When Uefa’s new competition, the Nations League, was launched last month, there was initial confusion about some of its complex mechanisms, and a hesitancy about how to properly describe its penalty for failure. Managers talked about "demotion", of "dropping down a level", apparently unwilling to say the word "relegation" about something that could affect them abruptly, even in the space of three matches.
Right now, Germany's national team is undergoing a crash course in the language of failure, a vocabulary they have not had to learn for a generation. There is no softening the impact of Saturday night's 3-0 defeat against a Netherlands who spent much of the past four years perfecting the role of Europe's most hapless fallen giant. They emphatically handed over that script to Joachim Low's bedraggled Germans in Amsterdam.
Low, now in his 11th year in a job he might easily have lost after a dreadful World Cup, may say sincerely that the Nations League was never his priority. But rebuilding a damaged edifice certainly is, and being thumped by the Dutch, with whom Germany have a peppery rivalry even in friendlies, leaves a nasty bruise. It has ushered the 2014 World Cup winners closer to the R-word: Relegation from League A in the hierarchy of Uefa’s lively new tournament will look a probability if Germany lose to France in Paris on Tuesday.
They are bottom of their table with a single point. Less than four months ago, they finished bottom of their group at the World Cup. Germany have scored no goals in their last three competitive matches, and just two in their last five. The worst calendar year of Low's decade at the top now reads: Played 12, Lost 5, Won 3. His Germany have kept a clean sheet just once in their last 11 games.
Seven of Germany’s 2014 World Cup gold medallists took part in the agony of Amsterdam; a Dutch team, more and more vibrant as the the contest developed, fielded just three of the men who failed, via penalty shoot-out, to reach the final of that tournament. The Dutch still look back on some very lean times - Holland qualified for neither the 2016 Euros nor the 2018 World Cup - but must feel rejuvenated, that a corner has been turned.
Uefa Nations League: Joachim Low rewarded for putting faith in Germany's old guard
They were also the beneficiaries, over a rousing 90 minutes, of a catalogue of errors from players who have been standard-bearers under Low. Captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer lost his bearings terribly tracking the corner that led to the first goal, headed in by Virgil Van Dijk. The opportunity had been set up when Ryan Babel outjumped Mats Hummels, a defender with almost 70 caps to his name. By that time, half an hour in, Thomas Muller - on course for his 100th cap when Germany host Holland in what may well be the relegation decider next month - had squandered a chance, allowing Jasper Cillessen to save a drive the usually predatory Muller had time to place more expertly. Julian Draxler - another 2014 champion - wasted an opportunity to equalise.
It was a hard night, too, for Jerome Boateng, playing his 76th international. Memphis Depay, electric on the counter-attack, zipped past him for the second goal, and Georginio Wijnaldum did the same before unleashing the authoritative drive past Neuer for the third, in injury time.
Neuer, Hummels, Boateng and Muller have all had a tough, disorientating few weeks with their club, an unusually vulnerable Bayern Munich, and Low acknowledged confidence is draining from players he knows intimately.
“You can see the self-belief has lowered in the past few months,” he said. “We have lost direction. In the last 10 minutes, you should be responding to 1-0 down without going wild. We have been authors of our own defeat too often.”
Belief in Low is diminishing, too. The choice of the German Football Federation to honour his long contract after the disastrous World Cup leaned on the vast credit he had accumulated between 2008 and 2017. It was a choice to regard Russia as a blip, a recoverable malfunction. As the Dutch would happily advise the Germans, these crises have a tendency to get worse before they get better.