Joachim Löw - the misfit who helped Germany (re)conquer the world
Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst
Starting is easy, persistence is an art
July 4, 2006:
Deep into the Dortmund night, you could feel it in the still, almost stiflingly warm air. You could feel it through the television sets, across the oceans... etched across the faces of the thousands who had turned the Yellow Wall, White; across the weary, drooping, shoulders of the men in white who lay strewn about on the Westfalonstadion turf.
An entire nation had been brought down from its collective emotional high with a swing of Fabio Grosso’s left boot, and when Alessandro Del Piero hammered the final nail with an arrogant sweep of his right...ah!... the silence, the sheer drop in adrenalin... you could feel it and it was almost overwhelming.
Jurgen Klinsmann, architect of Germany’s gloriously flamboyant run into the semifinals of the World Cup, walked around his players – comforting them, hugging them, whispering encouraging words of praise, kneeling next to a grief-stricken Per Mertesacker and telling him that it was “okay”, that they had given it their all – and that’s all he’d ever asked of them.
His assistant, clad in identical white shirts and black trousers, aped his boss’ actions... he had been the brains behind Klinsmann’s unmatchable charisma and gleaming white smile; the man who had worked harder on tactics than anyone else – who had handed over to Jens Lehmann a sheet he had compiled which described, accurately, how each Argentinian player took their penalties during their quarterfinal shootout against La Albiceleste; the man they affectionately called Jogi, the man who had come to spend more time with each individual member of Die Mannschaft than any other member of the coaching staff... he too went around consoling everyone, telling them – as much as he was telling himself – that the pain was temporary, that they would get over this ‘temporary’ setback, that they were well on the journey back to the top... (well, in all likelihood that’s what he said... what the hell else does one say at times like this?)
Even Jogi himself, though, would not have understood just how important a role he would have to play on that journey back to the top.
The Dark Ages
“They wanted me to win the ball at the back, dominate in the center, play a pass to myself in the final third, and score the goal!” – Michael Ballack
When Klinsmann took charge of his national team, Germany were at an all time low. The never-too-shy Michael Ballack’s quote above highlighted just how much they had come to depend on him – just the fact that Ballack was the only outfield player the Germans could point to when asked to pick out a world-class player from their ranks was insulting enough for a nation whose footballing pedigree is better than almost any other – to the point that if Ballack didn’t produce a moment of magic, they were at the mercy of whoever they faced.
It had been a harrowing decade, the high of Euro ‘96 soon forgotten by abysmal showings in the subsequent major tournaments. In France ‘98, they scraped past Mexico (2-1) in the first knockout stage before getting absolutely hammered by Croatia 3-0 in the quarterfinals. In the next year’s Confederations Cup, they were dumped out of the group stages as Brazil and the United States, rather unforgivably, finished above them in Group B (they lost 4-0 to the former and 2-0 the latter).
What was truly unforgivable, though, was what came about in 2000.
That year, in the Euros, they finished rock bottom in a group that contained Portugal, Romania, and England – garnering a single point (a 1-1 against Romania), scoring just a single goal, and conceding 5 in return. In the next European Championships, they did marginally better to garner two points and finish above Latvia – but that, quite naturally, didn’t stop them from getting knocked out at the Group stages for the second time running.
Now, you can point out the 2002 World Cup as the anomaly in this narrative – but that’s all it was - a freak anomaly.
Germany scrapped through a sub-standard field (their knockout stage opponents were, in order of appearance, Paraguay, the United States, and South Korea – all of whom were beaten by the same scoreline, 1-0) on the back of Ballack’s belligerent brilliance and Oliver Kahn’s alpha-male dominance of his goal to reach the final where they were comprehensively outplayed by Brazil – at no point in the competition (apart from that 8-0 evisceration of Saudi Arabia that helped boost Miroslav Klose’s goal tally) did they look anything like their dominant sides of yore.
