effectively, but one which few of his first-team players actually routinely experienced at the club level.
Next came the decision to play Joshua Kimmich at right wingback, a choice which made sense considering the midfield talent at Löw’s disposal, but one which the Bundestrainer had so vehemently argued against, appointing Kimmich as the nominal leader to guide this team into a new era in central midfield. And finally, the biggest hammer blow of them all: recalling Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels out of their compulsory retirement, the most humbling move in Löw’s reign as head coach.
Despite his unwavering conviction that he had moved the national team forward, just days before Euro 2020 Löw was symbolically tossing all his plans into the fire, a humbling confession that he had let the national team stagnate and rot when they needed evolution more than ever. The last dance for Jogi Löw came and went then, making it out of the group stages to avoid a complete failure, but leaving a pitiful mark on the competition nonetheless.
Perhaps the only bright sign was that fantastic match vs Portugal, dismantling the reigning European Champions with pace and precision in the new-look formation. Beyond that though, it was another bleak affair, starting with a submissive loss to France, and ending with a historic disappointment against the English, a nation German fans could always bank on beating in international competition.
German football is now in a complicated position, in need of change if they are to compete again for titles, but not suffering from the irreparable damage that required a complete overhaul in the early 2000s. Whilst Germany’s focus on technical and tactical intelligence has seen fewer courageous wingers and traditional number nines make it into the professional game, it has also allowed creative starlets like Kai Havertz, and Florian Wirtz to flourish, symbols of a bright future in German football.
It is a tradeoff many countries have struggled with, but it is by no means a barrier to success if done correctly. In the youth age groups, Stefan Kuntz is also continuing to do admiral work, winning a third Junior European Championship this May after overcoming a talent-rich Portugal side 1-0 in the U-21 Euros final.
Whilst the current crop of youngsters didn’t have as many established Bundesliga stars as the side which narrowly lost to Spain 2 years ago (Mahmoud Dahoud, Jonathan Tah, Lukas Klostermann, Nadiem Amiri, and Luca Waldschmidt amongst others), the tactical intelligence and rugged determination laid a spotlight on the traditional values which so many fans feared was going extinct in Germany’s game with the advent of technical possession football.
And finally, the new man in charge Hansi Flick, who in the space of 2 years went from quietly operating in the background to becoming one of the most highly touted managers in world football. His historic treble (Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, & Champions League) at Bayern should reveal his pedigree for the job as Germany’s head coach, but it was his successful time under Jogi Löw as the Bundestrainer’s assistant which makes it all the more fascinating of an appointment.
With a strong relationship to many of Germany’s stars, he is the perfect candidate to oversee a transitional period, and restore ambition and hunger to the Nationalmanschaft. With the next international competition just over a year away, Flick will immediately have an opportunity to reverse the countries’ fortunes, with the World Cup in Qatar the ideal event to restore ambition within the playing squad, and faith and enthusiasm in the fan base.
By: Adam Khan / @xxAdamKhanxx
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Markus Gilliar – Getty Images