HAMBURG, Germany — Twice the sound of Kernkraft 400’s electro-hit “Zombie Nation” rang out of the speakers at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion on Friday night. Thanks to Serge Gnabry and Toni Kroos, Germany’s new goal music had arrived but beyond the beats lay a spluttering, twitchy Germany performance.
“This is not the way we want to play,” Joachim Low said afterwards. That much was obvious, but how Germany do want to play is not so clear.
Low’s latest rebuild — one that some observers feel should be happening without him — has seen him change assistant coach, enforce retirement on Mats Hummels, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, and move away from the possession-based style of play that won them the World Cup in Brazil. And yet, their display in Friday’s 4-2 defeat to Netherlands was confusing.
In the first half, Germany had less of the ball, sat a little deeper and looked to be explosive in transition. For the most part, it worked. One of Low’s key changes in his latest rebuild is to make Germany faster, something a front three of Marco Reus, Timo Werner and Gnabry proved they could execute. Gnabry, the man Low says will always play, still looks the most dangerous player in a Germany shirt and in the first half, he made the difference.
But the reactive nature of Germany’s first-half performance didn’t appear to be the plan. Low suggested afterwards that a bit more access to the ball and a little less running would have been desirable. Both Joshua Kimmich and Nico Schulz talked about not having enough control, while Reus was keen to stress how much of what happened had been avoidable. In any case, the respect Germany showed the Dutch at home in the first 45 minutes was telling; even Virgil van Dijk admitted he was a bit surprised.
Indeed, a host of errors and general passivity hid whatever Germany’s plan in the second half might have been. Germany continually gave the ball away, notably while trying to move forward.
So what is this Germany side supposed to look like?
Victory against Netherlands earlier in the year prompted much belief that Germany had turned a corner. Kroos even said before this game in Hamburg that for a team with a new faces, a new system and a new style, Germany had pushed on quite a bit. On this evidence, they don’t know even where they’re going yet let alone where to turn. This Germany team isn’t as far along as the hype suggested, and the Dutch looked far further down the track to becoming a force.
The attack is supposed to be the strong point of this team, but Low’s inability to get the best out of an in-form Werner or Reus, currently loving his club football, is concerning. The eventual return from injury of Leroy Sane will obviously be welcomed but this defeat was not about Manchester City star’s absence. It was about the lack of impact from the front three and, in the midst of this confusion, Low threw on Kai Havertz in the hope he would make something happen. Havertz is the playmaker that can add more balance to this side and he must not be forgotten in Low’s pursuit of pace.
Playing Kimmich in midfield might allow for moments of genius, such as the assist for the opening goal, but it does leave Germany weaker at right-back. With holding midfield hardly a position short of options (see Emre Can or Ilkay Gundogan), placing Kimmich in that role is even more confusing.
Then there’s the defensive unit. Jonathan Tah had an unfortunate night (scoring an own goal) and is clearly still a work in progress. Schulz has all of the positives of an attacking wing-back, but sadly also most of the negatives. Niklas Sule must be disappointed that the two strongest aspects of his game, his strength and his relative speed, were not strengths at all against a Dutch team that’s further ahead in their own rebuild.
Low will rightfully take the blame for this. The move to transitional football has not yet clicked and the in-game adjustment back to a possession-based style of play wasn’t promising either. Germany are not a team in balance yet, which is perhaps understandable given all that has happened in the wake of the World Cup debacle. Nevertheless, there are good enough players in this team to perform better than they did against Netherlands.
As for whether or not Low is the right man to get this team there is no longer a question. The DFB failed to plan for his successor five years ago or, at the latest, after the Euros in France in 2016, which has allowed this sense of stasis to take root.
Maybe that has now changed, and those who make such crucial decisions are putting a road map in place for the national team. In the meantime, the embattled manager must make sure he gets this team back in some kind of shape. They appear unlikely to challenge for the Euro 2020 title this time, and that’s ok, but Low must find a way to turn the ship around soon.