At least now there is no future to work towards. After 15 years as Germany manager, Euro 2020 will be Joachim Löw’s seventh and last major tournament. There is no need for him to have an eye on the next cycle: his only job is to get the best result possible in the here and now – and to rescue a reputation that took a battering in Russia.
Löw is a World Cup winner who helped to oversee the great stylistic transformation of German football and for that, he deserves enormous credit. But he also led Germany to their worst World Cup in more than eight decades and, given the extraordinary quality of players available, it is hard to avoid the sense that he has underachieved in recent years. These Euros will help determine his immediate legacy, but he occupies a curiously ambiguous place in football history.
The World Cup in 2006 was pivotal for Germany. The old football of leaders and individual battles was cast off for the new: zonal marking, pressing and a flat back four, all pioneered in a smiling, sunny tournament that cast Germany as a place of fun and modernity. You could tell this was a new Germany because they had the good grace to go out in the semi-final. Jürgen Klinsmann was the beaming front man, but Löw, his assistant, was regarded as the brains.
In 2010, Germany were a devastating counterattacking side – lethal if they took the lead, as they showed by putting four past both England and Argentina – but less secure if they fell behind, as they did against Serbia. They were unfortunate to run into Spain, who had also beaten them in the Euro 2008 final, in the semi-final.
Narrow defeats to the best international team of modern times were understandable enough, but Löw had sensed that football was changing. By Euro 2012, he had tried to instil a more progressive approach. In doing so he lost the defensive base that had underpinned Germany’s progress in 2010, something exposed in the semi-final by Mario Balotelli. That tension between a desire for development towards proactivity and the counterattacking of 2010 has defined the Germany national team since.
At Brazil 2014, Germany struggled against both Ghana and Algeria. Löw went for a soul-searching run along the beach in Rio de Janeiro, and decided to revert to reactivity. The result was the World Cup, secured with a pair of 1-0 wins and the 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semi-final as the hysterical hosts exposed themselves on the break over and over again.
By Euro 2016, the high press and the defensive shortcomings were back. And then came the success that proved the greatest complication of all, as Löw took an extremely young squad to Russia and won the 2017 Confederations Cup in thrilling style. The way in which the major western European powers – Germany, Spain, France, even England – have industrialised youth production has been a feature of the past couple of decades and this seemed evidence of their incredible strength in depth.
For the World Cup, though, Löw largely went back to his trusted old favourites. The defensive problems had not been resolved, and they were undone on the counter by Mexico and South Korea to go out in the group stage for the first time. There were reports of splits in the camp between a Bayern Munich core and the rest, and a general sense of dissatisfaction that the integration of the younger players had not been better handled.
Löw’s response was to announce that he would not be picking Jérôme Boateng, Thomas Müller or Mats Hummels again, a curiously blunt approach to evolution that did nothing to solve the underlying issues. The high line was exposed in the Nations League, where Germany would have been relegated from Group A but for a change of format. Spain then thrashed them 6-0 in the competition’s second edition. A pair of 3-3 draws against Turkey and Switzerland, followed by a 2-1 home defeat to North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying in March mean, despite a hugely talented generation of players, Germany go into the Euros with an unusual lack of certainty.
The knowledge that he is leaving the job this summer has perhaps brought greater clarity for Löw; there is no need for him to think ahead to the World Cup in Qatar next year. He has recalled both Müller and Hummels, an admission of the mistake he made three years ago – not necessarily in leaving them out, but in making such a formal point of their omission. But they’re not the only eye-catching selection.
Germany have had a problem at full-back since the retirement of Philipp Lahm (even in 2014, they ended up using Benedikt Höwedes, a central defender, on the left). With neither Robin Gosens nor Marcel Halstenberg convincing – although both are in the squad – Löw has called up the 28-year-old Freiburg left-back Christian Günter, whose only previous cap came as a late substitute in a friendly against Poland seven years ago. He, more than anybody, exemplifies how this is a squad that’s been picked for the moment.
The other slight surprise is the selection of forward Kevin Volland, who has not played for the national side in six years. His inclusion perhaps reflects a perceived need for an orthodox central striker, particularly with Timo Werner in such uncertain form in front of goal.
That four of Löw’s squad have not played a minute for him in three years suggests how badly wrong his planning has gone. No World Cup-winning coach will ever be entirely scorned, but the sense that Löw has stayed on too long could easily slip into something even more negative. There may be one or two problem positions, but this is a highly talented squad. Löw just needs the equivalent of his jog in Rio to work out how best to use them.