In July of 2014, a group of my friends had embarked upon a trip round Europe. With all of them sharing an enjoyment of football, it was rather a happy accident that, after months of planning ahead, the Berlin leg of their journey coincided with the World Cup final. When the night came, they sought out a giant screen on which to watch it, surrounded by football fans and full of beer. It’s safe to say I could not have been more jealous of them. The most archetypally German setting imaginable produced a fitting reaction to Mario Götze’s winner and the videos and pictures my friends managed to capture in the moment tell the story of a country where football belongs irrevocably in the fabric of the nation.
Indeed, while England may be the historical home of football there’s no doubt that Germany is the spiritual home. The football played there has an identity; a palpable personality recognisable to anyone with a connection to the game. Everywhere you look, it’s there; from the armchair fans to the elite managers and players. This obsession with fostering football is born out of the historic success of German teams – their three European Championship titles as well as four World Cups are intrinsically linked to the current prosperity of talent.
As such, the Germans are somewhat predisposed to winning. Die Mannschaft now go into major tournaments as one of, if not the, favourites to win. And this year’s European Championships in France are no exception. Their pedigree is such that while they rarely underachieve, it is also difficult for them to overachieve; they simply achieve. For instance, despite their largely meaningless FIFA rankings changing erratically, Germany have not once finished outside of the top three in a major tournament under Joachim Löw.
Speaking of whom, it would be remiss of me not to mention the impact of the Germany manager. The man who ended Germany’s 20 year trophy wait may look and dress like an award-winning interior designer but since his appointment he has instilled a fool-proof footballing philosophy for the modern era. As assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann, he reportedly grew frustrated with how long the players held on to the ball and, since his 2006 promotion, has cultivated a more fast-paced style — pass-and-move football at a high intensity while retaining Klinsmann’s offensive style. And boy has it worked. In his ten year reign, Löw boasts the best win percentage of any German manager ever as well as the highest goals-per-game ratio since Sepp Herberger’s pre-war stint.
Löw’s Germany has been largely centred on a strong and unchanging skeleton of senior players. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose have all been ever-present in each of the manager’s tournament squads for the last ten years but what makes 2016 interesting is that this is set to change by 10th June. Indeed, this consistency of this core has been ruptured by the retirements of Mertesacker, Lahm and Klose along with a long-term injury to Schweinsteiger. One need only point to the stagnant nature of England’s teams down the years to suggest why tournament experience isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, but that ‘Golden Generation’ wasn’t doing half as well as the current crop of Germans. In fact in the last two years, the makeup of any potential tournament squad has changed more than it has done in terms of key personnel than at any time during Löw’s tenure.
So it could well prove that these changes are crucial. Squad seniority is, generally speaking, a great boon in major competitions, so that’s at least one thing which this German team will miss about the aforementioned three. In addition, two years of sporadic international breaks is not a huge amount of time to bed in the players drafted in to replace the retirees, Lahm and Klose in particular. For over a decade in the German shirt, Klose was the epitome of the ideals that football has historically attached to the role of the striker. While not quite so prolific at club level, he proved himself time and time again to be a relentless tour de force in tournament football and undoubtedly presents a potential miss for this German team.
And if Klose is missed, then one can only imagine the yearning for Philipp Lahm. The former captain embodied a willingness to move seamlessly between systems, having excelled in at least three positions throughout his international career. In addition, his omnipresence helped the team mold and grow around him. There was a familiarity with Lahm – whether at left-back, right-back or in the heart of midfield, he would always be there as the captain. Still only aged 32, it seems unthinkable that he won’t be leading the team out at the Stade Pierre Mauroy on the 12th of June.
So Germany’s seniority and experience has undoubtedly been damaged by the raft of retirements and it is not easily rebuilt. In addition, the on-pitch solutions have only impressed so much. For the majority of the last World Cup, Germany were so bereft of full-back options with Lahm in the midfield that their left and right sided defenders were both, by trade, centre halves. It was only when Lahm moved back into his rightful role that they began to keep clean sheets with regularity, conceding just once after the readjustment. While Jonas Hector appears to have taken advantage of the qualifying stages for this summer by nailing down the left-back spot, the right-back position is still undecided. Sebastian Rudy, Erik Durm and Emre Can have all tried their hand but none of them come close to their former skipper.
Klose’s departure, however, caused a little less consternation. Thomas Müller and Mario Götze have both proven themselves as centre forwards, while Mario Gómez has forced his name back into the reckoning. Indeed, it could be the latter who tempts Löw the most given his impressive performances at Euro 2012. Gómez’s stand-and-deliver style fits the creative surroundings with which the German team often overflows, so if he can recapture the form he found four years ago then he could prove a dangerous apex to an already impressive German attack.
In all honesty it may be that Germany need a reinvigoration. Going into Euro 2016, their friendly form hasn’t been great and they advanced with nothing like their usual flourish, losing international qualifiers for the first time since 2007. The quiet qualification process Germany underwent could be a result of the adjustment needed after a euphoric World Cup win and the departure of major players. But qualify they did, and we must now look forward at how the DFB-Elf will fare in June and July.
Still the bookmakers’ favourites, just edging out hosts France, Germany’s ability to pull themselves together when it matters cannot be emphasised enough. The usually simple yet sincere task of qualifying is usually completed with little or no drama and even while that may not be the case this time round, they still finished top of their group. What also impresses is the attention to detail Germany have in their tournament approaches – performance analysts insist that their World Cup win was tailored by technology. What’s more, in the past ten years the Germans have five times stifled the best players on the planet in major tournaments: three times suppressing Cristiano Ronaldo and twice foiling Lionel Messi. This meticulousness means that Germany rarely, if ever, succumb to individual brilliance and nothing less should be expected this summer.
Above all else, Germany arguably enjoy the luxury of having the best overall team. While there are the aforementioned question marks over the defence, the constantly improving Jerome Boateng is expected to make his return in time for the competition. Further forward, an expected midfield engine room of İlkay Gündoğan and Toni Kroos is a force to be reckoned with, particularly when used in conjunction with the mesmerising attacking options at their disposal. If those two can lay a platform for the likes of perpetually brilliant Thomas Müller and Arsenal’s court wizard Mesut Özil then we can expect a very profitable tournament indeed for this group of players.
If friendly form is anything to go by then this team still have a long way to go until they click into an appropriate gear. But, luckily for Germany, friendly form is rarely anything to go by – if they approach this tournament like they have done the previous four under Löw, then don’t be surprised to see Die Mannschaft lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy on the 10th of July.