With the match tied 2-2 in the second half of last week’s European Championship qualification match, the Netherlands took a cue from Germany’s signature style. Ronald Koeman’s side pressed their opponents after losing the ball, winning possession inside their own half. Three direct passes later, Donyell Malen scored in his international debut. Joachim Low lamented the sloppiness of the eventual 4-2 defeat, adding that “it cannot be our game to have so little possession” even if the analytics told a contrasting story. Germany were up 1-0 at halftime despite only having 39% of the ball. Germany responded with 59% possession in the second half in which they were outscored 4-1. It was also Germany’s first home loss since 2007, a year after Low took over as manager.
Critics assumed Low had learned his lesson of relying too much upon possession following a disastrous 2018 World Cup campaign in which the defending champions were knocked out in the group stages. The German manager said that his biggest miscalculation and mistake was believing “we could make it past the group stage by playing a brand of dominant, possession-based football” while admitting that the team didn’t deserve to go on. He called it a historic failure. Yet a month later, Low extended his contract through the 2022 World Cup.
The extension put critics and supporters in an awkward position of calling for a World Cup winning manager to be replaced, presumably with a younger (most likely inferior) manager with a pulse on a new generation of players. By 2018, Low’s initial era of players featuring Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Miroslav Klose had all moved on from the national team. Is there such thing as being a supposed genius manager, but just not for the right group of players?
Low did try to change. In Germany’s first match following the 2018 failure, he sent out a lineup featuring four centerbacks and Joshua Kimmich at defensive midfield to play France to a 0-0 draw in the Nations League. And they did beat the Netherlands 3-2 seven months earlier. Their renewed rivalry is compelling as it was the Dutch who were looking for direction and modernity two years prior. But in switching between shapes and playing three-defender backlines like he did in the loss against Koeman’s side, it appears as if Low is trying to grasp the current footballing moment instead of setting the trend as he did years prior.
Though five years seems like a completely new game with how fast football moves. We thought Goetze’s Germany would sweep the next round of international tournaments after his match-winning goal in the 2014 final, as if time stood still and the game would develop in a controlled lab without the influence of the outside world. Germany followed the title by losing to France in the semifinals of the 2016 Euros, the first time they lost to France in a major tournament since 1958.
That loss gave Low, and the football federation, an easy out to move on. And while it’d be near impossible for any manager to match Low’s tactical ability, the question isn’t one of intellect but of a generational divide. Instead, Low re-signed through the 2018 World Cup.
That Low remains entrenched in the national team job creates a tension with the story of the Bundesliga prided on young players and innovative managers focused on pressing and energy in lieu of possession. RB Leipzig, architected by sporting director Ralf Rangnick, scored 60% of their goals last season within 10 seconds of regaining possession off a turnover. Four out of the top five teams in the Bundesliga have managers that passed through the high-pressing Red Bull system. When asked to analyze Liverpool and Manchester City’s dominance in the Premier League, Rangnick noted how the two clubs “have their identity and know what they have to develop, and so it’s no coincidence that they are dominating the league.”
Germany made attempts to regain control of the narrative, pointing towards a youthful future. Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller, and Mats Hummels were banished from the national team. Low symbolically abolished the leadership team council that was once filled with veteran players. National team director Oliver Bierhoff called the idea of the team council “old,” adding that they would install a flat hierarchy more in line with a new crop of players.
We can be skeptical of whether an old guard can artificially create a new system and energy from the top down. A triumph of Germany’s 2014 World Cup title was in its validation of a long-term approach to player development. In hindsight, that success also emboldened a structure grasping at techniques that were successful in the past, despite the footballing world moving on.
“I think it’s a joke,” said Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness in describing the national team goalkeeper battle between 33-year-old Manuel Neuer and 27-year-old Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Hoeness went on, saying that “Ter Stegen is a very good keeper, but Neuer is just so much better and more experienced” before threatening to pull out all Bayern Munich players from the German national team.
Hoeness would later walk back his comments on making Bayern players available for the national side. Low split the difference in giving Neuer and Ter Stegen one match each over this past international break.
The generational tension between club and country continued to play out in a public space. After getting dropped from the national team, Muller went on Instagram to discuss his anger, surprise, and disappointment. Muller has somehow turned into a symbol of getting stuck in the middle of changing eras. He complained earlier this month that he was “too ambitious” to sit on Bayern’s bench after failing to complete 90 minutes in any match this season. Bayern manager Niko Kovac hit back, saying that Muller would only play when his hand-picked starters were not available. With an average age of 24.4 years, last season represented the youngest Bundesliga ever. Where does a 30-year-old Muller fit into the league, then?
After making 121 appearances for the national team, Schweinsteiger announced his retirement from soccer last week. Toni Kroos remains the only current national team regular from their starting lineup in the 2014 final. While there were blueprints for how to develop a modern German player, there seems to never have been a plan for what happens after, as if the national team would keep winning and players would gladly, gracefully get replaced. Yet Low remains unaffected. He says that he knows how to cope with the pressure of qualifiers, international tournaments, and national team matters. He’s had 13 years now to become comfortable.