Germany coach Joachim Low on the high of winning the World Cup and challenges that lie ahead.
World Soccer: You had an extensive three-day meeting with your staff early last year. What did it yield?
Joachim Low: At that point in time the World Cup was taking shape. We could make plans for group-stage opponents and our training HQ in Brazil, and look at the different routes we could take during the tournament. We intensively asked ourselves many questions. What was the strategy with our own team? How did we foresee the pre-competition preparations? Which players were in the frame to meet our requirements?
Which factors were crucial in that last area of player requirement?
Naturally, the decisive criteria were ones of performance potential. But, as shown by my experience of previous tournaments, there are other things to consider. It’s important to put the right characters together.
What were you looking for from the players personality-wise?
Players who are team-orientated, who integrate well and are communicative. Those who want to take on responsibility, are disciplined and ambitious. For every game, I wanted everyone on the bench to be ready for action. I also wanted to take young players who could put pressure on the more senior guys and would handle themselves positively in the group. For example, Erik Durm and Matthias Ginter.
How long was your initial list of players?
In January, we’d whittled it down to 30 outfield players. But Christoph Kramer, for one, was not on the list. We only began to focus on him in the second-half of the season.
Despite Sami Khedira’s cruciate ligament injury in the autumn of 2013 you were quick to announce that you would leave the door open to him “right until the last moment”. Why?
He’s such a valuable player to us that I was prepared to give him every chance. I knew that Sami was remarkably focused on recovering in time and was really putting himself through it to make the World Cup. With his strong mentality and will-to-win, he’s important to the team in many ways.
After the USA game in the group stage, Khedira – who was on the bench at this point – publicly demanded a quicker style of play. Should he have done so?
Sami and I had spoken about this during the build-up to the tournament. I knew his opinion, he knew mine. As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t a problem.
Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, both of whom were recovering from injury, would not have been particularly happy to be left out of the starting line-up early in the tournament…
I knew the difficult conditions [in Brazil] better than the players. Neither player was in a position early on in the tournament of giving seven high-level performances. There had to be some division of tasks in this situation.
Did they both accept your decision?
During our World Cup preparations in Austria, I made clear to both of them that Philipp Lahm could also be a key man in midfield thanks to his passing and organisational skills. I find it completely normal that players of the status of Khedira and Schweinsteiger sometimes have another opinion. Naturally they felt they were ready to go. But, in the end, a coach has to make the decision.
The pre-World Cup camp in Austria was full of injury concerns – including an accident during a commercial event. Did you have any doubts at this point?
No. From the very start of the training camp the mentality of the players was just right. They wanted to work hard, to take the next step. Our strategy and ideas on the game had become automatic and we’d learnt from previous disappointments.
Then came Marco Reus’ serious injury and withdrawal from the tournament. How does a coach deal with that?
That was very sad for all of us, but especially for Marco. I’m convinced he would have enjoyed a great World Cup. But I couldn’t dwell on it. My first duty was to find a solution. With Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, I thought we had enough attacking alternatives. So I brought in Shkodran Mustafi as another defensive option. I’m no stranger to such problems on the eve of a tournament. In 2010 Michael Ballack pulled out shortly before the World Cup in South Africa.
World Cup 2014 was your fourth finals as Bundestrainer. Has your leadership style changed in that time?
Obviously you build up experience and come across situations which you’ve already been through. This was very important at certain times in Brazil. I wouldn’t say, though, that the players had more or less freedom in 2014 than at previous tournaments. I’ve always worked on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether to keep the guys in full concentration or letting them off the leash a little. Striking the balance between tension and relaxation is vital in a tournament and with Campo Bahia [Germany’s purpose-built training HQ] we had the perfect base.
Was the 2-1 win over Algeria in the knockout stage the crossroads in the journey to the world title?
We were facing defiant and awkward opponents, and at times we were below par. But we battled through to win narrowly. In the past, such as in our loss to Italy in the semi-finals of Euro 2012, we weren’t able to do so. In this sense, the Algeria game was significant for us.
Why then did you make so many changes for your next game, the quarter-final against France?
One: we needed new stimuli. Two: France were an incredibly cohesive and compact team. Only on the flanks would we have some room. That’s why we moved Lahm to right-back. He would help us going forward, while the centre-back pairing of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels gave us security.
How do you judge the all-round development of Boateng’s game?
In the last couple of years Jerome has made huge strides. He’s been playing with unbelievable consistency and his distribution is outstanding, playing penetrative passes to left or right. Along with Hummels, he was great in the Final.
Why did you begin the World Cup with a back-line of four central defenders?
This idea had several sources: injuries, climate, kick-off times, tournament situation. You have to be flexible. With this set-up, we were very stable at the back, and with five or six very strong attackers in the team we were always capable of scoring a goal or two.
You were 5-0 up at half-time against Brazil in the semi-final. What did you say to the team?
It was clear that the game was won. Our opponents were on the floor, completely in shock. All I had to say was carry on in the same vein. Stay serious, keep concentrating and play with humility and simplicity.
Did you forbid the team from running up a double-figure scoreline?
No. I just told them to stick to our style of play and tactical plan.
What was the atmosphere like in the dressing room at the time?
There was no boiling over of euphoria. More important to me was the mood in the camp after the game.
At the 2010 World Cup we were on an incredible high after beating England 4-1 and Argentina 4-0, and maybe that state of mind went on for too long prior to the semi-final [which Germany lost to Spain]. In Belo Horizonte, it was completely different.
In the dressing room and that evening, all the players were making it clear that the journey wasn’t over. It made me feel that we were ripe to go all the way.
Schurrle’s cross followed by Gotze’s volleyed winner. Your substitutions in the Final certainly made the difference…
Before the Final, I was weighing up whether to start with Klose or Gotze up front. Miro [Klose] is someone the Argentinians have an awful lot of respect for. But in the end I thought that an unpredictable player like Gotze would be more effective coming on later. That was my decision. Use Klose until he begins to tire, then go with Gotze, who in decisive moments can make or score goals.
In retrospect was it correct to always stay loyal to Mesut Ozil?
Since 2010, Mesut has been an integral part of the team. He can change a game with a pass or a brilliant idea and has unbelievable potential. You seldom find players of such ability. I know he’s still very ambitious and is keen to get back to top form in 2015. The World Cup in Brazil wasn’t simple for him
as he was coming off a very physically demanding season in the English league.
How do you view 2015 as far as the national team is concerned?
In certain areas we have to begin again. Opponents will have analysed the way we play and because of that we will have to come up with new methods. We are on top of the world, but the trick is to stay there, to become even better.
What sort of tactical changes could be in the pipeline?
A three-man defence could be a possibility. So could a return to twin strikers. They are the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which we have to fit together to make the big picture. We need to be more flexible, more adept at changing from one system to another during a game.
Your DFB contract runs out in 2016. What is left for a World Cup-winning coach?
I haven’t given it any thought at all. But it’s certainly possible that I could return to club management. Why not? When? I just don’t know. I’ve got used to working on two-year tournament cycles.
Interview by Oliver Hartmann & Karl-Heinz Wild/ESM