Low's Germany engineering their smooth passage to Rio
Efficient rather than stylish but Low's team remain on course.
On Friday afternoon, Joachim Low walked into the press conference at the Maracana after leading Germany to their fourth consecutive World Cup semi-final. This was his triumph, the moment when he had shaken up the world as German managers are supposed to do.
Low, as he always does, looked like a man delivering a TED talk to an audience which, he is slightly surprised to discover, doesn’t hold him in the same regard he holds himself.
There was plenty of praise for Low on Friday but unless Germany win the World Cup next Sunday, it may never be the praise Low looked like he would once receive in the German job.
In Rio on Friday, Germany and France produced a game which had many wishing the European teams could make their way home and leave the tournament to the anarchic ways of South America. By Friday night, the anarchic ways of South America were being condemned. So it goes.
At the end of Friday’s first quarter-final, Germany had reached the last four again and the hopes for a French side that had played so thrillingly in the group stages were seen to be misplaced.
Low must now deal with his own country’s hopes. Before Friday’s game he and his players had seemed frustrated at the criticism as they made it to another World Cup quarter-final. “I don’t know what you want from me,” Per Mertesacker said after the Algeria game. “Do you think only Mickey Mouse teams are in the last eight?”
On Thursday, the German media had laughed at a joke about Philipp Lahm of staggering lameness even for a Match Day -1 press conference as it is called by FIFA, a title which hints at an exoticism and mystery rarely found at an actual MD-1 press conference.
Low had promised that all would be revealed by Friday but he had also said that he was not for turning on the subject. Lahm would continue in midfield.
To much surprise, on Friday Lahm was restored to right-back. Germany looked more like Germany, even if France looked more like France and, in particular, Karim Benzema looked more like the player who had gone more than 1,200 minutes without an international goal during qualification.
Low had portrayed himself as a man of steel but in selecting Lahm in midfield and then returning him to right-back, he had revealed himself as something else, something more in keeping with this World Cup where coaches are ciphers, existing to facilitate the desires of the players.
Low’s style was in contrast to Didier Deschamps. The French players had spent this World Cup talking about the importance of Deschamps’ experience to the squad. Deschamps’ style is different to Low’s but when talking to the press, they share a frustration that this is time spent engaging with fools. Deschamps’ feelings are closer to the surface and he speaks through a crooked smile and chipped front teeth which gives the unmistakable sense that this was a manager you wouldn’t want to cross.
Deschamps had moulded the squad he wanted and left behind the big names that he didn’t. It was management as most people would understand it, but France were on their way home with nothing to do except talk about the future, while Low remained in Brazil, waiting to face more criticism.
There had been plenty of people criticising Low in the build-up to Friday’s game. Low had said before the Algeria game that he had decided on Lahm’s position and that wouldn’t change. “I have made my decision in relation to Philipp Lahm’s role and I stand by it, until the end.”
He stood by it for one more game before Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger were restored for the quarter-final. Low said after Friday’s game that he had selected Lahm at right-back to deal with a specific French threat. He may be tempted to take a stand again and return him to midfield for Tuesday’s game against Brazil. Or perhaps Low will discover another specific threat before the game in Belo Horizonte but the reality is that his German side have taken advantage of the weaknesses of others to reach the semi-final.
“Today we played a good Germany team, but a German team who were not at their best,” France’s reserve Morgan Schneiderlin said afterwards. “I think, in the second half, we were on top of them even if, at the end, they had some chances. They showed that they have experience, that they are a strong team, even not at their best. Well done to them. We need to learn and get some experience from that.”
This is where Low came in. He took over in 2008 and two years later, he brought the youngest squad in 76 years to the World Cup in South Africa. Germany’s semi-final defeat to Spain was written off as a good experience. When they lost to Italy at the European Championships two years ago, there was more reluctance to dismiss it as easily.
Among this weekend’s quarter-finalists, only Belgium have a younger squad but Low, who looks so self-consciously good at the age of 54, was beginning to look dated.
Germany have not become the team people predicted they would be four years ago. The squad in South Africa was a continuation of the remodelling work conducted by Jurgen Klinsmann. The future would belong to Mesut Ozil and those like Mario Gotze who was called into his first squad shortly after the last World Cup.
On Friday, Germany once again triumphed without any contribution from Ozil, who seemed downcast and demoralised when he was withdrawn, although that looked like his state for much of the afternoon, while Gotze, who has had a disappointing tournament, only appeared as a late replacement for Ozil.
Germany beat France with a set-piece and they relied on the powerful running of Thomas Muller — a player whose style and temperament would be admired by the German sides of the 1980s — and, to a lesser extent, Khedira. Low described the win over Algeria as a “victory of will” and that was one way of describing their unimpressive performance.
“We have this feeling,” Andre Schurrle said after Friday’s game. “Everybody is really close. You feel that everybody wants this. We have a big opportunity now to win this title. The last years we were close. Now, we want this so much. We want to show we can do this.”