Germany's Rebuild Job: A Completely New Team Suffering Similarly Mixed Results

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 9, 2019

HAMBURG, GERMANYL - SEPTEMBER 06: goalkeeper Manuel Neuer of Germany looks dejected during the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier match between Germany and Netherlands at Volksparkstadion on September 6, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

Manuel Neuer's reactions told the entire story. Each time the ball flew past the Germany goalkeeper during last month's 4-2 home defeat by the Netherlands in Euro 2020 qualifying, his response seemed to sum up how the whole team was feeling.

When Frenkie de Jong equalised for the Dutch in the 59th minute, cancelling out Serge Gnabry's early opener, Neuer looked merely disappointed, glancing around helplessly from his position on the turf and then slowly picking himself to his feet. When Jonathan Tah's own goal minutes later put the Netherlands 2-1 up, the Germany captain put his head in his hands in despair.

After Toni Kroos levelled from the spot, Donyell Malen restored the visitors' lead, and this time Neuer reacted with fury at the ease with which Ronald Koeman's side had been able to amble through the heart of the German defence, flinging his right hand into the air in frustration and berating his defenders for their passivity.

When Georginio Wijnaldum tucked the Netherlands' fourth goal past him in stoppage time, the Bayern Munich No. 1 remained lying on his right flank inside the six-yard box as if momentarily too stunned to move, holding the position he had adopted in his vain attempt to keep the ball out, his left leg held rigidly in the air like the last goalkeeper of Pompeii. He and his team had been beaten all ends up.

With three wins from their first three qualifying matches (13 goals for, two against), Germany had appeared to be on the road to recovery after their catastrophic 2018, but the defeat against the Netherlands—and in particular the manner of it—revealed serious shortcomings.

It was the first time Germany had lost a home qualifier since October 2007, the first time they had ever let in four goals in a home game against the Netherlands and the first time they had lost in Hamburg since the Dutch beat them in the semi-finals at Euro 1988.

German tabloid Bild said it was time to sound the "Euro alarm," while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung felt Germany had looked uncomfortable with head coach Joachim Low's new counter-attacking approach, accusing the team of having "no Plan B." The tame nature of Germany's second-half surrender inevitably dredged up memories of 2018's annus horribilis, during which Low's men crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage, succumbed to relegation in the UEFA Nations League (only to later be spared by a revamp) and lost six of the 13 matches they played.

"The way Germany lost the plot was a bit reminiscent of the Mexico defeat at the World Cup, where you just felt the whole team did not understand what they were supposed to be doing," German football expert Raphael Honigstein told Bleacher Report.

"It felt very much like a defeat for Low's management and his tactics. All the players came out saying, 'We can't play like that.' I think what some were saying was, 'We weren't set up properly.'"

The loss to the Netherlands was the first major setback Low had suffered since he accelerated an ambitious squad overhaul in March by summarily ending the international careers of 2014 World Cup winners Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller.

Low's decision to place his faith squarely in youth, coupled with an injury blight that is currently depriving him of several senior players, means that the squad for Wednesday's friendly against Argentina and Sunday's qualifier against Estonia contains only one survivor from the 2014 World Cup triumph (Neuer) and just nine players who played in Russia last summer. Although the injuries are beyond Low's control, there is a feeling in Germany that the rejuvenation process he has overseen has left the squad dangerously undercooked.

"I see promising young players, but the balance between leaders and youngsters, which I always thought would be the formula for a good team, I don't see it," said veteran Sport1 broadcaster Marcel Reif.

"Hummels was a leader, Boateng was a leader, Muller was a leader. It's not only the football skills. Where is the balance between old and young?"

The defeat by the Netherlands also called into question Low's bid to abandon the possession-based style with which he led Germany to glory in Brazil and replace it with a new strategy based on speedy transitions, typified by the use of quick forwards such as Gnabry, Marco Reus, Timo Werner and the injured Leroy Sane.

Obliged by the German Football Association (DFB) to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Germany's failure at last year's World Cup, Low came to the conclusion that his "biggest mistake" was his belief that his side "could make it past the group stage by playing a brand of dominant, possession-based football." It was a miscalculation, he felt, that was "almost arrogant."

BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 9: Coach  Joachim Low of Germany during the  EURO Qualifier match between Northern Ireland  v Germany  at the Windsor Park on September 9, 2019 in Belfast United Kingdom (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

The move in the opposite direction has been striking. At the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, the only team to average more ball possession per match than Germany was Spain. In the current European Championship qualifying campaign, Spain (71 percent), France (70 percent), Italy (64 percent), England (63 percent), Belgium (63 percent), Switzerland (62 percent), Austria (62 percent) and Greece (61 percent) have all seen more of the ball in their matches than the Germans (60 percent).

But although Germany's forward players, typified by the in-form Gnabry, clearly have the kind of pace required to play such football, the rest of the team does not seem quite so ideally equipped. The loss to the Netherlands laid bare the lack of purely defensive midfielders at Low's disposal to play alongside Kroos and Joshua Kimmich, whilst a callow back three of Bayer Leverkusen's Tah, Bayern Munich's Niklas Sule and Borussia Monchengladbach's Matthias Ginter was found wanting.

"The defence is the main problem," Reif told Bleacher Report. "Sule is quick, he's big, he can handle the ball, but if he has to turn around quickly against quick forwards, he's like a container ship. Ginter is a very useful player, but is he world-class? No. Jonathan Tah, is he even a player of international class? So far, no.

"Vision is one thing, but what kind of players do you have? A vision is only a good vision as long as you have the tools to make it reality."

The fear persists that Low has gone against conventional football wisdom by building his team from the front, rather than from the back, indulging himself in the erection of an elaborate lightweight roof structure before he has finished laying the foundations. In the meantime, whether playing with a back three or a back four, Germany remain a work in progress.

"It's a curious netherworld of not quite a new Germany and not quite the old Germany," Honigstein said.

"I think that Low himself seems not entirely sure if this new Germany, which will have more emphasis on pace up front and being a bit more direct, actually works with the squad that he has. I don't think he's worked out that tension between the old way that worked quite well and this new way, which might work well but needs a lot more work."

Matters have not been helped by the ongoing row over whether Neuer, 33, deserves to keep his place in goal ahead of Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen, with Bayern president Uli Hoeness even going so far as to threaten to withhold his players from future national squads if Neuer were dropped. Hoeness later backtracked, but if Ter Stegen, 27, excels against Argentina in Dortmund on Wednesday night, after Low confirmed that he would start the game, it will only serve to fan the flames of the debate.

Germany's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and Germany's goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen (R) attend a training session of the German national football in Dortmund, western Germany on October 08, 2019. - Germany plays a friendly soccer match against Argentina in D
INA FASSBENDER/Getty Images

Low's role as the architect of Germany's 2014 World Cup success means that he still has credit in the bank, and he has consequently been spared the kind of media maulings that his team's results might otherwise have provoked, with Bild in particular noticeably reluctant to put the boot in. The hope remains that next year's European Championship could serve Low in the same way that the 2010 World Cup in South Africa did, when a young, exciting team playing attacking football fell at the semi-final stage but not before it had given an indication of the glories that lay ahead.

If his latest rebuilding job still resembles a construction site come next summer, however, he may have to put down his tools for good.

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