The question before Joachim Loew is essentially a philosophical one. Do you react to the opposition? Or should the opposition react to you? Is your playing style a response to the opposition’s plan? Or is your plan seeking to alter the opposing side’s strategy?
Loew knows which side he sits on. When Germany played Italy in the 2012 Euro semifinal in Warsaw, he changed his midfield’s shape to a structure resembling a diamond. Toni Kroos came in, with the intention of keeping a check on Andrea Pirlo. That night, however, individual errors ensured Loew's plans were seen through the prism of failure.
The pressure following the defeat was high. High enough to force a manager to rethink his approach. But Loew remained rooted to the belief that it’s better to react to the opposition’s strengths rather than forcing them to adjust to Germany’s way of playing. This was not the case against smaller teams. But when facing sides with major pedigree, the German manager treaded on the side of caution.
This was clear two years ago when Loew's team met France in the World Cup quarterfinal. His experiment with Philipp Lahm in midfield was ditched and he was moved to his natural position at right-back. Germany’s defensive shakiness was no longer there to see and the side went on to lift the World Cup.
That triumph was the vindication of Loew ’s methods. No wonder he once again chose to tinker with a well-functioning side when Germany met Italy in the Euro quarterfinal on Saturday. A three-man defence was employed to nullify Italy’s advantage in midfield. Although that part of the plan worked, Germany was reduced to ponderousness in the final third. The longest penalty shootout in the history of Euro and World Cup tournaments brought a fortuitous win but the question marks are back again.
It’s a good thing that Loew is prone to reactiveness, for he faces a difficult situation ahead of his team’s semifinal against France in Marseille on Thursday. There will be at least one major absence in each unit of the side. The defence will be shorn of Mats Hummels’ services as he is suspended for the match; the midfield will miss the injured Sami Khedira, half-fit Bastian Schweinsteiger is likely to be absent as well; striker Mario Gomez has been ruled out of the tournament due to a hamstring problem.
Loew should return to a four-man backline for the semifinal as it would allow him to choose between Benedikt Howedes and Shkodran Mustafi but it’s the questions that the other positions pose which will trouble him more. Emre Can and Julian Weigl are both able replacements for Sami Khedira but they are different kind of players. Can is a bigger physical presence and a better ball-winner; Dortmund’s Weigl, though, can cover more ground and provide a wider range of passing. If Loew is worried about France’s varied attacking threat, he would veer towards Can. History would suggest that’s likely.
The decision over who should be placed at the tip of the attack is a bigger quandary. Gomez had provided the solution to the problem as he could not only finish moves; he could also push the defence back and hold the ball up to create space for Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler. Now that the Besiktas striker will not feature again in this tournament, does Loew go back to Mario Goetze as striker?
It was with Goetze as the lone forward that Germany had begun the tournament. But that move did not work out well since the playmaker failed to involve his teammates in attack on account of his stodgy movement. Goals were difficult to earn with Goetze as striker and Loew will now agonise over the decision before his team plays the hosts. France’s performances suggest the side is on an upward curve. Loew will not approach the semifinal with utmost optimism.
It’s a predicament that a manager would best avoid. Especially Loew , who has a chance of joining a select band of managers if his team can land the Henri Delaunay trophy this Sunday. Helmut Schon with West Germany and Spain’s Vicente del Bosque are the only head coaches to oversee triumphant campaigns at the Euro and World Cup both. Loew is on the cusp of entering the pantheon.
To accomplish this rare challenge, the 56-year-old manager is likely to trust the ideas that have kept him running in his decade-long tenure with Germany. His first-choice players are not available but it is Loew ’s ability to adapt and react that marks him out. If there are no uncharacteristic mistakes, things can turn out really well. That might seem an obvious thing to say but Loew needs almost his entire eleven to perform close to their potential against the big teams.
The drop-off in individual displays can be magnified within his system. Or sometimes, it’s the shoulder of fortune that needs to tend to him and his side. As was visible against Italy, Germany required quite a few breaks of luck to see the team through in an encounter that did not have a clear winner. The psychological boost from the success could be significant; although Thomas Muller has been drawn away from penalty duties after his latest transgression.
Wins like the one over Italy help to construct a narrative of inevitable glory but it is a bit difficult to wholeheartedly believe that Germany’s success is impending. There are enough chinks in the armour to give France the hope that it can do a number on the Germans, just like the Italians. The French team has sharper attacking qualities than Italy; a clinical disposition that could prove crucial.
Yet, in moments of adversity, Germany may find an unlikely hero. Like - the FC Koln left-back Jonas Hector, who struck the winning penalty against Italy despite never having taken a spot-kick in senior football. Contrastingly, the established figures of Schweinsteiger, Muller and Ozil failed to convert their attempts on Saturday. The senior pros could take cue from another experienced player who remains a model of brilliance – goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Because it is not only the young ones who need to maintain high standards. In Loew’s team, everyone needs to pull their weight.