LONDON — When it was over, Joachim Low didn’t linger. The final whistle went, the England fans at Wembley exploded and Low was very quickly off, headed down into the tunnel and toward the Germany changing room. It was his last match after 15 years as coach of Die Mannschaft. It was the last night of a legacy that is somehow both simple and hard to parse at the same time.
“I was so disappointed,” Low would say after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss, explaining why he seemed to be in such a hurry to exit the scene. “There are not many more thoughts in my head.”
That is fair enough. When you have come the distance that Low has, the end will always be just a ball of emotion pressing squarely into your chest. But there are, surely, plenty of thoughts — of both gratitude and frustration — from German fans, if not German players, over the conclusion of Low’s reign.
That it ended with such a damp, unremarkable performance felt somehow poetic. Low arrived on the German scene as an assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann in 2004, the tactical savant to Klinsmann’s motivator, and the pair were charged with reviving the German team from a moment full of such limp showings, a time screaming for transition. He leaves nearly two decades later with the team in a spot that isn’t so dissimilar.
What has come in the middle? It sort of depends on who you ask and the type of frame you want to draw. On its face, the ledger is remarkable: five straight major tournament appearances in a semifinal or better at one stretch. Third place at a home World Cup in 2006. The masterpiece 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in Belo Horizonte in 2014, an evening when the German domination was so thorough that it made an entire country weep. And, of course, just a few days later, the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro in which Low sent on Mario Gotze as a substitute for Miroslav Klose and Gotze became the tournament’s ultimate match winner in the 113th minute against Argentina.
I was at the Maracana that night and saw the joy and jubilation, Low cantering around the field with the sort of wry, sly smile that belied his exuberance. Having seen that party and the incredible light it evoked makes it hard, sometimes, to square the ambivalence that now seems to linger over Low’s departure. Those moments, that bliss — that isn’t enough to define a man’s career?
The answer, of course, is no, and not least because sports is a results business and Low kept putting up results long after the celebration from 2014 had subsided. Time passed. Expectations rose to unfathomable levels. And players aged, the core of the squad that Low (and Klinsmann) developed which was in its prime in 2014 began to wilt. As memorable as it was for me to see the Germans preening in Brazil, I’ll also never forget the mixture of shock and embarrassment on their faces in Russia in 2018, as I watched Germany finish dead last in its group and miss the knockout round of a major tournament for the first time in its history.
That is part of Low’s tale, too. And it is ugly.
Low tried. Very few national team coaches are ever around long enough to oversee one generational switch let alone two, but Low took another swing, casting off several veterans, including Thomas Muller, after a run of horrific performances in the UEFA Nations League two years ago.
It didn’t stick. The future of this team is with players like Joshua Kimmich and Kai Havertz and Leon Goretzka — even Low admitted as much on Tuesday night — but Low still felt he needed to bring back Muller for this tournament, still felt he couldn’t quite sever all his ties to the past.
It was a mistake, of course. France may have found lightning with the recall of its aging scorer in Karim Benzema, but Muller offered no such inspiration. Against England, his woeful pass nearly gifted a goal to the English just before halftime and his inability to even hit the target when in alone about 10 minutes from the end will be the lasting image of a game in which the Germans were punished for their incredible failure to convert on clear chances.
Low substituted Muller not long after his miss (though far too late to make a meaningful difference), and Muller stormed off, shouting back toward the field. Low didn’t indulge in such an obvious outburst, but it was clear he was steaming as well.
“We would have turned the match around if we had scored on Muller’s chance,” he said later. “It was clear. It was obvious it was going to be all about patience. You need to be clinical if you want to succeed. The English team scored on their first opportunity — we didn’t.”
Was it unreasonable that the Germans ultimately lost? Hardly. But it wouldn’t have been unreasonable if they’d won either, and I think it is that — on a larger level — which makes taking the full measure of Low more difficult. The truth is, it could have been them going through on Tuesday, could have been them with the bracket opening up for them. Could have been them needing only to beat a fatigued Ukraine team on Saturday to book its place in yet another semifinal.
But it isn’t. And that is where the frame comes in. This wasn’t a German team anyone favored to win the tournament at the start, but in the same way that Low’s overall success with Germany — while impressive and laudable — looks a bit less rosy when you realize it came amidst Spain‘s dominance from 2008 to 2012, say, there is still the sense that despite its obvious flaws here, Germany also failed to even approach its potential in this competition. That given the way the bracket laid out, Low allowed an opportunity to be missed.
It certainly felt that way Tuesday. The game was there to be taken — as so many games against England had been taken over the past half-century — but Low and his players let it slip away.
“We’re absolutely gutted,” Manuel Neuer said.
“It hurts a lot to go home now,” Toni Kroos said.
“If you crash out in the round of 16, of course it’s disappointing, but now we have to move on,” Havertz said, his voice steely.
They will. Kimmich had tears in his eyes on the field, but he will be at the heart of the new Germany, a Germany with players who can play literally any position required. That flexibility and newness of shape will come under Hansi Flick starting this fall, not Low, who flew back to the team’s base camp in Nuremberg late Tuesday before officially stepping down.
Near the end of his final postmatch news conference, he was asked about his thoughts on the future. Will there be a club job waiting for him? Something else? Perhaps the 61-year-old will simply retire and become a pensioner?
Low shrugged. He sounded tired. And after so many years of scheming and calculating and trying to come up with the perfect tactical methodology, he also sounded like a man who is ready for something different.
“At the moment,” he said, “I don’t really have a concrete plan.”