Joachim Low searching for cure to Germany's World Cup hangover
Joachim Low was being served his customary postmatch espresso in the TV studio on Friday, but that late-night caffeine shot just served to amplify his anger.
"I'm not satisfied," the Germany coach said with uncharacteristic candour after the 4-0 win over minnow Gibraltar in Nuremberg, sipping furiously.
His ire was directed at the team's poor attacking play in the second half, a number of unnamed fringe players whom he had expected to do more "to make of a case for themselves" and a general lack of sharpness over the past few months. Then he added a quite remarkable sentence. "I'm happy," Low said, "that this year is now nearly over." Wasn't it supposed to be a lot more fun to be world champions?
There was weariness in his face; the 54-year-old looked a little tired. He and his squad had spent the week at award ceremonies and movie premieres ("Die Mannschaft," a rose-tinged documentary of the successful Brazil campaign, hit the silver screen on Monday), and all that celebrating of the recent past had not exactly helped in the run-up to a game that Germany could truly win only by notching up double figures.
Low, a perfectionist, hates the slacking off, but he knew that would be fighting a losing battle. The drop from the highs of the Maracana to the routine slog of qualification is steep enough to make for a fall that hurts. He admitted in the TV interview that a World Cup hangover was vexing his side, that a few percentage points, mentally, were irretrievably missing.
An explanation is one thing, a valid excuse quite another though. Low still looked shocked by Germany's uninspired outing, and he was in no mood to simply forgive and forget. The ineffective Lukas Podolski and Max Kruse, in particular, seemed to have angered their manager with sub-standard showings. Dortmund full-back Erik Durm didn't cover himself in glory either.
If some loss of focus was perhaps inevitable in the wake of the Rio de Janeiro triumph, the new year should bring back some clarity of purpose. "I simply hope that we will qualify in 2015, that we will have a good preparation [for Euro 2016] and the players can stay healthy," Low said, rather humbly. The question is, however, if a more professional attitude from his players will be enough to see Germany play at their best again. The coach, German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung suspected, has begun to wonder himself.
"Low doesn't know whether it's just the red carpets that have thrown his world champions off course or whether the changes in playing staff has made them much more vulnerable than he'd hoped for," the Munich-based broadsheet wrote on Monday. Retired stalwarts Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose had left "a gap," Low said, "the many changes are for sure not beneficial to the team."
Against Spain in Vigo, Low will shuffle the pack yet again. Hoffenheim striker Kevin Volland, the captain of the U-21s, will audition for a part in the strike force, and Stuttgart defender Antonio Rudiger will be afforded another look. Vicente del Bosque's team is also missing players, but it will come up against world champions that look eminently beatable.
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Low warned that a raft of injuries -- goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, centre-back Jerome Boateng and winger Marco Reus are all out -- as well as the uncompetitive nature of the contest would prevent his side from making a "significant mark" on Tuesday night. It almost sounded as if he was preparing himself and his audience for a defeat.
"It was a sensational year, and it will have its pride of place in history, no friendly will affect that," he said. That much is true, obviously. The poor performances and results in the Euro 2016 qualification campaign, where Germany have won only two of their four matches so far, will also have no bearing on their chances to lift more silverware in the not-too-distant future -- unless an improbably catastrophic run makes them miss out on the tournament altogether.
That won't happen. But right now, Low's belief in the progress of his team appears a little shaken. Before Gibraltar, he had said that his plan was to make Germany tactically more versatile and experiment with formations, as Pep Guardiola has been doing so successfully at Bayern Munich this season. That ideal looks a little fanciful in light of a talent pool that feels a little short on genuine class and experience.
The return of key midfielders like Ilkay Gundogan and Bastian Schweinsteiger should make for a positive outlook come next spring, but the past weeks have shown that it won't be easy to build a new team. It's no wonder Low wants to consign 2014 to the history books. Finding the right path forward is all but impossible if you're too busy looking back at where you've come from.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.