After the debacle of the ‘04 Euros, Germany turned to Klinsmann – and having won the rights to host the 2006 World Cup, they were desperate to bring back at least a measure of their former glory. Klinsmann, in turn, erm, turned to an old mate from coaching school he’d attended – someone who shared his philosophy of attacking football – and that’s how a then unemployed Joachim Löw, nicknamed Jogi by those close to him, entered the German national team’s coaching setup.
The Löw revolution
Leaving the PR speak and high-level motivational craft to Klinsmann – who continued to base himself out of California – Löw got down to the brass tacks and started working with the players individually, honing the team whilst overseeing the tactical training drills of Die Mannschaft.
His philosophy was simply about doing the simple things well – "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.” This was also the cornerstone behind Germany gradually shifting from 4-4-2 to a fluid 4-2-3-1 which would morph into a 4-4-1-1 when under attack.
As Raphael Honigstein so bluntly put in the book he based on the revolution that occurred in German Footbal at the time, Das Reboot: “[Klinsmann and Löw’s] rebranding of the Nationalmannschaft after 2004 was a conscious attempt to deep-clean the team’s image after a mass of awful connotations had coalesced like grease under the toilet seat … ”
The duo worked together and their new attack-minded Germany finished third in their first major competition, the 2005 Confederations Cup (narrowly losing out 3-2 to an Adriano-inspired Brazil in the semifinals) before they masterminded that exhilarating run to the semifinals of their home world cup. Playing with a joy and verve that had not been seen in the Nationalmannschaft for years, they played some of the best attacking football in the competition and could hardly be faulted for that 2-0 loss to Italy in extra time – arguably the best World Cup match of the modern era.
Soon after, Klinsmann retired and much to the surprise of many, the DFB appointed Löw the Bundestrainer, head coach of the German National Team.
Prior to this, the new boss had had a see-saw managerial career which had seen far more downs than ups as he managed FC Fraundfeld, VfB Stuttgart, Fenerbahçe, Karsluher SC, Adanaspor, Tirol Innsbruck and Austria Wien with wildly varying degrees of success.
And unlike Klinsmann, and his predecessors Rudi Völler, Berti Vogts and the great Franz Beckenbauer, Löw was not a venerable World Cup winning player – hell, the only team he wore the famous white shirt was when he appeared (just) four times for the U-21 team. He was a decent striker in his time, he still holds the goal-scoring record for SC Freiburg (they were in the second division, the 2.Bundesliga) but could never translate this to success at a higher level with Stuttgart and Eintracht Frankfurt.
In the rarified air of the German football elite, he was, bluntly put, a misfit.
Sure, he had helped start a revolution on the pitch, but as they say in Germany – starting off something, however good, is easy. Persisting with it... ah! that’s another case altogether.
With so much on the balance, with the air of disappointment mingling freely with a heightened sense of potential and excitement, with so much hinging on the successor who was to build on the promise of the Klinsmann years... Could the misfit that was Joachim Löw really do it?
The Löw Dominance
A clue to his success comes by way of his biggest advocates at the time the DFB were looking for Klinsmann’s successor. While the board themselves were bullish about the candidate’s tactical astuteness, it was the backing of the players (for once united behind a common cause) that sealed it. They loved playing for him, and it wasn’t hard to see why: As one senior German journalist put it: “Players respect him because he treats them like grown-ups, he doesn’t rule over them, he encourages debate and actually listens to his players, takes their views into account for his decisions.”
As the Bundestrainer himself put it, “Today’s generation of players wants to understand why something works—and how ” Löw said in a lengthy pre-World Cup 2014 interview with the German team psychologist and a journalist from Zeit. “You cannot just say: ‘Do this! Now or never!’ I have to include them in the tournament strategy.”
