Perhaps the worst that can be said of Germany’s 6-0 defeat to Spain on Tuesday, its worst result since 1931, is that it didn’t come entirely as a surprise. Germany’s form since winning the Confederations Cup in 2017 has been wretched, but this is a humiliation for which the roots stretch back far further.
Joachim Low has become the problem German football can no longer ignore. Low, of course, led Germany to the World Cup title in 2014, but the game has moved on. And even then, the cracks were apparent in the Germany setup. His peak as a coach probably came in South Africa four years earlier. Broadly speaking, the German school of pressing has become predominant. It has outstripped the Spanish model. The last two coaches to win the Champions League were both German. Two other German coaches got to the semifinals of last season’s Champions League. And yet, led by a man out of time, it was Germany that was ripped apart by Spain, made to look sluggish and unsophisticated, hopelessly disorganized in defensive transition. This was a defeat that went against every trend of modern football, and that essentially means personnel must be to blame.
In the 2010 World Cup, Germany was an extremely good counterattacking side. It sat deep, it lured sides on and then cut them apart with slick, well-drilled breaks. It struggled a little against teams that sat deep, losing to Serbia in the group stage, but destroyed England and Argentina and pushed Spain hard before going down 1-0 in their semifinal.
It appeared that Low decided then to make his side more proactive, to prevent the problems it had faced against Serbia and to take full advantage of an extraordinarily gifted generation of players. He failed.
For the past decade, the German production line of players has never stopped. Germany, France and Spain–with England not too far behind–have shown how it is possible, if you invest enough, to effectively industrialize youth development. But Low has rarely gotten the balance right. At Euro 2012, his side was too open, almost exposed by Greece in the quarterfinals before Mario Balotelli ripped it apart in the semis. The early stages at the 2014 World Cup were similar, as Germany was weirdly vulnerable against both Ghana and Algeria before Low went back to the basics, and secured grim 1-0 wins over France and Argentina on either side of the famous 7-1 victory in the semifinals, when it took ruthless advantage of Brazil’s self-destructive hysteria.
A straightforward draw carried Germany to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, but the same old problems remained. Germany could be attacking and exposed, or solid and devoid of creativity, but never anything in between, creaking by Italy in a penalty shootout before being well-beaten by France.
Victory with a young squad at the 2017 Confederations Cup seemed to offer renewed hope, but it ended up exposing Low’s limitations, as he failed to integrate those players into his senior squad. The 2018 World Cup was an embarrassment, defeat to South Korea in the final group game leading to Germany’s earliest exit in 80 years.
Low’s response was to cull Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, a self-defeating and blunt way of rejuvenating the squad that, quite apart from seeming unfair on three very fine players, prompted ill-feeling and has denied him two experienced center backs just when he could really use them.
Only the decision to change the structure of the Nations League spared Germany from relegation to the second tier, while Low’s side, shambolic in defensive transition, has leaked three goals this year to Turkey and Switzerland. He, bafflingly, has become obsessed with trying to play a man-marking variant of pressing through midfield, something that is only really done at anything resembling an elite level by Marcelo Bielsa and Gian Piero Gasperini. But they do it with teams whose players are suited to the system and with whom they work every day. Attempting that with players who play in a completely different style with their clubs, who meet up for only a few days six times a year is all but impossible, and the result is the befuddlement of Tuesday. It's not helped by the fact that this younger generation of players does not have the same connection to Low as the squad of a decade ago, and, indeed, appear to regard him as being woefully out of touch.
Memories of 2014, allied to the lack of available alternatives, spared Low after the early ouster in Russia, but there is an obvious potential successor this time in Ralf Rangnick. And change is very clearly necessary. German tactics and coaching are dominant, Bayern is the European champion and this is an enormously gifted generation of players. Can German football really afford to squander its moment by going into next summer's Euros with a manager who has spent the last decade struggling vainly to change his style and who probably should have left the job four years ago?