When Spain welcome Germany at an empty Estadio de la Cartuja in Seville on Tuesday in their final Nations League match, it offers the chance to see where they are in their evolution. When Spain won back-to-back European Championships and a World Cup in their dominant spell from 2008 to 2012, they had some once-in-a-generation players; Germany’s rebuild of the 2000s peaked with them winning the 2014 World Cup. But now Spain are sixth in the FIFA rankings and Germany are 14th.
Tuesday’s match has everything on the line with both teams hopeful of reaching the Nations League semifinals. Spain drew 1-1 with Switzerland on Saturday evening, with Gerard Moreno’s late equaliser making up for Sergio Ramos’ two missed penalties; Germany now sit one point above Spain in Group D with Joachim Low’s team beating a disrupted Ukraine side 3-1 at the weekend, with Timo Werner grabbing two and Leroy Sane also scoring.
But there are still plenty of unanswered questions around both sides. Are they too stuck in the past? Or are they juggling the need for immediate success with long-term planning? While new Spain boss Luis Enrique is trying out some options, there are still some fundamental issues up front and replacing defensive stalwarts. For Germany, there is a growing frustration in their country around how the national team are performing, which led to team manager Oliver Bierhoff hosting a remarkable news conference last week where he turned fire on the media and accused them of being too negative.
With the European Championships seven months out, we assess the state of these two European powerhouses.
By Tom Hamilton, Alex Kirkland and Stephen Uersfeld
The weight of history
Spain’s golden age was anchored around the spine of the glorious 2009 treble-winning Barcelona team. They had Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique at the heart of their defence; the midfield was Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, with David Villa up front. By Euro 2012, Villa was absent with a broken leg, so Spain filled that void by playing without a striker and used a ‘false No. 9’ instead. With the likes of Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas also in the squad, Spain’s greatest-ever team played spell-binding, tiki taka football to win an incredible three major international trophies in a row.
But they hit rock bottom at the 2014 World Cup, crashing out at the group stage after a famous 5-1 defeat to Netherlands, and the aftermath of that lingered on as coach Vincente del Bosque stuck around until Euro 2016’s failure in the round of 16. Those key players of 2008-12 drifted away slowly rather than all at once and the past eight years have been underwhelming. The 2018 World Cup saw Julen Lopetegui fired before their first match, after he agreed to take over Real Madrid following the tournament, and Fernando Hierro stepped in to replace him at the last moment but Spain were knocked out on penalties in the round of 16 to hosts Russia.
Germany are also grappling with the rebuilding process. Low has been in the job since 2006 and led the side to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, where they lost 1-0 to Spain, and at Euro 2012 they crashed out at the same stage to Italy. But everything peaked in 2014 as their 4-3-3 formation worked, Phillip Lahm stepped into the leadership void left by Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose starred as Germany’s leading striker. They smashed hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals and won 1-0 against Argentina in the final thanks to Mario Gotze’s 113th minute winner.
Low stuck with the bulk of those players for Euro 2016 and they made the semifinals, where they lost to France. But they went to the 2018 World Cup with a squad that was neither a continuation of the past, nor a nod to the future, and suffered the ignominy of failing to get out of their group in Russia. The nexus of the 2014 team has since drifted away and Low is still trying to make the seismic shift from one generation to the next as he refuses to pick veteran trio Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, who were all dropped after the 2018 debacle.
The hopes for the future
Both teams have a rich batch of players coming through: Germany won the 2017 Under-21 European Championship final against Spain, while Spain won the 2019 edition against Germany. More to the point, Spain’s record of progressing youth players through to the senior side is actually pretty good.
The Spain team from the U21 final in 2017 includes Kepa, Hector Bellerin, Saul, Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Marco Asensio and Jose Gaya. The same goes for the 2019 team that lost to Germany, with Fabian, Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal, Mikel Merino and Dani Ceballos all part of the set up. And there’s more talent coming through, too.
“Players like Ferran Torres, Eric Garcia and Ansu Fati have made their [international] debuts … some of them are making a difference in the first division at 17. Their maturity stands out,” Spain youth coach and former forward Julen Guerrero told Onda Cero. “Pedri is now starting at Barcelona. At youth level we’re trying to give them a mentality that Spain are a team that always have to compete, to be ambitious. We’re on the right track, we’re champions at U21 and U19 level, at U17 level we lost in the semifinals. You’re seeing a lot of young players taking the step up.”
From those Germany U21 sides from 2017 and 2019, Serge Gnabry has become a key player. There are others knocking on the door as well: Thilo Kehrer, Mahmoud Dahoud, Niklas Stark, Jonathan Tah, Nadiem Amiri, Luca Waldschmidt, Robin Koch, Suat Serdar, Florian Neuhaus and Lukas Klostermann are all near the senior squad or are already getting a lot of playing time in 2020.
“You will always have a golden generation,” Arne Friedrich, Hertha sporting director and former Germany defender, told ESPN. “It’s no different at club level. Sometimes three or four players come through and sometimes it’s just one player or no player at all. We have a lot of talented young players, but it’s not easy to make that step into the senior side. Take a look at Florian Neuhaus — he’s such a good player, but he’s got a mountain to climb with all the competition in midfield: Leon Goretzka, Toni Kroos, Joshua Kimmich, Ilkay Gundogan to name a few.”