He, aided by the massive upheaval that shook Germany’s youth football system to its very core (initiated after the nadir that was Euro 2000) and the continuous churn of pure quality (especially in midfield), made sure that his team was in a constant state of evolution and that it stayed away from overdependence on one player. From the pure, incredibly-fast-passing counter-attacking style that he produced at Euro 2008 (where they lost 1-0 to the utterly dominant Spanish golden generation) and Euro 2010 (where, once again, they lost to the same opponents), he moved his team towards a much slower, much more patient style because like he said “they all played deeper against us, they knew what we are about.” He slowed it down even further for the 2014 WC to enable his players to adapt to the energy sapping conditions of tropical Brazil.
The beauty of it, of course, that his team still retained the innate ability to transition from possession-based football to lightning counter-attacks like that *snaps fingers*
He did all this by focusing on the individual talents that lay within his own team – "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” – and despite the shock 2-0 loss to Italy in Euro 2012 (more a product of individual carelessness and Mario Balotelli’s decision to bring his uncensored A-game to the party than any real tactical ineptitude) he was growing from strength to strength.
Living up to every German stereotype out there, he is also a painful perfectionist.
He oversees every bit of pre-tournament preparation himself – for the Brazil WC, he personally oversaw the construction of their living quarters and training facilities. He “precision-engineers” plans for each team he faces. His motivational techniques are oftentimes as simple as his footballing philosophy – telling Mario Gotze before he sent him on in the 2014 final “show the world that you are better than Messi. show them that you can decide the World Cup” will go down in minimalist motivational talking history.
But it's his ability to completely believe in himself and his team that is his greatest strength, even when nobody else seems to believe in him. For some reason, his success does nothing to detract from the number of his staunch critics
6% of Germans polled by the Citizen believed they could win the whole damn thing going into the Brazil Carnival in 2014. Prior to that almost 72% of the people who took part in a goal.com poll in October 2013 thought Germany were in need of a new coach. Around the same time, almost 3,800 football fans cast their vote in a transfermarkt.de ballot – more than 62% of them said that Loew’s contract should not be extended.
You see, as with most things – unfashionable t-shirts and questionable personal hygiene behaviour included – Löw’s success stemmed from his inability to give a damn about what anybody else thought of him.
This is what enabled him to wrap himself, and his team, in his own bubble as they sashayed across Brazil, dismantling the home side 7-1 with an attacking display that will burn bright forever in the minds of those who witnessed it before taking out Argentina with a superbly controlled display in the final.
This is what helped him guide Germany to a quite remarkable fifth consecutive semifinal in Euro 2016 (where they, arguably the superior side, lost to France thanks to individual sloppiness).
This is also what helped him take what essentially amounted to a B-team and beat the champions of South America to the FIFA Confederations Cup title this past Sunday; their first ever success in the storied competition.
When he was lambasted for dropping Messrs. Ozil, Kroos, Neuer, Khedira, Boateng, Hummels, Gomez and co. from the squad and picking up a bunch of untested and untried youngsters, he simply shut his ears, bent his head and got down to work. While Germany looked far from the smooth machine we’d seen in 2014, there were still glimpses of potential in the slickness of their attacking play and their innate ability to mould their game according to the opponent - taking the game to sides like Australia and Cameroon, while sitting back and counter-punching against high-intensity sides like Chile and Mexico.
They may have played some unattractive football, but by gosh! they won it, didn’t they?
Gary Lineker once muttered, rather famously, that football was a simple game. 22 players run behind a ball, and in the end the Germans win. It was meant to be a thinly guised barb at the ruthless, dull, efficiency of the German propensity to grind out wins.
The thing is, now, under Low (who with 102 wins at 67.1% success rate is the most successful manager the German team has seen. Ever.), they can win with style – passing any team off the park with their array of sprightly young midfielders; they can with ruthless counter-attacking efficiency; and they can win it the way Linekar hints at... with ugly, dull, brutal, near-stereotypical efficiency. The scary thing is, they can apparently do all that even with their goddamned B-team.
As the old German saying goes – Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst; Starting is easy, persistence is an art.
Joachim Löw started the revolution, and as he showed during this past decade of unprecedent, persistent, success, he is no misfit – in fact, he just might be the greatest artist of them all.