Thursday, 28 June 2018

Future Path Unclear for Loew

The return to Frankfurt will bear little resemblance to that of four years ago when Juergen Loew and the German national team landed as world champions. This time after just one win out of three matches at Russia 2018 – including a sensational defeat by South Korea – the silence at the Deutscher Fuessball Bund (DFB) given Loew’s newly signed contract – will be deafening. As will the crowd at the airport. But the silence surely to be broken given the insipid and lethargic performances at the World Cup by the national team. With key players from four years ago absent without trace in Kazan when faced with an industrious South Korean side that played until the final whistle. Withy many senior players looking on absolutely bemused and lost on the field. 

Undoubtedly as holders there is more pressure and Germany confirmed the sequence that afflicted holders previously such as Italy, Spain, Brazil – and making a first-round exit. Proving yet again that reigning champions usually fail to pass the test four years after winning. Making consecutive world cup wins virtually an impossible task. However, for Germany there were signs during the Champions League of problems with some of their key men: Manuel Neuer’s season truncated with injury and looking only a shadow of his former self; Matt Hummels looking past his sell by date when Bayern faced Real Madrid over two legs; as did Thomas Mueller and indeed Jerome Boateng. 

It may also reflect a growing concern about the strength of the Bundesliga as it now is just a two or three team league. Given then that the Munich club delivers the majority of the national squad it all seems too cosy and lacking a competitive edge. As it may for Spain with a number of the players now over cooked after a long season with Real Madrid and perhaps too many years at international level. Or simply aging poorly in the modern game where their club is the main interest. In Germanys’ case Thomas Mueller fell victim to a similar fate and is nothing close to the MVP of Brazil four years ago. Not unlike Boateng, who apart from suffering an injury in the second games, cannot operate any longer in an environment where the game is not played at Bundesliga pace. Indeed, against Mexico the quick feet seemed to show up his weaknesses. 

In midfield the loss of a generations of talent such as Bastian Schweinsteiger was very noticeable with Toni Kroos a different style of player. Or losing Philippe Lahm who was more often than not operating as a right-sided midfielder rather than right full back. Then up front the loss of Lukas Podolski or Miroslav Klose makes Mario Gomez look less than average as the Germanys strike force on Wednesday night. The number 9 usually the heartbeat of their teams from the days of Ui Seeler in 1966, Gerd Mueller in 1974; Karl-Hein Rummenigge and Hansi Muller in 1978; Pierre Littbarski, Klaus Fischer and Rummenigge again in 1982; Rudi Voeller in 1986; or as in 1990 with Klinsmann; then for years later in 1994 with Oliver Bierhoff; followed by arrival of Klose and Christophe Metzelder and then Podolski. Apart from a curious era where Carsten Janckers was the best Germany could offer up front. 

Yet Loew did not favour blooding new talent in the past four years and understandably after losing the first game against Mexico he did not have the luxury. Precluding nothing more than token opportunities for the likes of Julian Brandt, Jonas Hector, Sebastián Rudy or Nikias Sule. All of whom did show signs of a hunger that the senior players seemed to lack. But it was only a glimpse of a future that Loew did not seem yet to believe in. Clearly, the German squad reflected the tried and tested where the management remained comfortable since the departure of Juergen Klinsmann post 2006 world cup where Germany reached the semi-finals in their homeland. 

Although able to possibly irritate people, Klinsmann was always thinking and trying new things and his squads were always on their toes. But Loew operates the exact opposite and the predictability of not seeking inconvenience may have caught up with him. As did the qualifying where they won all their games with Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, San Marino and Azerbaijan. Arriving in Russia over confident and untested. Obviously in 2014 Loew worked with a hungry squad burdened with years of failure and desperate to win the trophy that the Franz Beckenbauer achieved for the nation - both as a player and manager. And never stopped reminding anyone who would listen. 

Then in 2014 the results of their national project started by the DFB post 2000-euro failure that moved the Bundesliga away from foreign players and in turn created centres of excellence at the clubs that delivered the world cup in 2010. The Nationalmannschaft’ S success had been patiently planned, engineered and inculcated as is the German way with nation by then waiting for such a victory for over a decade. 

"The lowest point came in Euro 2000 -- that was German football's nadir: very poor performances, a very poor team and very poor management," German football expert Ralph Honigstein told CNN in 2014. “It was Germany's performance in the 2002 World Cup, where they lost in the final to Brazil, helped papered over the cracks, but it would take another two years for the real changes to the national game to filter through. "The grass roots reforms were already in place by the time Jurgen Klinsmann took over with Joachim Low in 2004," added Honigstein.

