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Millennium Post

Another attempt at domination

With its youth team winning the Euro U-21 Championship and a less-than-full-strength senior squad lifting the Confederations Cup, Germany’s road towards football domination seems to be well paved, writes Sridhar Venkatesh.

When he succeeded Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach of the German men's national football team in 2006, Joachim Löw did not actually bring about drastic changes to the team. Klinsmann had performed well as coach since 2004, but after Germany finished third in the 2006 FIFA World Cup – which they had also hosted – Klinsmann decided against renewing his contract and instead stepped down. This cleared the path for Löw, his assistant, to take over.

Löw had said clearly that he wished to carry forward the philosophy of his predecessor, with the addition of one principal: he wished to make attack a more prominent feature of his team. He believed that holding the ball with themselves for longer than necessary was a problem for the team. Löw remedied this and brought a renewed pace to Germany's game. Possession was important, but not as much as attacking intent. Consistent passing was essential, but not at the cost of wasting precious attacking time.
With Löw guiding from the sidelines, many experienced workhouses and exuberant youngsters took centre stage over the next few years leading the team to at least semi-final finishes at every FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship since July 2006. Löw's men finished second only to a then invincible Spanish side in the 2008 UEFA Euro. Two years later, at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Germany finished third. Once again, the Spanish juggernaut had stopped them in their tracks, defeating them by a paltry goal in the semi-final. In Löw's second UEFA Euro competition in 2012, his team was beaten by a defensively resolute Italy in the semi-final by two goals to one.
However, Löw's crowning moment finally came at the 2014 World Cup, where he led the national team to victory in the grand finale at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Playing against an unstoppable Argentinean side, led by the world's best footballer Lionel Messi; Germany had their undying team spirit and a stadium mostly filled with Brazilian fans – who were yearning to see anything but an Argentinean victory – backing them. The game was close and had to be stretched to extra time. Seven minutes before extra time was to be over, Mario Götze scored the winner for Germany, giving them their fourth World Cup title.
Over his coaching tenure of over 10 years, Löw has had the luxury of gifted and hardworking German players. Die Mannschaft, with Löw at the helm, saw the best of clinical strikers like Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez, versatile midfielders such as Michael Ballack, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Torsten Frings, fast and dynamic full backs in Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen, and rock solid centre backs like Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker.
Slowly and steadily, these giants of German football hung up their boots to make way for the young guns. None of the above mentioned players now play for the national team; yet, replacing them has not been a challenge at all for Löw. Over the years, his team has transitioned smoothly, without making felt the vacuum of any of these skilled footballers.
In Thomas Müller, André Schürrle and Julian Draxler, Löw has attackers who are skilled players, not just as strikers, but as attacking midfielders who also possess creative flair. In the midfield, in addition to the defensive might of Sami Khedira and Emre Can, he has creative powerhouses like Toni Kroos and Mesut Özil, who not only create chances but often score blinders from long ranges. The defensive wall of Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Shkodran Mustafi has proven to be as solid as it can get, with all three of them also capable of turning into useful attacking options during corners and free-kicks. While the one-of-a-kind Lahm will be sorely missed, youngster Joshua Kimmich has shown tremendous potential and could well fill Lahm's shoes. Above all these outfielders, Löw has the steadfastness of Manuel Neuer – the world's best goalkeeper – standing tall between the goalposts.
However, when one sees the German team's victories in the just concluded Confederations Cup in Russia and the UEFA European Under-21 Championships in Poland, one can observe that many of these new crop of players were missing from the German squad.
The senior squad for the Confederations Cup was led by 23-year-old Draxler, who – in all honesty – has just begun establishing himself as a mainstay in the team. In the 22-man squad that went to Russia, over half had made less than five starting appearances for Germany. Yet, this rather inexperienced team comprehensively defeated a more mature Mexican side in the semi-final. The final was, if not a cake walk, an easier affair for them against Chile, where Germany won by a solitary goal. It must be noted, however, that this is a Chilean side that boasts of Claudio Bravo, Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel. The entire German squad has less international caps than Sánchez and Vidal combined! Yet, this seemingly motley crew of Germans went on to lift the cup at Saint Petersburg on July 2.
The UEFA Under-21 Championship, meanwhile, was less of a surprise. It was always going to be a contest between the Spanish and the German youth sides. The Spanish U-21 side was pegged to win the final at Kraków, with youngsters Héctor Bellerín, Gerard Deulofeu, Saúl Ñíguez, Denis Suárez and Marco Asensio leading from the front. Mind you, these are players with decent amount of senior squad experience under their belt, who also play for big name clubs such as Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Yet, under the guidance of coach Stefan Kuntz, the resilient German U-21 side held its nerve, as well as the defensive wall, to win the final by just one goal.
Many have said that Germany's 'B' side, i.e. a second string team, managed to win the Confederations Cup, thanks to some good fortune and astute planning from their talismanic coach Löw. That, however, is untrue. The truth is perhaps this: German footballing hierarchy has been so well managed in the past decade that the nation has a steady flow of talent from its domestic leagues. It is not just Germany's high profile players – many of whom ply their trade in giant clubs of Spain, or England, or Italy – who put in good performances whenever called upon.
Even the lesser known footballers, who play for mid-table Bundesliga teams like – 1. FC Köln, or Schalke, or Leverkusen, or Hoffenheim- play with passion and dedication when they are called upon. And when the backup guys are just as good – if not better – than the main men, Germany will certainly be spoilt for choices at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where they will be expected to retain their title.

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