Low limps closer to exit after Germany's latest painful loss
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DUSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — Joachim Low's explanations of what went wrong in the German national team's latest humiliating loss have become a familiar ritual.

When South Korea eliminated Germany from the 2018 World Cup, he said the team went to Russia "perhaps with a certain arrogance." When Spain routed his new-look team 6-0 last year, it was a "very dark day" when "nothing worked."

Low did it again Wednesday after North Macedonia beat Germany 2-1 in the last qualifying game of his 15-year-tenure.

"We just lost many, many balls when playing forward," he told broadcaster RTL.

Facing counterattacks, he said "the defense was not stable."

There won't be many more of these moments. Not necessarily because Germany will improve before playing World Cup champion France, European champion Portugal and Hungary at this year's European Championship, but because Low is leaving after that tournament. The 6-0 loss in Spain was the catalyst for him to bring forward his departure date, rather than cling on until the 2022 World Cup.

When Germany signed Low to a four-year contract extension in May 2018, it showed faith in the coach who had led the team to the 2014 World Cup title. Even then, eyebrows were raised at the timing. Germany's collapse at the World Cup in Russia the following month meant the final act of Low's long tenure would be a rebuild.

Germany's showing in Russia was its worst World Cup campaign since 1938, and there's been more unwanted history since. The loss to Spain was Germany's biggest in 89 years. Losing to North Macedonia ended a 20-year, 35-game unbeaten run for the national team in World Cup qualifying.

Low finds it hard to explain why his plans aren't working. The team is built around Bayern Munich, the team that won the Champions League last season. Individual players are doing well for their clubs, like Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, who captained Germany on Wednesday, and Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger. They just don't seem to gel in Germany shirts.

Injuries have played their part, too, leading Low to use defensive midfielder Emre Can at left back and right back in successive World Cup qualifiers. The pandemic-affected schedule means heavy legs and arduous travel, but that's also true for North Macedonia, which started 37-year-old striker Goran Pandev in three games in six days. He still scored against Germany.

Low has resisted reversing the central decision of his rebuild — dropping stalwarts Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in 2019. Since then, Muller has excelled for Bayern. Hummels and Boateng remain regulars at their clubs, too, while Low has experimented with various uneasy center back combinations of Rudiger, Niklas Sule, Jonathan Tah, Robin Koch and Matthias Ginter.

One big difference between Bayern and Germany is the national team's lack of an imposing center forward. Bayern has Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, while Germany has Timo Werner. The Chelsea forward squatted with his head in his hands after missing a point-blank chance against North Macedonia, mirroring his problems adapting to the Premier League this season.

And at left-back, Robin Gosens, Philipp Max and Marcel Halstenberg have all played but none have staked a convincing claim to be first choice.

The build-up to Low's last tournament will be dominated by speculation about who will replace him. Low has done some useful groundwork for his successor, like persuading 18-year-old Bayern forward Jamal Musiala to choose Germany over England.

Recent results mean the new coach will have another advantage — low expectations.

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Low limps closer to exit after Germany's latest painful loss
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