By the time he was appointed Germany head coach on July 12, 2006, Joachim Loew's revolution was already in progress. The Schoenau native had spent two years working as assistant to then-Bundestrainer Juergen Klinsmann, injecting fresh young talent into Die Mannschaft and changing the DFB team's tactical approach from a static defensive stance to one that was much more dynamic and attack-oriented.
With Klinsmann as the charismatic motivator and Loew as the tactical mastermind, the likes of Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm were increasingly relied upon, and the foundation of the next decade of German football was laid.
Gone were veterans like Dietmar Hamann, Christian Ziege, Christian Woerns and Jens Jeremies. In came a more sophisticated generation, one more proficient with the ball (corrected for position) like the aforementioned trio, Per Mertesacker and Marcell Jansen.
Germany played attractive, exciting football at the 2006 World Cup before being eliminated by Italy in the semifinal. And when Klinsmann opted not to renew his contract following the tournament, Loew was put fully in charge of Die Mannschaft.
The period from 2006 to 2008 saw a changing of the guard in international European football. The France of Zinedine Zidane was gone. Fabio Cannavaro and the majority of the Italy squad that won the World Cup two years prior had peaked.
Heading into the tournament, Germany were the bookmakers' favorites, albeit with a somewhat uncertain squad. With Bernd Schneider injured and Schweinsteiger out of form, right-back Clemens Fritz was promoted to midfield at the tournament's start.
Germany underperformed throughout the tournament, and Loew was forced to make changes. Jansen's failure to impress at left-back prompted the trainer to move Lahm to cover his position. Arne Friedrich, normally a centre-back, played on the right of defense. Despite his blistering form for country ahead of the tournament, Mario Gomez was a disaster. That prompted Loew to change from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with holding midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger replacing the then-Stuttgart attacker.
Euro 2008 proved too soon for Germany to come good on their potential, and although Die Mannschaft managed to stumble to the final, they were ultimately bettered by Spain.
Loew's Germany had changed since 2006, however. His previous 4-4-2 formation was swapped for the 4-2-3-1, in which Lukas Podolski was moved from striker to left winger. Germany counterattacked, with the Poland-born forward defending on the wing and moving into the center when the ball was pushed forward in transition. The DFB team looked more dangerous in 2008 than in 2006, scoring six knockout-stage goals compared to their three prior to elimination from the previous tournament.
The transition from post-Euro 2008 to the 2010 World Cup was a defining period for Loew's Germany, due mostly to the trainer's brilliance but also in part to a stroke of luck. Germany's under-21 team won the 2009 European Championship, and many stars from that squad were quickly promoted. Mesut Ozil was immediately integrated into the first team and became the cornerstone of the DFB attack, his playmaking vision taking the team to new levels in terms of breaking down stubborn defenses.
The tragic death of Robert Enke in November of 2009 prompted Loew to look to the next generation of goalkeepers, with Rene Adler promoted to No. 1 and recent U21 Euro champion Manuel Neuer his deputy. Schweinsteiger's conversion from winger to holding midfielder, plus the emergence of Thomas Mueller at Bayern and Jerome Boateng at Hamburg also influenced Loew to experiment. And three months before the World Cup, Loew did just that.
In a March friendly with Argentina, Loew used Schweinsteiger alongside Ballack in central midfield for the first time. Thomas Mueller was given his first cap as a starter on the right wing; the Bayern man was later replaced by Toni Kroos, who also made his debut for the national team. Germany lost the match 1-0, but there was real potential waiting to be tapped.
Near-disaster struck in the weeks leading to the World Cup. Adler was ruled out of the tournament due to a rib injury, and in central midfield, Ballack and deputies Simon Rolfes and Heiko Westermann were also injured. Offered little choice, Loew replaced Adler with the inexperienced Neuer and brought in Sami Khedira to play alongside Schweinsteiger at the World Cup.
Germany's youngest World Cup squad in 76 years took the tournament by storm. With beautiful and lethal counterattacking football, they blitzed England to a 4-1 victory in the round of 16. Just months after a lackluster friendly performance against Argentina, Schweinsteiger gave the best performance of his career as Die Mannschaft hammered the South Americans 4-0.
Keeping in line with the philosophies of modern German coaches like Juergen Klopp and Mirko Slomka, Loew emphasized a "complete" offensive and defensive performance from all his players. His 4-2-3-1 morphed into 4-4-1-1 in defense, with the wingers dropping back as Germany used two compact lines of four. When the ball was won back, it was a race to the opposite end as the DFB team looked to catch their opponents off guard.
But as in 2008, Germany met their match in a Spain side that, like the DFB team, had improved since 2008. The semifinal could have gone either way, but Germany missed the brilliant but suspended Mueller (who was later crowned the tournament's top scorer), and Carles Puyol's late header was enough to send Spain through.
Although their loss was heartbreaking, Germany's 2010 squad was young and only assembled shortly before the tournament. Hope was that by Euro 2012, they would be mature, settled and ready. Loew was initially coy on whether he would remain head coach, but in a report by the Guardian, he asserted: "Whoever the coach will be this team is here to stay over the next couple of years. The development has just started."
