It's been eight years since Joachim Low took over for Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach of Germany, and his talent pool has progressively developed year-by-year.
Low was lauded for taking Germany to the Euro 2008 final and for leading an understaffed Mannschaft to third place at the 2010 World Cup, but since a disappointing elimination at the hands of a beatable Italy side at Euro 2012, many critics have turned on him. Many feel that the 2014 World Cup could be an endgame scenario for the Germany coach, with anything less than victory in the final being considered a failure.
The trainer even admitted to SID (h/t Enis Koylu of Goal.com, via Yahoo! Sports) recently that he understood he will be judged based on results and his having coached Germany since 2006 makes him one of the longest-serving coaches in international football. He's had his chances.
However, for Low to be castigated for Germany's probable failure to win the World Cup would be cruel and unwarranted. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Mannschaft has.
To start with, Germany's path to the title will in all likelihood be extremely difficult. Should they reach the semifinal, their opponents will in all likelihood be Brazil. In the final will be Spain or any team that can manage to oust the reigning world and two-time defending European champions.
Beyond the competition, Germany will face the harshest conditions at the World Cup. Analysis by Bloomberg found that based on historical patterns, the Germans will be subjected to the most extreme weather in their scheduled matches, with Italy the only country that comes close.
And then of course there is the most discussed problem for the German team: injuries and fitness. A year ago, Low looked to be phasing Ilkay Gundogan into his starting lineup after the midfielder's phenomenal 2012-13 Champions League campaign with Dortmund. The 23-year-old hasn't played since last August and will miss the World Cup.
Whereas Gundogan's absence was expected earlier this spring, Marco Reus' withdrawal from the squad was a shock. Low lost his most in-form, dynamic and explosive attacking force just five days before the World Cup.
Beyond the absentees, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil, Miroslav Klose and Sami Khedira all have been injured recently and will enter the World Cup with little to no momentum. The same applied to Marcel Schmelzer, who didn't even make the final squad after several muscular tears resulted in him having a very abbreviated role.
Schmelzer's absence, coupled with Dennis Aogo missing the majority of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear and Marcell Jansen playing with the Bundesliga's worst defense at Hamburg means that Low's options at left-back are limited to a number of natural central defenders and Erik Durm, a right-footed ex-forward who deputized for Schmelzer in what was a desperate Dortmund defense.
Among the useful substitutes that are missing are twins Sven and Lars Bender as well as Mario Gomez. And those who are fit are not exactly in the best of form.
Andre Schurrle and Mario Goetze were full-time starters in 2012-13, but both took a leap of faith as they completed big-money moves to more traditional powerhouses last summer. Both had limited playing time and struggled to settle in. The season was one of stagnation for both, who missed out on the kind of Champions League experience that is invaluable in the latter stages of international tournaments.
Low, of course, bears no responsibility for their stagnation but could be blamed if and when they struggle.
The only players in Low's squad who as of late have been noticeably playing to their potential are Lukas Podolski, Mats Hummels and perhaps Toni Kroos. Of those three, only the former is a match-winner. And he, as a one-footed player, is much more easily contained than Reus, for example, in the bigger matches.
Low hasn't exactly done himself any favors in the public eye. His decision to omit Stefan Kiessling from his squad again and again is often criticized, despite the Leverkusen man's abysmal career tally of just two goals in 32 international matches for club and country as well as his being a poor fit in the Bundestrainer's system.
Additionally, Low's decision not to call up another striker after Reus' withdrawal has been taken with a skeptical eye. But it's quite evident that he finds that Pierre-Michel Lasogga (who was left out of his provisional squad) is not regarded as fit enough after spending much of the season sidelined with injuries and that Kevin Volland did not make enough of an impression in his initial training camp to warrant playing in the striker position ahead of the likes of Schurrle, Goetze, Thomas Mueller and Klose.
Germany have an undeniably strong World Cup squad on paper, but as Low admitted in a March press conference, via Stephan Uersfeld of ESPN FC, reality is quite different.
"Some players have been injured for months, and others have been struggling for form or to get into their rhythm," he said.
Low should be expected to take a still strong Germany side out of the group stage and perhaps even to the semifinal. But Brazil (or any team that manages to beat the hosts en route to the penultimate stage) should be considered favorites over the Mannschaft in its current state.
It's disappointing for the German faithful that the national side have gone since 1990 without winning the World Cup, but no one understands this more than Low. Instead of being the designated fall man, he should be recognized for setting up his team as best he could. And if Germany are eliminated in the semi or even quarterfinals, it should be recognized for what it is: not a coaching failure but simply bad luck.