German manager Joachim Low’s parting shot for Euro 2016 highlighted the inferior quality of play resulting from the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams. That harsh assessment may be too light - it probably was the worst European Championships ever. High on storytelling but lacking in most everything else, Low went on to present an even more dystopian international soccer future with the possibility of 40 teams included in the 2026 World Cup. Regardless, and in contrast to champions Portugal drawing their three group stage matches to get into the knockout rounds, Low and Germany won two out of their three group stage matches before losing to France in the semifinals. The winning part is familiar - Low has won 64 out of 83 matches as German manager.
Brought into the German National side in 2004 as an assistant by Jurgen Klinsmann, the perception was that it was Low who powered the Germany’s surprise 2006 World Cup run into the semifinals. But Low certainly wasn’t recognized as the genius back then as he is today, and he owes as much to Klinsmann as Klinsmann owes him. Before the national team job, he managed seven clubs in ten years in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The original choice for assistant manager, Holger Osieck, originally turned down the position. Low himself had just been fired by FK Austria Wien and got Klinsmann’s attention from a coaching camp each attended years earlier (in a “life comes at you fast” soccer edition, Klinsmann is now in the running for the England job after some range of underachievement with the U.S. National Team - but on the other hand, if soccer is truly circular, bet on Tab Ramos to manage the USNT to World Cup victory in 2026).
Low continues to display his tactical sharpness. His most impressive feat in the Euros was his countering of Italy’s 3-5-2 formation that disrupted Spain’s build up play in the previous round (particularly in closing down opposition fullbacks). To prevent Italy from gaining the same pressing momentum, Low switched to a 3-5-2 formation himself, effectively creating a stalemate featuring 1-on-1 matchups in midfield. The standoff turned into two goals, a handball in the box by Jerome Boateng that would foreshadow the match against France, and a series of poorly taken penalties. It was also the first time Germany beat Italy in an international tournament, a rivalry worthy of its own Wikipedia page.
The match against Italy, and subsequent match against France also revealed a structural hole in Germany’s player development. Mario Gomez (and Miroslav Klose before him) was the least flashy attacker in a lineup of playmaking midfielders, but those simple contributions made his role the most underrated cog of Germany’s attack. The imbalance of quality European strikers to their attacking midfield counterparts is an issue raised by many before. And it is telling that Gomez’s physicality and ability to stretch the field with his off ball movement was replaced not by another striker (Thomas Muller was the only other player at his position on the roster), but by the slick footed attacking midfielder Julian Draxler.
The result was a predictable playing style. Against France, Germany played the best half of soccer in the entire tournament, but couldn’t outrun the uncharacteristic errors and handballs inside the box that almost doomed them against Italy. There was no replacement for Klose’s timely goals. Low’s future as German manager was brought to the forefront after the loss, but ended with him staying on until the 2018 World Cup. But not without Jens Lehmann first throwing in his two cents with a tweet that would have made Tony Soprano proud. Thus, the cutthroat nature of German soccer, even for a World Cup winner.
Low does get overlooked at times. After Italy’s impressive opening match win over Belgium, Antonio Conte was seen as the best manager of the tournament. Conte’s brilliance was in getting the most out of limited, yet hard working, disciplined players. In contrast, Low’s best work comes in getting his world class midfielders in dangerous positions to create and score. But with traditional powers Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy and France all scrambling for managers in some variety, the continuity of Low’s management puts Germany as early favorites in 2018. You would bet on him being the best manager in that tournament as well.
But as the loss against France showed, potential is only a promise. After a then 22-year-old Mario Goetze scored the game winning goal in the World Cup finals two years ago, Germany appeared ready to take the mantle from Spain in international dominance for years to come. Their lineup against France did feature youth in the 22-year-old Draxler, 22-year-old Emre Can, and 21-year-old Joshua Kimmich. On the other hand. Bastian Schweinsteiger (who, after missing his penalty against Italy and giving up a penalty against France, we realized isn’t superhuman) will be 33 at the next World Cup, provided he continues playing. Mesut Ozil will be 29, as will Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller will turn 28. International soccer windows close as quickly as they open.
Still, Low defines modern German soccer more than any manager outside of Jurgen Klopp (and maybe Pep Guardiola). He’ll be 58 years old after the next World Cup, would have managed Germany for 12 years by that time. Yet there’s no sense of staleness even in the familiarity. The years after 2006 were a gesticulation period, waiting for their soccer upheaval to pay dividends. 2014 represented the pinnacle of their planning. This 2016 side was supposed to cement their dominance. World Cup in 2018 will be about a legacy of players in their prime attempting to fully realize their potential. If we are due to enter the dark ages of negative international soccer tactics, Low will go out on his own terms, in attacking style.