It is an almost impossible task, a feat no team has managed to pull off since Brazil in 1962, inspired by the likes of Garrincha, Vava and Mario Zagallo. Yet Joachim Low believes that his Germany side can do it, that they can become the first team in 56 years to successfully defend the World Cup.
‘Why not?’ said Low in a recent interview with Bild. ‘Winning in 2014 was a fantastic feeling, it left a big impression on my players. I hope to experience that again this summer.’
On paper, the reigning world champions have every reason to be optimistic. Germany’s endless production line of talent has brought forth a fresh generation of stars from which Low has built another dynamic, flexible attacking side.
Germany are aiming to be the first team to successfully defend the World Cup for 56 years
Germany, currently on a pre-tournament training camp in South Tyrol, have endured a turbulent build-up to the World Cup so far. Big name players such as Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer face a race to be fit, while the team have also had to fight off political scandal.
The announcement of Germany’s provisional squad was overshadowed by Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s ill-advised meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Yet this is Germany. Insatiable, efficient, never-write-them-off Germany. In tournament mode, and they can shake off any distraction. Worthy world champions four years ago, they are justifiably among the favourites this year. They are always among the favourites.
Their greatest strength these days is less the old cliché of tournament efficiency, and more a remarkable capacity for renewal. For over ten years now, German football has been an endless conveyor belt of brilliant young talent, and that shows in the make-up of Low’s squad.
Many of the World Cup winners of 2014 will be noticeable by their absence in Russia. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski have all retired, while injury could keep out Boateng and Neuer. For Mario Gotze, the hero of the 2014 final, there was simply no place in the squad.
Many of Germany’s 2014 winners, including Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, are retired
The likes of Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng are facing a race against time to be fully fit
Once the jewel in the crown of Germany’s array of youth talent, Gotze has been overtaken by a new wave of stars. Leon Goretzka, Timo Werner and Julian Draxler led Germany to Confederations Cup glory last year, while Julian Brandt made the squad this summer.
‘I have played a lot for the national team in recent years, and I’ve shown the coach that he can count on me,’ said Draxler this week. Having captained Germany in the Confederations Cup last summer, the 24-year-old is a fine example of how quickly Germany’s precocious starlets can develop into well-rounded stars.
To develop ‘personalities as well as footballers’ is a stated aim of the German FA’s (DFB) youth development strategy, which, nearly 20 years after conception, is no less than a roaring success.
From the regional development hotspots of the German FA to the investment which clubs are forced to make in their academies, the whole system floods German football with high quality young footballers. When some, like Gotze, don’t live up to their early potential, there is another ready and waiting to take their place.
In Germany’s training camp in South Tyrol, the Under-20s have joined the senior team as sparring partners. They may have lost 7-1 to the senior side in a training match earlier this week, but by the time the next World Cup comes around, some of those Under-20’s might be challenging Draxler and co for a place in the squad.
A new generation of stars such as Julian Draxler and Leon Goretzka give serious depth
Manchester City’s Leroy Sane, right, missed out on a place in the final 23-man squad
Timo Werner, right, is one of several versatile attacking options available to Germany
In almost all positions, Low has too many choices rather than too few. ‘Even if three of our defenders are out, we still have a good selection to choose from,’ said Mats Hummels this week. For every injured Boateng, there is a Niklas Sule or Antonio Rudiger, for every off-form Ozil there is a Goretzka.
That is also a curse, as Leroy Sane found out to his chagrin on Monday. Despite a brilliant, breakthrough season in the Premier League, there was no space for the Manchester City player in Low’s final, 23-man squad.
‘It was a tough choice between him and Julian Brandt, and in the end we went for Brandt,’ said Low.
With Draxler, Marco Reus and Thomas Muller all guaranteed a place in Low’s first team, Sane and Brandt were destined to play second fiddle, and while Sane is the more talented player, Brandt is probably more versatile as a stand-in.
Low’s first priority is not to pick the best talents, but to find his most efficient formation and combination of players.
While all those players are products of the same system, they are far from clones. The DFB’s systemic approach is a far cry from the ideological dogma of, say, La Masia, and the result is an immensely adaptable team for Low.
In the provisional squad, no distinction was made between forwards and midfielders, an approach indicative of Low’s tendency in recent years to flood the front line with attacking midfielders and forego a centre forward. In the current squad, he has the resources to play in this way; the likes of Muller, Brandt and Timo Werner could all play as a so-called false nine.
Yet there are also other options. Werner, a nifty, pacey goalscorer, is at his most devastating on the break, and in Brandt and Reus, Low has the players to support him in a more direct attacking approach. As a last resort, he can even use Mario Gomez as a battering ram.
It was that flexibility which saw Germany through in 2014. Up until the quarter-finals, Low tried to play without a centre-forward and with Lahm in holding midfield. After a second round scare against Algeria, he reverted to a more classical, angular approach, with Lahm at full-back and Klose as a poaching number nine. It paid off.
Head coach Joachim Low’s man-management and ability to harness team spirit remains key
In 2014 in Brazil, Mario Gotze acted on his manager’s instructions to prove his huge talent
In terms of mentality, too, Low’s adaptability is invaluable. In 2014, he managed to construct a side with an unassailable team spirit, while also taking time for each individual. It was the collective who hammered Brazil, but a brilliant piece of man-management which won the final.
Low told Gotze to show the world he was as good as Lionel Messi, and Gotze, for a fleeting moment, did just that.
‘Our task is to make sure the players belong, and are all swimming in the same direction, while also feeling they are valued as individuals,’ said Low in South Tyrol.
Team spirit and individuality, pragmatism and flair, possession and counter-attack. Germany remain a side which tread the line between various extremes. Over the last decade, Low has made Germany into an attractive, swashbuckling side without sacrificing any of that famous old efficiency and team spirit. That is as true now as it was four years ago.
It may be an impossible task, but as Germany look to defend their title, the old adage still stands. Only a fool would write them off.
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.