Germany also have plenty of potential their U21s right now, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, Bayern Munich’s Torben Rhein, Hertha Berlin’s Luca Netz, Cologne’s Ismail Jakobs and Noah Katterbach and Hamburg’s Josha Vagnoman all impressing.
The managerial challenges
Luis Enrique remains very impressive as Spain boss. He experienced incredible personal tragedy in the past year (his daughter Xana died of bone cancer in August 2019 aged nine), which required him to step away from the national team to be replaced by Robert Moreno, before being dramatically reinstated last November. And, as such, it’s hard to judge him so far, especially when that was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It feels like he has a clear idea of what he wants, though it is a team in transition and he has tried out a huge number of players. But there are still fundamental issues he needs to solve in goal, centre-back and up front.
David de Gea was Casillas’ successor but has faced sustained criticism in Spain ever since he was blamed for the disastrous 2018 World Cup showing. Luis Enrique has stuck with him — though Moreno did opt for Kepa throughout qualifying in 2019 — but the finger was pointed at De Gea again for the goal conceded Spain’s 1-0 loss in Ukraine in October. Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simon got the nod against Switzerland on Saturday and could continue as No. 1 given Kepa’s drop in form and confidence for Chelsea.
At centre-back, Spain are still searching for a long-term replacement and partner for the ageless Sergio Ramos. Luis Enrique seems to have settled on Villarreal’s Pau Torres, but before that Raul Albiol, Diego Llorente and Inigo Martinez had all been tried by Moreno: essentially a different partner every game. Love him or hate him, Ramos remains a hugely important figure for the team.
In midfield, Luis Enrique has a bewildering number of options: Thiago, Merino, Olmo, Fabian, Ceballos, Sergio Canales and Rodri were all tried out in the past two months, while Busquets is still there. On the wings he has Torres, Ansu, Oyarzabal and Adama Traore, but there’s still no clear go-to striker up front with Alvaro Morata, Rodrigo and Gerard Moreno all tested and falling short.
“Any coach would like to have Luis Suarez, or Harry Kane, or Marco Van Basten. I’d love to,” Luis Enrique told reporters in October. “No coach would say ‘I don’t want that.’ But what we try to do, as we don’t have that, is to get to the goal through the association and quality of other players. We try to create a lot of chances, and make sure the goals don’t revolve around one person.”
For Germany, the pressure is on Low to deliver. There are dark clouds over the national team, with general manager Bierhoff turning fire on the media last week, asking them to support the national team instead of being overly critical. He admits there is a growing gulf in relations between country and national team, but while Bierhoff believes this is mostly down to the 2018 World Cup disaster, there’s also a feeling the national side values financial spreadsheets and projections above everything else.
Despite the friction, Low still retains the unwavering backing of the German FA (DFB) and Friedrich says his old boss has been “courageous” for sticking to his guns and not recalling Muller, Boateng and Hummels. “Low knows the squad much better than any journalist; than any so-called expert,” he told ESPN. “He has a plan and decided to make that cut. It’s now important to find stability.”
Germany’s previous main issue has been finding a long-term replacement for Klose, the man who won the Golden Boot at the 2006 World Cup. “Miroslav Klose was outstanding and a world-class striker,” Friedrich says. “A few years later we developed other types of players. We now have Gnabry, [Timo] Werner, [Leroy] Sane and even Waldschmidt. They have different qualities, and I would say we are back to a world-class level.”
There are still holes that need to be filled at wing-back, with Matthias Ginter starting on the right against Ukraine, and there’s also a feeling that Low is still trying to find his best trio of centre-backs in his 3-4-3 system. “He tested man-marking all over the pitch against Spain and Switzerland,” Friedrich added. “Did he just accept they’d concede as many goals? I don’t think so. And while we scored 14 this year, we also conceded 10. That’s too many. That’s why the 1-0 against the Czech Republic was so important regardless of the experimental formation. And the win against the Ukraine as well.”
So… will they contend for Euro 2020 and/or the 2022 World Cup?
Both Spain and Germany will head to both tournaments with plenty of optimism and expectation, but the next two years are key in their respective development. They have the talent coming through, but it’s one thing to perform at club level and another to translate it to international football.
Spain will look to the likes of Torres and Ansu for belief in their long-term future and, while the Euros may come too soon, by 2022 they could be a really interesting proposition.
“It looks to me like Luis Enrique is in a period of trying things out,” Argentina legend and ex-Real Madrid boss Jorge Valdano told Onda Cero. “He’s looking, he’s getting to know the players, it’s a time of transformation … A team could emerge, but not straight away. The team that stunned the world [2008-2012] was made up of players at the peak of their careers. These boys are playing international games, they have to mature more, and we’ll see. There are players who are 20, 21. We have to be patient … This national team are quite clearly going for youth.”
“The World Cup exit after the group stages in 2018 was bitter,” Freidrich said. “But if you take a look at the stats after that tournament: they are OK. Germany have lost three of their 21 games, twice against Netherlands and once against France. They just drew a lot of games: eight in total. The transition takes some time and I am sure we have a bright future ahead of us.
“We are still up there with the very best teams in midfield, in attack. But of course, the defence is an important factor in the game and we are looking for stability here. Loads of players have been tested. We have world-class keepers. The team now needs to get together and find a rhythm.”