And indeed, 2010 was just the beginning. After the World Cup, Loew trusted young players more than ever and managed his Germany squad like a club. The trainer selected players not based on temporary form but on his assessment of their class and long-term potential. In a November friendly with Sweden he gave debut caps to Lewis Holtby, Andre Schuerrle and an 18-year-old Mario Goetze. Other inexperienced players like Marko Marin, Kevin Grosskreutz, Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels and Andreas Beck were also given a run-out. And Germany didn't look half-bad in their scoreless draw in Gothenburg.
Germany's performance at the World Cup and continued improvement prompted a different treatment by their opponents. With opposition more respectful than in the past, counterattacking was no longer an option. Loew continued to emphasize fast transitions, but that became increasingly difficult as Germany's opponents saw less of the ball and were decreasingly ambitious in possession.
Speaking to the Freiburg academy in 2011, a philosophical Loew offered insight into his vision for German football: "The space on the pitch has become smaller, the time to act scarce. Individual skill is therefore the most important factor in training, more important than the system.
"We need to make the simple into the very special: the passing game, the timing, the pressing and trapping, the game without the ball, how we deal with one-on-one situations, how we quickly find solutions in small spaces."
Loew's speech came just weeks before Germany dismantled a strong Netherlands team with some of the most high-brow football Die Mannschaft had ever played.
There was one ominous footnote Loew made to his statements in Freiburg: "If you want to win titles at the highest level, other important factors play a role." These other factors saw Germany underwhelm in Poland and Ukraine.
On paper, Germany had their best squad in years and arguably the best at the entire tournament. But minor knocks kept German Footballer of the Year Marco Reus from properly integrating before the tournament. Goetze and Klose were short of match practice after returning from injuries. Schweinsteiger played through the pain barrier after suffering an ankle injury that to this day continues to limit his minutes (he's played just one game for country since mid-October, 2012). And Germany's Bayern core was demoralized after finishing runners-up in three competitions.
Also critical was the fact that the Germany team had almost no time to practice together before the tournament began. Bayern had scheduled a needless friendly with the Netherlands on May 22, delaying the regeneration and integration of many of their stars into the Germany squad. Real Madrid similarly held back Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira due to a pointless friendly in Kuwait.
The limitless energy and outstanding teamwork that characterized Germany in 2010 was missing two years later. Schweinsteiger and Mueller were out of form. Holger Badstuber's nerves got the best of him. Reus was deemed unready to start but for the quarterfinal against Greece. Kroos, relegated to the bench, sulked all tournament long. And although Gomez scored three goals in the group stage, he was unable to click with Ozil and the rest of the German attack and was dropped for the knockout rounds. The only players who looked up to the task of performing for Germany were Khedira and Mats Hummels, who were simply outstanding.
Germany negotiated the so-called "Group of Death" with wins against Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark. Their outstanding firepower made up for a woeful defensive display as they beat Greece in the quarterfinal. But in the semifinal, everything went wrong.
Faced with the task of combating Andrea Pirlo in the center of the park, Loew opted to use Kroos as an extra central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation that involved Ozil playing on the right wing. The opening exchanges were rather neutral, but disaster struck for Die Mannschaft on 20 minutes when Hummels overplayed Antonio Cassano, allowing the forward to turn and cross to Mario Balotelli for the opener. Italy doubled their advantage on 36 minutes as Balotelli beat the German offside trap to a through pass and finished emphatically. Italy went on to win 2-1, with Ozil's late penalty proving to be no more than a consolation goal.
Loew later admitted responsibility for Germany's defeat. And although the mass media jumped at the opportunity to condemn him for alleged tactical incompetence, in fairness, replacing the out-of-form Mueller with Kroos was not what led to the loss: Individual errors from Hummels and Lahm made the difference. And when the score became 2-0, all tactical considerations were thrown out the window as Germany had no choice but to throw everything forward as Italy sat back and defended with little impetus to add a third goal.
Since Euro 2012, Loew's stock has fallen dramatically. A 3-1 friendly loss to Argentina some six weeks after the Italy loss did him no favors, and in October of 2012, Germany saw a 4-0 lead against Sweden turn into a draw in their World Cup qualifier. Die Mannschaft have won just eight of 14 matches since Euro 2012, a disappointing record considering their record 15-competitive-match winning streak heading into the Italy match.
Loew was resolute following Germany's loss to Italy and insisted: "We will continue to go down the route we opted for years ago," according to an article by Bundesliga.com. And indeed, his team hardly looks different in composition and playing style from that of 2012.
This route has meant trouble for Loew, who has taken criticism for declining to nominate Stefan Kiessling even after the Leverkusen forward finished top scorer in the Bundesliga last season. And with Klose set to turn 36 before the 2014 World Cup begins, the question of who will replace him in the long term is a serious concern.
Gomez's inability to click with Ozil at Euro 2012 makes the Fiorentina striker a less-than-ideal option. And although Loew has used unorthodox strikers like Max Kruse and Mario Goetze, either in such a role would be a gamble at a major tournament. This is the greatest question the Germany trainer faces as he prepares for Brazil.
In the past, Loew has addressed serious personnel issues in much less time and to great success. And perhaps he will do just that once more ahead of next June. But the ice upon which he walks is thinner now than ever before, the heat of the media and burden of expectation melting away the credibility he built for so many years. Loew has revolutionized German football over the majority of the last decade. But in likelihood he has only one last chance to see the fruits of his labor as head coach.
Brazil is his final.
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