Focus on Germany

The Lahm Equation

March 30, 2011
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

More often than not, Germany games have gripped (or at least moved) the nation in the recent past. But the two internationals of the past five days - against Kazakhstan on Saturday and against Australia on Tuesday - seemed at best unwelcome, at worst like a pointless interruption of a tremendously entertaining league season.

Germany's players look dejected after a disappointing defeat to Australia on Tuesday night
GettyImagesGermany's players look dejected after a disappointing defeat to Australia on Tuesday night

Yet it's not as if the two matches didn't trigger debates. The two biggest concerned the left back question, also known as the 'Lahm Equation', and the role of the fans.

The latter, as you may have heard, came under a bit of criticism due to boos and catcalls on Saturday (even the odd and supremely silly "Schweinsteiger out!" was reportedly heard) and then a non-existent atmosphere on Tuesday, when a third of the 46,300 seats were empty, the rest filled with what could have easily passed for an only mildly interested off-Broadway audience.

The fans, went the most popular explanation, have been spoiled over the past years, not only in terms of results but of style, thus they have come to consider high-tempo, one-touch football, chances galore and a ton of goals a given whenever Germany play. "Everybody expects us to send our opponents home on the back of a 6-0, 7-0 or 8-0 hiding," is how Jochim Low put it on Saturday.

There may be some truth to this. However, considering Germany have scored six goals in a game on just one occasion in the past two years, I don't think the scoreline is the most important factor.

Oliver Kahn brought forth another theory on Tuesday night, namely that "the World Cup is long over and forgotten" and that "as a player, you have to constantly assert and prove yourself all over again". That's very much in line with his 'Life is a Constant Fight' philosophy, but if Kahn was trying to say that it's actually the German players who are spoiled because they have become used to a good atmosphere and non-stop support from the stands, then he's not too far off the mark. The players are indeed used to something different, simply because the international crowd is not a normal football crowd.

Sami Khedira bitterly complained about Saturday's fans in Kaiserslautern, saying that "in Spain, people support their team to the last minute". Well, I think he should have exchanged a few words with Miroslav Klose before making that comparison. Klose would have told him that Kaiserslautern's fans are famous for precisely this and that they are no less fanatical and loyal than Real Madrid's support. It's just that you cannot compare international football with club football. Probably not in Spain, definitely not in Germany.

During the '80s and '90s, a widely held prejudice said that the majority of real - read: stadium-going and season-ticket holding - football fans couldn't care less about the national team and that the Germany supporters tended to be armchair fans.

This situation has changed in the past decade, but the living-room fan still plays an important role. Or rather, his or her modern equivalent. Because now there are a great many Germany fans to whom following the team means watching thrilling World Cup or European Championship games not from armchairs in their living rooms but in huge public squares, where they stare at giant screens together with tens of thousands of other thrill-seekers.

This is emblematic of a society for which the sociologist Gerhard Schulze has coined the term Erlebnisgesellschaft (event or entertainment society), and one of its by-products is that people get bored easily. And I guess that, quite simply, is what happened in Kaiserslautern and Monchengladbach: people were bored, as the first game was all but decided after 25 minutes, while nothing whatsoever was at stake in the second. Which may also explain why there was less booing in the second game, because even though Germany were losing, it was a close game with some suspense.

I guess Low and his players will have to live with such crowds for the foreseeable future, as we won't have a big tournament (or a thrilling qualification campaign) for a while. However, this situation also has its advantages, for instance that Low can tinker rather freely until he finds a solution for the biggest question in his line-up: who will play left back at the European Championships?

In the past year alone, Dennis Aogo, Holger Badstuber, Jerome Boateng, Marcell Jansen, Marcel Schafer, Marcel Schmelzer and Heiko Westermann have, however briefly, been tried at left back, which means there isn't much consistency there, apart from a predominance of French-sounding first names.

Of course we also need a regular centre back to partner Per Mertesacker, but there are quite a few candidates for this position, among them the young and promising Mats Hummels, Badstuber and Benedikt Howedes or the more experienced Arne Friedrich and Boateng. There is less variety at left back, and if you read between the lines you get the impression that Low doesn't feel really confident with any of his three main candidates: Aogo, Schmelzer and Schafer.

That's why I sometimes think Low is secretly hoping that all he has to do is wait until events at Bayern Munich give him another option, despite his assertion that he is looking for a naturally left-footed player at left back.

See, throughout his tenure, the national coach has shown a healthy disrespect for what happens in club and league football. Low thinks his job is not to field the best players, not even in-form ones, but the team he has the most confidence in. Which means that, provided he is given any kind of choice, he will always go with the players he feels comfortable with, both on and off the pitch. Thus it's not easy for new players to win Low's trust - although once they have won it, his belief and his loyalty are almost undying.

That style has stood Germany in good stead over the past years, not least because Low's favourite players have an uncanny knack of repaying the faith he puts in them. To name just a few, this is often the case with Mertesacker, very often with Lukas Podolski and next to always with Klose. (Which, incidentally, has led to the bizarre situation that Klose can't get past Mario Gomez at Bayern, while Gomez is just a stand-in for Klose in the national team.)

However, it's not as if Low is left entirely cold by what the players do at their clubs. Or, more precisely, how they are used at their clubs. When, for instance, Bremen's coach Thomas Schaaf, in the wake of Diego's transfer to Italy, moved Mesut Ozil from left-sided midfield into the central position behind the strikers, Low changed his own system later that year to be able to deploy Ozil in a very similar role. And when Louis van Gaal then moved Bastian Schweinsteiger from the flank to the area in front of the back four, the national coach followed suit a few weeks later. A similar case can be made for the career of Philipp Lahm, which leads us to the full-back problem.

When Bayern loaned Lahm out to Stuttgart all those years ago, coach Felix Magath had him play left back, because Andreas Hinkel was on the right. Lahm then also played this position for Germany, usually with Friedrich on the other flank. This solution was fine and well for all concerned, as left back had previously been a constant problem position for the national coach (even Bernd Schneider was used there for a couple of games in 2005), while whoever happened to be Bayern coach could count on Willy Sagnol to play on the right.

However, some two years ago, Sagnol finished his career, Van Gaal became the new Bayern coach and Lahm was switched from left back to right back. For a while, Low continued to use him on the other wing, but ultimately the national coach went with the reversal of roles dictated by the club coach: Lahm played the World Cup in South Africa on the right and has been there ever since.

Philipp Lahm
GettyImagesPhilipp Lahm is expecting fireworks with rivals Austria.

This time the solution wasn't quite so perfect for everybody involved, because for Low it meant that the old problem position was rearing its ugly head again. But, interestingly, Bayern have had the same pressing problem this season and are also looking for a solution. A Portuguese newspaper has reported that the club are about to reach an agreement with Benfica's left-back Fabio Coentrao. Bayern tried to sign Coentrao after the 2010 World Cup but shied away from the hefty transfer sum. The events of this season may have changed their mind.

Or they may have another solution up their collective sleeves. Kicker magazine, usually a reliable source of information, suggests that Bayern are considering signing a more reasonably-priced right back - and then move Lahm over to the other side of the pitch again.

This would make a lot of sense, particularly when you consider the fact that the left side of the pitch is where Franck Ribery is expected to play. While Arjen Robben seems to have accepted that he has to track back and is even known to make the occasional tackle deep in his own half, playing Ribery without a defensively sound and experienced man behind him is quite a gamble.

In any case, Low now has more than eight weeks until the next game, during which he'll weigh his options at left back - and also keep a close eye on what Jupp Heynckes is up to at Bayern.