Torwars: how Löw lost control of the Neuer-ter Stegen rivalry

Marc-André ter Stegen opened another front in Germany’s painful renewal process. He showed with his statements to the media that he is not willing to simply sit and wait for a chance. And while he might be justified, this new front is exactly the thing Joachim Löw could do without.

Much was, and is still being said, about Joachim Löw’s decisions after the 2018 World Cup. Indeed, the manager came under fierce scrutiny during the actual tournament. Few of us could make sense of his decision to revert to the old guard of 2014, having taken serious steps towards a new core in the Confederations Cup the year before. The manager became erratic in his attempt to bring new blood to die Nationalmannschaft, and eyebrows became raised the world over.

Two steps forward, one backward

Löw sent shockwaves in March with his decision to permanently drop Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Thomas Müller. While some welcomed this as a step towards a successful transition, others saw fatal flaws in the decision. I myself argued against how Löw was carrying out his professed paradigm shift.

Where Hummels, Boateng and Müller were axed mercilessly, Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus and İlkay Gündoğan were handed an olive branch. This signalled a double standard in Löw’s part, even if his reasoning was that the team still needed a few pillars of experience. This is why what happening today is a direct result of that.

Marc-André ter Stegen is only the latest in a long list of players taking to the media to apply some pressure to their managers. What is special about this case is the tone and the weight of Ter Stegen’s argument. And the fact that Löw hasn’t really kept his word.

A rod for Löw’s back

Make no mistake: Joachim Löw created this problem. His shoddy approach to forcefully retire three World Cup winners meant that anyone’s spot was up for grabs. It also meant that the veterans were under pressure to justify their being kept in the squad. This happened because Löw didn’t offer much in the way of justification for taking Boateng, Hummels and Müller out and keeping the others. Aside from his “we need experience” litany, there was nothing there.

And here’s the thing: Gündoğan, Kroos, Neuer and Reus delivered performances in Russia just as terrible as the others. And the others could have delivered on that experience thing just as well. In short, Löw made a rod for his own back.

That rod took the shape of Marc-André ter Stegen using his position as no. 1 in Barcelona to push for chances in Germany. And listen, I know we’re Bayern fans. But it is clear that Manuel Neuer is not the goalkeeper he was in the heyday of #SweeperKeeper. Ter Stegen is bound to become Germany’s starting goalkeeper and he should get the chances other young players are being afforded.

Löw has held off much of the pressure, both internal and external, by continuously claiming ter Stegen will get his call. Absolutely everyone expected Mr. Boogers to start the 27-year-old in either one of Germany’s international break games. And yet, Neuer started both. Let us not forget that ter Stegen is a more recent Champions League winner than Neuer, and that he fended off Claudio Bravo after the Catalans attempted a scheme where they would have two starting goalkeepers.

Healthy competition, mismanaged

It is abundantly clear that stern competition in the goalkeeper spot is harder to manage than in other positions. Goalkeeper substitutions are all but non-existent barring sending offs or injuries. The inherent difficulty in sharing the goalkeeper spot is only exacerbated by the fact that Neuer is captain.

But we shouldn’t forget that this has happened before. Jürgen Klinsmann, Löw’s boss before he took the job, successfully oversaw a transition that saw Oliver Kahn make way for Jens Lehmann. For two years, the two competed and rotated for the spot. Ultimately, Klimsmann gave the nod to Lehmann for the starting spot in the 2006 World Cup. Kahn gracefully accepted the call and embraced his place as backup.

Does that mean Manuel Neuer should simply make way for ter Stegen and take it sitting down? Not by a country mile. But Joachim Löw owes ter Stegen a chance to prove himself, in that he has promised as much for ages now. Löw was there when Klinsmann manouvred his way around the Kahn-Lehmann conundrum. Why doesn’t he try something similar with these two?

A symptom

The goalkeeper debate is yet another sign that Löw hasn’t really got hold of the transition. It signals a lack of consistency between his discourse and his decisions. Marc-André ter Stegen is a world-class goalkeeper, more than half a decade younger than Manuel Neuer. His performances at Barcelona since 2014-15 have surely earned him the weight to be afforded a chance as first-choice. What should have been a blessing for Löw has become yet another front in a nasty transition that still has no happy ending in sight.

Maybe there’s a common denominator to everything here. Maybe the problem isn’t quite on the pitch.