lundi 25 juin 2012

The Ideas Man With a Plan for Germany

Joachim "Jogi" Loew does not look like a soccer coach, certainly not one of a powerhouse like Germany.

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Germany coach Joachim Loew made critical tactical moves in a win over Greece on Friday in Euro 2012.

His hair, suspiciously thick and jet black, is a bit too perfect in a Sam Malone kind of way to the point where he was asked a while back if he wore a wig (no) or if he at least dyed it (again, no). His penchant for tight, sometimes shiny, monochrome shirts—both collarless and button-down—suggest his natural habitat might be an art gallery rather than a soccer pitch. And his jaunty, affable demeanor set him apart from soccer's standard ex-jocks, who tend to range from curmudgeonly and paranoid to crowd-pleasing and populist.

Loew is decidedly different, which might be the reason for his unlikely rise.

A former striker—which in itself is somewhat unusual, as most coaches tend to be former central defenders or midfielders—who never quite broke into the higher echelons as a player, Loew lasted less than a year in four of his five coaching jobs. Then his old friend Jurgen Klinsmann, now the U.S. coach, called on him to join Germany's staff as an assistant in 2004. Loew flourished under Klinsmann, developing a reputation as the ideas man, and he was handed the job after the 2006 World Cup.

Now Germany, with four wins in Euro 2012, looks to be on a collision course to meet Spain in the tournament's final next Sunday. On Wednesday, Spain takes on Portugal in the first semifinal, while Germany faces either England or Italy the following day.

Should the two uber-favorites reach the final in Kiev, it promises to be something of a grudge match. Spain, the reigning World Cup and Euro champions, knocked Germany out of the semifinal of the last World Cup and beat the Germans in the Euro 2008 final.

One of the things that stands out about Loew is his flexibility and willingness to make tweaks even when things are going well. Take Friday's quarterfinal with Greece as an excellent example. Germany had rolled through the group stage with three wins in what looked like the toughest group on paper. It was also the only team to have won all three games and had scored the second-most goals in the tournament.

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So what did Loew do?

He benched three of his front four—Mario Gomez and wingers Thomas Mueller and Lukas Podolski—against the Greeks. That trio, which had started every game until that point, was replaced by veteran striker Miroslav Klose and attacking midfielders Marco Reus and Andreas Schurrle.

So much for the old coaching mantra of sticking with the guys who got you there.

"I wanted to freshen up the team a bit," Loew said. "Plus Marco [Reus] and Andreas [Schurrle] are a bit better at playing between the lines, and they are a bit more creative, and that's important against a team like Greece, who we knew would be defending deep. For the same reason I thought Miro [Klose's] movement could be important."

The logic was faultless. Podolski and Mueller, mainstays of the team that made the 2010 World Cup semifinals, are at their best when they have space in which to operate. That makes them exceptional counterattackers. Gomez, a big, powerful target man, is prolific but static: He needs someone to get him the ball, and he would've been double-teamed by the Greeks.

Yet the move still took a lot of courage. Between them, Reus and Schurrle have 23 international appearances; Mueller and Podolski have 131. Gomez was the Euro's leading scorer, whereas Klose had not scored in his previous six games.

Germany won 4-2, but it was the kind of decision that could have blown up in Loew's face and make him look like a fool. True, Greece wasn't the best matchup for the three incumbents. And realistically, there was a greater chance of Greece's creditors saying they would write off the country's national debt overnight than there was of an upset.

But had the three newcomers not played well, Loew could have faced turmoil and second-guessing in the locker room. Then again, he made a similar bold choice in 2008, switching from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 midway through the tournament—a decision prompted not by results but by performance.

More than most, Loew is a big-picture guy. In 2010, his team's emphasis was on speed and exploiting the counterattack, something Germany did with devastating effect. Over the past two years, he has tried to make the team more adept at keeping possession and creating chances against opponents who defend in numbers. To make a basketball analogy, he has turned a run-and-gun team into one that loves half-court offense.

It makes sense: Opponents fear Germany much more than they did before. They sit deep and look to snatch something on the break, as was evident in the group games against Portugal and Denmark.

It would have been easy for Loew to stick with the tried-and-tested. But it's his desire to innovate and change—even making radical changes, like Friday's—that sets him apart. And ultimately, that could be the key to Germany winning the Euro. Or at least giving Spain a run for its money.

—Gabriele Marcotti is the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC.

Joachim Loew, Joachim Jogi Loew, Germany, Germany, Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Spain, Marco Reus, Thomas Mueller

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