Germany's low ebb under Löw put into sharp focus by Spain's six-shooters

Sid Lowe
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Action Press/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Action Press/Shutterstock

The fourth official was preparing to raise the board for one last time when Luis Enrique drew up close and said something to him. Even in the quiet of an empty arena the Spain manager couldn’t be heard clearly, but he seemed to be suggesting there was no need to add any more time. Germany had had enough, and long ago. To his left, Joachim Löw sat in the shadow of the bench, not moving, which is how he had sat for most of the night. Above him, Oliver Bierhoff, the national team director, watched in silence alongside the substitutes.

The board went up. “OK, two minutes,” someone could be heard saying, almost apologetically and in Spanish. In German, no one said anything. It had been like that pretty much all game. There was just … nothing. Löw rested his hand on his chin, defeated and distant. On the scoreboard, which the few people in this arena photographed for posterity, it said: 6-0. The list of Spain’s goalscorers filled the screen. Through the silence, radio broadcasters shouted about a historic night.

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They could remember nothing better, at least since the final of Euro 2012. Germany could not remember anything worse. This was their heaviest defeat since 1931, and it might have been heavier. “Even Donald Trump couldn’t have claimed this as a victory,” Die Zeit said. “And even Andorra couldn’t have played worse.” Spain scored twice from corners, something that has only ever happened twice before – against Malta and San Marino.

Spain scored six. They could have scored 10 slicing through their opponents with an ease that astounded, creating a catalogue of clear chances and doing so without ever seeming to have to force it; instead opportunities came naturally. The shot count momentarily flashed up on the board and said 23-2, and neither of those two were on target. There had been a thunderous shot against the bar from Serge Gnabry when the game was already done, Germany 5-0 down, and no one could remember the other.

Unai Simón played in Spain’s goal, seemingly first choice now ahead of Kepa Arizabalaga and David de Gea, although there was not one save to strengthen his hold on that position. Instead there were passes, more completed than all bar one of Germany’s players and a solitary pass behind Toni Kroos.

At one point Simón rolled the ball under his foot, inviting Germany’s forwards to come and get it, which they wouldn’t or couldn’t or both. That was a portrait of the game, repeated all over the pitch: there was no pressure, no press, apparently no applicable plan. They just wanted this over and Spain seemed to as well: they visibly eased up in the last 15 or 20 minutes and yet still, almost accidentally, scored a sixth goal, the ball walked in with two minutes to go.

When at last the whistle went, Löw bumped arms with Luis Enrique and headed straight down the tunnel without a word, as absent now as he has appeared of late. Afterwards he said there were none – not adequate ones anyway. “Spain gave us no chance,” he said. “We did almost nothing well. Nothing worked in attack or defence. There’s nothing more I can say.”

There was plenty for others to say, if little desire from those actually involved to do so. Kroos resisted suggestions that this was his bitterest night, but conceded that it was one of them. “Spain taught us a lesson in every way,” he said. If so, the question might be whether they can learn from those. “There are values you have to have that I just don’t see on the pitch,” the former international Bastian Schweinsteiger noted on television. “It didn’t feel like a team.”

Whatever it was, it was in pieces. Spain had been a “wrecking ball”, Der Spiegel said, “destroying everything that had been built – or not built – since 2018.” Frankfurter Allgemeine insisted that Spain had shone a light on all their defects, which were many.

“Das Jogi-Desaster,” said the front of Bild, which non-German speakers can probably work out for themselves. The German coach is “wobbling”, they claimed. There had already been suggestions that Ralf Rangnick or even Hansi Flick might be in position to replace him, after Löw’s 14 years in the job. But asked afterwards if the manager still had the support of the German football federation, Bierhoff replied: “Absolutely, yes. This changes nothing.” And that’s the problem. Things have to change, most believe. Except perhaps those whose decision it is to do so, and even they must waver now.

There was shock but this was not entirely the surprise it should have been

This was not just a dreadful performance from Germany, it was a strange one, almost ghostly, devoid of anything. Luis Enrique was quick to note that Spain’s opponents had their strongest team out, Joshua Kimmich apart (although he did suggest that them not rotating may have had an impact) but all over the pitch there was an inability to react, to match Spain. While the team in red ran at them repeatedly, in white it seemed they could barely run at all.

Kroos recently insisted that footballers are the puppets of Fifa and Uefa, and in an international break that already drew questions as to how appropriate it is to play and how damaging it may be to do so, there had been discomfort at their game against Covid-hit Ukraine eventually going ahead – unlike Ukraine’s game with Switzerland on Tuesday night, which was postponed. A feeling lingering perhaps that they shouldn’t really be there … and so weren’t.

And yet there’s more to it than that, something that goes beyond the temporary and a reason why the focus falls on Löw. Some of their problems are not new, not even nearly new, while attempts to fix them do not convince and may just confuse more. You would be hard pressed to recall a good German performance in the last two years. There was shock but this was not entirely the surprise it should have been: no one expected six, but defensive problems are familiar: they have conceded 13 goals in the Nations League, a little fortunate to reach the last match top. Against Ukraine they let in three – and saw three more hit the post.

Manuel Neuer reacts as Ferran Torres celebrates a goal with Sergio Ramos.
Manuel Neuer reacts as Ferran Torres celebrates a goal with Sergio Ramos. Photograph: Miguel Morenatti/AP

Almost as soon as the final whistle went, Mesut Özil was tweeting that it was time to bring Jérôme Boateng back. The absence of Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller is a recurring theme. All have been left out as part of a post-2018 transition, not called up since the spring of last year. Surely they could have helped and in their absence it is not like there is any real sign of that transition. “We’re not as far down the road as we thought,” Löw admitted. If that’s the metaphor of choice, some doubt they have even set off yet, and wonder if they have a map.

There is little sign either that Löw has the same connection with this generation. Little sign, in fact, of Löw himself. Once a breath of fresh air, there’s a staleness now. After 14 years perhaps it is natural but he suddenly looks old. Absent even. If he is tired, many German fans are tired of him. A generation of German coaches is changing football, but he is not really seen as one of them.

There’s a suspicion that he is neither the football obsessive nor the workaholic that a national team coach might be, lacking the expertise, engagement or energy to build something new. Put bluntly, that he doesn’t do much. That may well sound absurdly harsh, and probably is, but it’s an idea that floats with increasing frequency. Löw recently noted that each weekend he and his technical staff share out the games they are going to watch on television – and television is the word that concerns.

If there was respect and caution within the fatigue, this result changes things; many of Wednesday’s papers demand change, insisting there must be consequences. Perhaps even beyond Löw.

After all, there is something deeper, from crisis at the German Football Association to a sense of supporters disengaging with the national team, which is no longer the place to which the population returns – that roaring fire of the hearth and home, as it was traditionally portrayed. That may be natural in times of pandemic but even before lockdown Germany didn’t always fill stadiums and TV figures were falling. Attempts to remedy that can feel forced: Bierhoff talks of stakeholders not fans, a growing sense that he is more CEO than centre-forward.

Bierhoff recently accused those on the outside of “throwing a dark cloud” over the national team, but that does not happen out of context. Besides, they do so themselves. If the storm was coming, in Seville it broke and it was biblical. By the final minutes, Spain seemed to feel pity amid the pride. As Luis Enrique called for an end to it, Löw sat in silence all in black: black hair, black roll-neck, black trousers. “A black night,” he called it.