Manager insists he knows how to cope with pressure before Euro 2020 qualifier against the Netherlands but there is a sense that the country has fallen out of love with its national team
Before the game against Serbia, Germany’s followers displayed a huge choreography, forming the letters “Danke” with three numbers underneath them: 5, 13 and 17.
It was the fans’ way of saying thank you to Mats Hummels, Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng, the three world champions who had been unceremoniously dumped by Joachim Löw at the beginning of the month and told they would not be considered for selection again in the near future.
The trio of World Cup winners were mystified by and angry at the sudden turn of events but Löw was adamant he needed an umbruch – a break with the past. Out with the old and in with the new, apart from when it comes to the manager himself, who oversaw last year’s World Cup fiasco and relegation from Nations League Group A but remains in charge.
That drastic decision means the pressure now rests solely on Löw’s shoulders to succeed, starting with the mouth-watering Euro 2020 qualifier against the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Sunday. “You have to trust me when I say that I know how to cope with pressure,” he said through somewhat gritted teeth before the Serbia game on Wednesday. “I have been doing it for 14 years now.
“The pressure on me and the team has always been extremely high and I know that we have to deliver. I know that I am taking a certain risk [with the changes in personnel] but it is a risk I am prepared to take because I believe in these young players.”
Löw’s 23-man squad for the Serbia and Netherlands games included eight players born in 1996 or later. The starting XI against Serbia had an average age of 24.66, roughly three years younger than the one that lost their opening group game against Mexico 1-0 at the World Cup last year.
There is huge talent and the feeling is that Löw has done the right thing – but gone about it in the wrong way. In the friendly against Serbia, which finished 1-1 in Wolfsburg after an early goal for the visitors by Luka Jovic and an equaliser by Leon Goretzka, Löw started with an attacking four consisting of Julian Brandt (22), Kai Havertz (19), Leroy Sané (23) and Timo Werner (also 23). Ilkay Gündogan was the oldest player in the starting XI, aged 28.
At right-back, RB Leipzig’s Lukas Klostermann, who is 22, had a superb game and, to be fair to Löw, his young team took Serbia apart in the second half and were unlucky not to score two or three times. It was not lost on some that the turnaround after a poor first half, however, came after Havertz had been replaced by the experienced Marco Reus while Toni Kroos and Antonio Rüdiger, on the bench for the full 90 minutes in Wolfsburg, will be expected to start against the Dutch.
As Oliver Hartmann wrote in Kicker: “In the much-publicised new beginning the German team had to settle for a draw against Serbia. There was light and there was shadow and, above all, the realisation that the break with the past that Löw has finally initiated is not going to bring Germany back to the top of the world overnight.”
He is right and Germany are in an interesting place now. The game against Serbia was a sell-out and watched by almost 10 million people on television, not bad for a midweek friendly. But there is also the sense that the country has fallen out of love with its national team in the past 18 months.
The furore that engulfed Mesut Özil and Gündogan over meeting the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before the World Cup has not gone away despite the former quitting international football after the tournament.
Gündogan was captain for the second half against Serbia and talked afterwards about his pride wearing the armband yet the day after the game the German daily Bild asked its readers whether the Manchester City player could lead the national team as an “Erdogan-supporter”, with 57% voting no.
Clearly, bridges must be built between players and fans as well as between Löw and the media. As a bellwether of where Germany are at the moment, it was telling that the team in white shirts were booed off at half-time and then applauded off after the full 90 minutes. It feels as if everything is 45 minutes away from being terrible or outstanding. Boom or bust.
The positive for Löw is that Germany (Fifa-ranked 16) are in a Euro 2020 qualifying group with the Netherlands (14), Northern Ireland (36), Estonia (96) and Belarus (78). With the top two qualifying for the finals, there should be plenty of wriggle room should they lose to Ronald Koeman’s Dutch side on Sunday.
The game will, however, be a good indicator of where this German side are at the moment against a side ranked two places above them in the world. In their two Nations League meetings last autumn – their first competitive clashes since 2012 – the Dutch won 3-0 in Amsterdam and Germany could manage only a 2-2 draw in Gelsenkirchen after conceding a two-goal lead in the last five minutes of the match.
The midweek warm-up against Serbia was, as Stefan Hermanns wrote in Der Tagesspiegel, a small step forward for Löw and his side. The manager spoke about the players having the right mentality, sending “a loud and clear signal” that they are ready to take on bigger challenges, but no one was kidding themselves after the game: this rebuilding project will take some time.