When the young and progressive German team did so well and performed beyond all expectations in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the talk would be all about going that one step further winning the Euros in 2012. When they qualified for Poland and the Ukraine with a perfect record in qualifying and then carried on this unblemished form in the tournament group phase, the talk of this talented young side with unbridled potential would continue.
They would thrill everyone with a 4-2 win in the quarter-finals against Greece, but then would come badly unstuck in the semi-finals against old rivals and tournament bête noire Italy. The tactics would be questioned, the team selection would be scrutinised, and above all the coach would be roundly criticised.
To many, after what had been a well-drilled campaign, Joachim Löw had bottled it when it really mattered – and his future as Nationaltrainer would once again be questioned. While many would continue to back the coach, others would argue that he had exhausted all of his avenues and had taken the team as far as he possibly could. Nevertheless, he would stay on again successfully guide the Nationalmannschaft through another unbeaten qualifying campaign and the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Löw’s contract had been written until the end of the tournament in 2014 – with the possibility of an extension if the team managed to fulfil their potential in 2014. Indeed, my assumption was that Löw would finish after the tournament, either on the back of failure or glorious victory, as had been the case with Franz Beckenbauer in 1990.
With this in mind, I would be ever so slightly surprised when, after the conclusion of the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, his contract would be extended to 2016.
There are two ways to interpret this. The official line was that the DFB had complete confidence in Löw to guide the team in Brazil and then beyond, but my own feeling was that they were simply redrawing the measure of success and aiming at the 2016 Euros in France rather than the World Cup in Brazil – a tacit concession that the team might not be ready to win the World Cup this time around. Quite simply, it would be a lowering of the bar.
This of course puts DFB supremo Wolfgang Niersbach and his colleagues in a bit of a pickle. Should the team fail to impress next year, they may be left having to backtrack on their decision to extend Löw’s contract until 2016. The media and many of those supporters who had been highly critical of the coach after the Italy defeat in 2012 would simply ramp up their efforts to get rid of the scarf-wearing Swabian, and things may be not at all rosy when the qualifying round for France 2016 begins.
Statistically, Jogi Löw is the best coach Germany have ever had, and just looking at the raw figures his record in competitive internationals is mightily impressive. Up to and including the 5-3 win over Sweden in Stockholm in October 2013, his record reads sixty games played, with forty-eight wins, six draws and six defeats – an eighty percent winning rate.
However, the statistics provide a mask over the reality. Let’s have a look a the six defeats:
0:3 v Czech Republic, Euro 2008 Qualifier, München
1:2 v Croatia, Euro 2008 Group Phase, Klagenfurt
0:1 v Spain, Euro 2008 Final, Wien
0:1 v Serbia, World Cup 2010 First Phase, Port Elizabeth
0:1 v Spain, World Cup 2012 Semi-Final, Durban
1:2 v Italy, Euro 2012 Semi-Final, Warszawa
Of these half dozen results, only one could really be considered “unlucky” – the 1-0 defeat at the hands of Serbia that had seen Miroslav Klose sent off after two harsh yellow cards and Lukas Podolski miss a second-half penalty that would have levelled the scores. The 3-0 defeat to the Czech Republic meanwhile would take place when Löw’s side had already qualified for the tournament in Austria and Switzerland – an inexcusable but ultimately easily forgettable blip that only served to spoil what should have been another unbeaten qualifying campaign.
That leaves the remaining four encounters.
Germany would come into their Euro 2008 meeting with Croatia as favourites, only to see their opponents upset the form book with a well-earned win. Löw’s tactics would be questionable as Croatia employed their usual bully-boy approach, and would only look good once they had gone two goals down. When chasing the game the Mannschaft would be a lot better and would pull a goal back with eleven minutes remaining, but a red card for Bastian Schweinsteiger right at the end would cap off a miserable display that would first raise questions about Löw’s tactics in high-profile, high-pressure matches.
Löw’s side would beat a depleted Turkey 3-2 to reach yet another European Championship final, but would be quite literally suffocated by Spain in the Vienna showcase. Once again, it would look like Löw was focussing on the opposition rather than his own players, and the result would be a flat and uninspiring performance. Spain had undoubtedly been the team of the tournament, but many Germany fans would have been left asking what could have been. A more positive approach may well have backfired and resulted in a heavier defeat, but we would be left to cling onto the memory of a 1-0 defeat that was a lot narrower than the tactical gulf between Löw and his Spanish counterpart Luis Aragonés.
What perhaps the finest Spanish squad in a generation would prove to be the fatal obstacle for Germany in South Africa in 2010, where once again any confidence would be whittled away by yet another negative display. Having walloped England 4-1 in the second round and impressed the football-watching world in thrashing Argentina 4-0 in the quarter-finals, one might have thought that the best policy would have been to just let the young lads get on with it – but Löw’s fear of the Spaniards would filter down to the players on the pitch, who would look a shadow of themselves as they once again suffered a slow and painful strangulation before being knocked out cold by Carles Puyol’s bullet header.
Yet again, Löw had allowed his charges to be beaten in their heads rather than on the pitch – the gap had clearly narrowed between the two sides since 2008, yet the result would be the same. From the way the players moved on the pitch – the timidity of many of the German players would be plain to see – one could argue that the match had been decided before the players had even entered the tunnel.
Then would come the Euro 2012 meeting with Italy, the game that would conclusively draw the line between Löw’s supporters and detractors.
The Mannschaft’s route to the finals had been perfect: ten games, ten wins. They would then win all three group games for the first time: a well-worked 1-0 win over Portugal, and impressive 2-1 win over the Netherlands that flattered the opposition, and a come-from-behind 2-1 result over a brave Denmark. A free-flowing 4-2 win over Greece would follow, setting up a last-four meeting with the Azzurri.
Germany had won all four of their games, while the Italians had been far from impressive. Now, finally, we would surely see the Italian millstone being cast off the German eagle’s neck. It was Germany’s match to win, and if they continued playing the same way another date with Spain in the final would be a mere formality.
Well, that was the idea until – once again, the coach ended up obfuscating his tactics and approach by focussing on the opposition. While all eyes would be on playmaker Andrea Pirlo the previously solid Germany team would be torn apart by Mario Balotelli, and before anyone could understand what was actually going on they would be two goals down. The Italians would be allowed to boss the game, and once again Germany would only look dangerous once they had to play catch-up. What made it worse was that Italy were not Spain and, unlike the Spaniards, were clearly not of the same quality.
It would be a bitter pill to swallow, and the coach would shoulder the blame.
So, we are here at the end of 2013, looking once more in the direction of another major tournament. Germany will no doubt be up against it with the Brazilian heat and humidity, but the big question remains on the pitch: can Joachim Löw finally get over what looks to be a tactical and psychological barrier in high-pressure matches? Can he manage to push the team over the line? More crucially, is he the man who can extract that little bit more out of the team push them over that line?
Or might 2014 end up as just another potential stepping stone with the real focus being on 2016?