Is This Loew's Last Chance With Germany's Golden Generation?
As World Cup qualification records go, 'won nine, drawn one and lost none' should be enough to instil any nation with confidence heading in to a major tournament. Certainly one wouldn't expect descenting voices in the press and among fans to be questioning the manager's suitability to the role or labelling him as their main barrier to success. But this exactly the situation Jogi Loew finds himself in as he prepares his Germany side for their opening World Cup fixture against Portugal tomorrow.
The man who was universally praised for turning the most workhorse-like, tediously efficient killjoys in international football into admired entertainers now faces a barrage of criticism at home for his team selection, tactics and a perceived stubbornness. There is a growing feeling that he has underachieved with die Mannschaft and was the wrong man to be granted the task of guiding and transforming what was a young and highly talented crop of players, Germany's best in a generation, into the world beaters they should be, lacking as he is deemed to in the authority and stature necessary of the task. Recent off-field controversies have seen Loew pilloried not only for failing to land a trophy, but for having allowed the reputation of national side's players – previously viewed, in stark contrast to England, as exemplary role models – to slide into ill repute.
It had all started so well for the man dubbed 'the Bryan Ferry of football', admired by the German public as much for his achievements with the national team as for his dapper dress sense, affability and dry humour. The seeds of discontent however were sewn two years ago, when Germany were knocked out of Euro 2012 at the hands of Italy, thanks to two Mario Balotelli goals in a game that was seen as Germany's for the taking. His attempt to mark Andre Pirlo out of the game and compress the midfield to nullify Italy's threat from diagonal balls was seen to backfire, serving as it did to blunt Germany's own attacking prowess while allowing the Italian full-backs to exploit space on the flanks. Worse than this, Loew appeared to have no plan b – a criticism he has grown ever more familiar with.
This game represented a watershed in Loew's relationship with the press and the public. The benefit of the doubt he had previously enjoyed evaporated. At his previous tournaments expectations had been kept in check by the side's relative inexperience, but now Germany wanted results. After the game Loew made matters worse by hosting a 25-minute monologue of a press conference in which he blamed the press, and anyone other than himself, for the defeat.
Knives were out and matters came to a head after Germany's 4-4 draw with Sweden in the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014. Loew's side had established a four-goal lead by the hour-mark, but then conceded two goals in quick succession. Instead of making a defensive change and looking to close the game out, Loew made two attacking substitutions, bringing onMario Gotze and Lukas Podolski to look for a fifth goal. This was further evidence of the manager's lack of a plan b. Per Mertesacker summed it up after the game when he admitted that “the team simply is unable to stand at the back and defend, we simply can't do it”.
To surrender a four-goal lead was unthinkable for a Germany side and the blame was laid squarely at the manager's door. Pragmatic and pessimistic Germans questioned the value of running up impressive score lines in qualifiers when you cannot hold on to a four-goal lead. 'What will happen when they face Brazil or Argentina, not Armenia or Ireland?' they asked.
It was now open season on Loew's style of play. As Marko Schumacher wrote in the Stuttgarter Zeitung, “Instead of traditional German virtues such as force and willpower Jogi, in his fitted shirts, relies on unconditional offensive play and spectacle. In Germany new records are reached due to this new playing culture, abroad German football is no longer only feared but also admired. All this is to Loew's merit... however, it hasn't been enough yet for a title.”
Gone is the smile and humour of yore. In public Loew now appears agitated, even withdrawn as the pressure has mounted. The build up this tournament, where the manager himself has admitted his “quality of life will be zero”, has seen a stream of articles in the German press entitled Loews letzte Chance - Jogi's last chance.
Increasingly the Bundestrainer's player selection has come in for criticism, particularly his fondness for Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, two players viewed in many quarters as being past their best. He stands accused of failing to get the best out of his players,of being unable to have them replicate their club form on the international stage. Oliver Fritsch recently summed up his frustrations in Die Zeit. “Will Jogi notice his players' weaknesses?” he wrote. “Will he put his best player, Philipp Lahn, in the centre, as Pep Guardiola successfully demonstrates? Will he get the highly talented Toni Kroos and Mario Goetze to constantly play at their highest levels? They're both world class players. Does he actually notice what a diamond of a player Julian Draxler is?”
The accusation of being unfit to guide and develop his players extends beyond the football pitch. When Kevin Grosskreutz was recently caught urinating in a hotel foyer and allegedly insulting hotel residents, Loew was blammed for having let the standards of his player's conduct slip. The event was seen as symptomatic of his inability to foster a culture of discipline. In 2009 German football fans were left stunned when Loew refused to punish Lukas Podolski for slapping his captain, Michael Ballack, during a game for not passing to the younger team mate enough.
Loew's own off-pitch indiscretions, a series of driving offences, have not helped. “He can't always demand the highest discipline from players if he's unable to control himself,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The importance of such incidents cannot be underestimated in a country that demands their footballers' behaviour to be whiter than white.
The natural reaction to all this for a British football supporter may be to point again at Loew's overall performance in qualifying, bettered only by Holland on goal difference, and the fact that he has the best average points and goals record of any Germany manager. But Germany is a country concerned only with results in the finals of a tournament. It would be unthinkable for Germans to celebrate a moment in qualifier in the manner that the English celebrate, for example, David Beckham's free kick against Greece in 2001. For a country that has only missed two World Cups, the formality of what comes before the finals is just that.
Failure at this tournament to become the first European team to bring the World Cup back from South America will almost certainly bring his time in charge of Germany and die Deutsche goldene Generation to an end. While he has succeeded in transforming the reputation of national side, turning them into entertainers and making them popular beyond their own borders – previously unimaginable – for Germans bred on winning trophies, this is simply not enough.