The transformation of German football

Since the 2006 FIFA World Cup at home, Germany has changed a lot as a football nation, be it its style, training methods or ways of approaching the game. The first results highlighting a new Germany in football came at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And 2014 was Germany’s year and it proved to the world that its golden generation of new footballers had reached their peak and deservingly won the World Cup.

Joachim Loew... aiming for his first European Championship title and Germany's first in 20 years.   -  REUTERS

Bastian Schweinsteiger (left) and Lukas Podolski... products of Germany's new wave football.   -  AP

The 2016 UEFA European Championships in France might just be another competition where Germany, under coach Joachim Loew, will want to build on its reputation of being a national football team that excels in the big tournaments.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup champion, which won its fourth World title in style with especially the 7-1 demolition of the host, Brazil, in the semifinals in everyone’s mind, did not have the best of Euro qualifiers, losing away to Poland and Ireland but still topped its qualification group ahead of Poland, Ireland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

When Loew announced his final squad of 23 players for the 2016 European Championship, there were some surprises in store.

Injury strikes Reus again

The tragic injury history of Marco Reus continued, as the talented Borussia Dortmund midfielder, on his 27th birthday, had to be left out of the final squad.

After the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, Reus once again misses a big tournament, which is not only a personal tragedy for the player, but also for Loew and Germany who will miss one of their best attacking options.

Further, all-rounder Sebastian Rudy (1899 Hoffenheim), winger Karim Bellarabi (Bayer 04 Leverkusen) and youngster Julian Brandt (Bayer 04 Leverkusen) were left out of the final 23, which meant that youngsters Joshua Kimmich (FC Bayern Munich), Julian Weigl (Borussia Dortmund) and Leroy Sane (FC Schalke 04) all found a place in the final Germany squad.

There was also good news in store for Loew, as Germany’s medical team cleared currently injured defender Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund) and captain Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United) to be part of the squad, though both might miss some of the group matches. However, they surely would be match-fit for the important knockout games, and this shows that coach Loew is planning for a longer stay in France.

With the tagline Vive la Mannschaft, Germany goes into the tournament with the aim of conquering France and winning their fourth UEFA EURO title. Its biggest rival for the title would be host France and double-defending champion Spain, with FIFA World No. 2 Belgium being an outside contender. So would be Italy and a young England.

However, for Loew and his team, it will not be an easy endeavour. Germany will surely miss former captain Philipp Lahm, centre-back Per Mertesacker and striker Miroslav Klose, who all, after Germany’s World Cup triumph in 2014, retired from international football. Finding one-to-one replacements has been difficult, but Loew thinks that the right preparation would give his squad a chance at lifting the UEFA EURO title once more.

Besides the above trio, Loew will also miss the services of midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, who won’t be playing in the tournament, like his Dortmund team-mate Reus, due to an injury. But Loew also kept some players out of his squad — players he felt would not work well under him, like Dortmund left-back Marcel Schmelzer or VfL Wolfsburg striker Max Kruse, who in recent months has had controversies too many. On the other hand, he has once again placed his trust on the ageing Lukas Podolski to be a part of the squad, but the quickest player of the Bundesliga, Karim Bellarabi, will have to watch the tournament from home.

Loew is the boss

The German coach has his own style of putting a squad together, his own ways of working with a team, and his kind of players, whether he likes them or not. In Germany, not all agree with Loew, and this despite the coach winning the FIFA World Cup. Especially the officials and fans of Borussia Dortmund feel that he could have picked more players from their side with only Mats Hummels and young Julian Weigl making the final squad. As mentioned above, Gundogan and Reus are injured, Schmelzer isn’t to the liking of Loew, but defenders Mathias Ginter and Erik Durm, both World champions, didn’t find space in the squad, just as utility player Sven Bender didn’t.

Over the last 10 years, Loew has achieved a lot with Germany. Since the 2006 FIFA World Cup at home, Germany has changed a lot as a football nation, be it its style, training methods or ways of approaching the game. The first results highlighting a new Germany in football came at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The 2012 EURO in Poland and Ukraine was another step forward though Germany lost to Italy in the semifinals. But 2014 was Germany’s year and it proved to the world that its golden generation of new footballers had reached their peak and deservingly won the FIFA World Cup. Now in France, Loew and his team aim to win their first European Championship title and Germany’s first in 20 years.

Germany has a special relationship with the European Championships. It won the tournament in 1972, 1980 and 1996 besides finishing runner-up in 1976, 1992 and 2008; but Euro 2000 in the Netherlands and Belgium was a decisive edition for Germany as the great football nation was eliminated in the group stage along with England, as Portugal and Romania progressed.

Germany had amongst other players a 40-year-old Lothar Matthaus playing, which showed to the German FA (DFB) that something was wrong with the system, as young talent was not coming through. It was then decided to enhance the DFB talent base, which was spread across Germany to scout for the best talent. And in 2000, the German Football League (DFL) was founded and this ensured that the Bundesliga clubs created Nachwuchsleistungszentren (NLZ), which were centres of excellence at the clubs. It was a new concept in Germany then, and it focussed on simply having academies at the clubs. Today the NLZs are a key component of the club licensing criteria, from the Third Division upwards with many Fourth and even Fifth Division teams having NLZs to develop their own talent.

The first real results of the new wave were visible at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, with talents like Schweinsteiger and Podolski, and the head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, with his assistant Loew, bringing new ideas into German football, especially in training methodology, physical fitness and tactics. However, not all the revolutionary ideas were accepted and Klinsmann left the World Cup, as Loew succeeded him. He has been in charge since then.

The way German football changed

Germany and its football, a relationship that is many decades old, have changed. Germany was always a team that would fight until the end, give everything and somehow ensure that it won. But over the last decade, Germany has developed its own style and brand of attacking football, which has been aided by club coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and others.

The other big development was that young talent at the age of 17 or 18 were getting their first-team debuts in the league compared to 21-22 about 15 years ago. This has meant a constant stream of young talent, who had been prepared by the NLZs for the tough world of professional football.

The current squad has the potential to win EURO 2016, especially after a typical German tournament-preparation in Ascona. The team will continue in the same way during the tournament in Evian, which means it is different from the side that played the qualifiers or friendlies.

An expanded 24-nation competition means that the four best third-placed teams too make it to the pre-quarterfinals. The fear of elimination at the EURO is much less and teams can settle in, allow recovering players to come back from injuries and be ready for the knockout matches. This is the gamble that Loew has taken in the case of Schweinsteiger and Hummels, knowing what both did for Germany in Brazil and what they could do in France.

At EURO 2016, Germany is drawn in Group C, alongside Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland. Die Mannschaft kicks off its campaign against Ukraine on June 12 in Lille, before it faces neighbour Poland on June 16 at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.

Germany’s final group game against Northern Ireland takes place on June 21 at the Park de Prince in Paris.

(The author is a football consultant and writer based in Berlin, Germany)

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