Can Löw go out on a high?

Joachim Löw’s announcement that he will step down as Germany manager after the European Championship hardly came as a surprise. If anything, it’s a wonder he managed to – or even wanted to – continue for so long after the fallout from the World Cup in 2018. After their title defence ended at the group stage, Löw and his team were subjected to the usual mix of finger pointing and soul searching.

Löw kept his job, just, and came out pedalling a new Germany, dumping some cornerstones of past success, most notably Thomas Müller, and promoting young players in a fresh-faced squad. Unfortunately for the manager, Uefa slapped the Nations League right in the middle of his roadmap out of the crisis and his team had to face up to failure very early on, ending 2018 with disappointing results against France and the Netherlands before losing 6-0 to Spain in Seville in November of last year. It was a humiliating defeat for Löw – Germany’s biggest in 89 years – but, by now, he has seen everything that can be thrown at an international manager.

His time in the top job started so well. After surfing the wave of positivity created by the 2006 World Cup on home soil, Löw stepped out of Jürgen Klinsmann’s shadow and led the team on the short hop to neighbouring Austria and Switzerland for Euro 2008. A deft Fernando Torres finish in the final prevented Löw from having the perfect start. It was Löw’s misfortune to be up against an exceptional Spain team, a side who would themselves go on to make a hash of a World Cup defence.

The seeds of Germany’s future success were sown on the pitches of South Africa in 2010. The loss of Michael Ballack before the tournament looked like a real blow at the time, but Löw was able to draw on a fast-emerging pool of talent. More than half of the squad were aged 24 or under. Toni Kroos, Mezut Özil, Jérôme Boateng and, in particular, Thomas Müller quickly became household names, joining experienced stars such as Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and newly appointed skipper Philipp Lahm.

Another pre-tournament injury, this time to René Adler, meant Manuel Neuer, the talented Schalke goalkeeper with a handful of caps, was given his chance. It’s fair to say that decision paid off.

Once warmed up, Germany threw themselves into the tournament, tearing through England and Argentina in the knockout games before going toe-to-toe with an all-conquering Spain side in the semi-finals, again losing by the odd goal.

Any hopes Löw had of breaking his duck two years later in Poland and Ukraine were dashed by Italy in, you guessed it, the semi-finals. A brace from a young Mario Balotelli did for Germany in Warsaw. Any defeat that deep into a tournament is tough, but especially this one. Following their performances in South Africa, and with two more years in the legs of their younger players, Germany were one of the favourites. But, like in 2006, Italy proved too much. Spain ended up winning their third tournament in a row.

Löw’s record of two semi-finals and a final in his first three tournaments would be welcomed in most nations but it was not quite enough for Germany. Something was different in 2014. The stars of 2010 were now superstars and, for the legends who had been around since 2006, it was now or never. With Spain and Italy knocked out in the group stage, Germany would not have to face the teams that had conquered them in the past three tournaments. Grit saw them through the group stage and a scare against Algeria in the second round was a wake-up call before the final three games.

A nervy but solid win against France in the quarter-finals set up the game of the tournament against the hosts. Had Germany lost to Brazil in Belo Horizonte, it may well have been Löw’s last game. Another semi-final, another defeat, another disappointment. It would have been quite an ask to regroup and go again after four near misses. But this was no ordinary game. Sami Khedira scored Germany’s fifth goal before half an hour had been played, giving Löw the chance to spend the rest of a surreal and tear-drenched evening planning for the final at the Maracanã.

Löw was made to suffer before he could celebrate. After 112 tense minutes in the final against Argentina, a swing of Mario Götze’s left foot gave him the glory he had been chasing since joining the national set-up a decade earlier.

Maybe this should have been his last game. He could have left and had his pick of jobs, or just spent the rest of his career swanning in and out of TV studios, answering questions about why the current Germany team was not performing as well as his world champions had. On the other hand, why step away from leading the best team in the world? Why not try to emulate Spain’s recent run of international trophies, or become only the third team to defend the World Cup successfully, after Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962?

Unfortunately, that plan did not quite work out. In truth, there have been few highlights since Brazil. Löw may wish he had gone out at the top, particularly after Spain put six past Neuer in November. Had there not been a tournament around the corner, that 6-0 thrashing in the Nations League might have been it for Löw.

Managing a national side has its benefits, but also its downsides. It is difficult to build momentum after victories or bounce back after defeats. If you are in the middle of a tournament, a defeat can put you on the plane home, and a poor qualifier or friendly is often followed by months of brooding and second guessing before you see the players again.

Four months have passed since Löw suffered the worst defeat of his tenure against Spain. A parting of the ways this summer was inevitable, whatever the outcome at the Euros. If Germany do well, maybe even win it, Löw will have a second chance to get out while the going is good. Disappoint again and he would have been sent packing. By announcing his intentions early, Löw leaves on his own terms, both saving the DFB a potentially awkward conversation and calming the waters with the tournament on the horizon.

But can he end on a high? Sure. This is still Germany after all, and tournament football is about hitting the sweet spot at the right time. A quick glance at the potential squad for the summer also adds to the optimism.

Neuer has been back to his best for a long time and, even though he has played behind better back fours, the rest of the pitch looks promising. Providing everyone stays fit, a midfield featuring Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and a supremely in-form Ilkay Gündogan looks strong. Thomas Tuchel has rejuvenated Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. Serge Gnabry has been one of Germany’s best players in the last two years. Surely Löw will find a place this time for Leroy Sané, who is now finding his feet and form on the opposite flank at Bayern Munich. Add to the mix talented youngsters such as Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz, and Löw can be quietly confident.

And then there’s Müller. Regardless of whether Löw was right to cut him after the World Cup in 2018, the Bayern forward was not anywhere near his best in Russia. However, since Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac at Bayern in 2019, Müller has been back in the frame and almost irreplaceable. Not only has he formed a deadly attack with Robert Lewandowski, and has racked up over a dozen assists in the league, but he seems to have rediscovered his mojo. Back are the intelligent runs, jaunty finishes, playground enthusiasm and his astounding awareness of space.

Discussion has begun about who could replace Löw. And while Jürgen Klopp has announced his intention to stay at Anfield, Ralf Rangnick looks a popular choice for many, but possibly not long term. Many believe the role could be filled by Flick, who spent eight years as Löw’s No2.

Whatever happens in the summer, and whoever eventually takes over, Löw deserves credit. He has been in charge of Germany for just shy of 15 years, sending his team out 189 times, across various continents, in all manner of competitions, against every kind of opponent. Anyone occupying such a public position for so long can expect highs and lows, but a win rate approaching 65% is nothing to be sniffed at.

Apparently Müller would be happy to turn out for Germany again if Löw reaches out. Whether the world’s longest-serving national coach picks up the phone or not could ultimately have a major impact on how he is remembered.


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