"The 10-year development you've seen culminate in Brazil benefited from two changes being made at more or less the same time. Youth development was instilled to make sure young players were much better educated and had better facilities and coaching.” Honigstein explained, "And at the same time there was a change of philosophy and footballing ideas at the very top -- after 10 years these two elements fused quite brilliantly to deliver the World Cup. 

"You have to credit the chairman of the German Football Association (DFB) at the time, Gerhard Mayer, who realized the needs for reform. He was able to get all the Bundesliga clubs, including the big ones, on board. 

"They all signed up to create academies and there was a spirit of cooperation, which was especially pronounced in those years, because Germany had won the right to host a World Cup in 2006. There was a real fear the team and the footballing nation might embarrass themselves as hosts if they didn't make changes," said Honigstein. However, Germany's blueprint for change didn't come cheap and it needed the clubs to work closely with the DFB. 

"You need a lot of money and you need the commitment to do it. Very few countries could replicate what Germany has done. You have to consider they now have 366 centres of excellence for youth development throughout the country.” Albeit Bayern Munich has been the driving force of the national team because they produce the best youngsters, and they buy the best German players and hone them, to make them even better. It was no coincidence that when Bayern did well in the 1970’s, 1990’s and now, the national team has benefited. 

"Bayern, under former president Uli Hoeness, always kept the greater good of the national team at the back of their minds and that's an important factor for the success of German football," explained Honigstein. In Brazil Schweinsteiger would dedicate Germany's final performance to Hoeness, as the man responsible for many of the players being where they are. 

Such long-term planning and dedication to a single goal, by the time the last match was being played in Brazil in 2014, was in the final throes of its application. The squad and the 11 men on the pitch were the fruition of a design drawn up long ago. The path to glory sewn into the psyche of everyone involved as Honigstein explained, "The reality is, as soon as you start winning a lot of things people want to see you fail. You can play beautiful football, but people soon want another team to come to the fore and accuse you of arrogance if you win too easily. 

"Germany can still grow as a team with some really exciting youngsters, the likes of Marco Reus and Julian Draxler, coming through," added Honigstein, "I think the future is bright, but will Germany be adopted as the world's favourite team? I doubt it very much." The reality in 2018 shows that there is also matching declined from the top of a loss of hunger and a premature collapse. 

The truth is that a status quo has now developed where Loew was at his weakest it would appear form the outside. Underpinned by a declining talents and players that have become accustomed to having it their own way. With Mesut Ozil it was an error to persists with him and the team played better when he - and also Hummels and Mueller - were out against Sweden. Indeed, also Boateng was poor and quite rightly got suspended for a bad tackle in the second game. The ability of Draxler was never tested at this level despite doing it regularly at PSG, Schalke and Wolfsburg over the years. 

Others now need now to be given the chance over the coming four years and clear some of the deadwood. Five players are a carryover from South Africa and that reflects on Loew Teutonic system -which is far too rigid. 

Kroos as a midfield player is talented yet not in the physical and driving style of a Schweinsteiger or Lothar Matthaeus. Playing the role for Germany that Deschamps did for France - water carrying role. Albeit a bit more sophisticated one at Real Madrid - where Modric is the designated playmaker. For Germany that role is lost and the likes of Uli Hoeness, Rainer Bonhof or Michael Ballack types are missing. With Loew seemingly confused by his options and never sure whether up front Timo Werner is his best choice or Gomez. Pushing Mueller wider where he was truly ineffective. In Saami Khedira there was a lack of clarity for a game and a half. Yet as a tracking midfielder is what he does very well at Juventus 

Clearly the reliance on Ozil, a much-maligned player at Real Madrid, Arsenal and with Germany for his languid style, seems to have been a source of problems. Even outside the squad from past players; “Ozil’ s body language is like that of a dead frog, it’s pathetic,” Mario Basler, a Euro 96 winner with Die Mannschaft, told German television. Basler is known for being deliberately outspoken so Lothar Matthaeus’s criticism in his column with Sport Bild was considered more damning. “For a year or two, Özil has played much weaker and at a level that does not justify Jogi Loew's free ticket,” said Matthaeus, who played in five World Cups for Germany and won the tournament in 1990. 

"With Özil on the pitch I often have the feeling that he does not feel comfortable in the German jersey, almost as if he does not want to play. There is no heart, no joy, no passion.” 

Stefan Effenburg struck a similar tone and accused Low of making a “completely misjudgement” by starting Ozil over Reus against Mexico. Which would suggest that Loew has a limited future as the four-times champions, who have reached the last eight in 16 consecutive World Cups. 

Its the first time Germany have failed to pass the group stage since 1938.

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