Injury concerns; lacklustre performances in friendlies; questions about the inclusion of out-of-form veterans; surprise picks of young, uncapped talents… If the talking points surrounding the German national team heading into Euro 2016 sound familiar, it’s because many of them could have been recycled from the weeks leading up to the 2014 World Cup.
For those who have been cryogenically frozen for the past two years, Germany won that one. And so, for all the doubt and concern among fans in Germany, Joachim Low’s team are a favourite to lift silverware again at the Stade de France on July 10.
Can they build on their success?
For better or worse, that is always the question for a football powerhouse such as Germany. Fortunately, one benefit of being a powerhouse is that it can almost always be answered in the affirmative.
Germany are certainly capable of returning from France with the Henri Delaunay Trophy, but there is one very big reason why it won’t be quite as simple as picking up where they left off at the Maracana. The retirement of long-time captain Philipp Lahm left gaping holes in both the teamsheet and soul of die Mannschaft. The task of replacing Lahm is so difficult that Low didn’t pick a single right-back in his Euro 2016 squad.
As irreplaceable as Lahm’s competitive presence may be, it is his leadership that Germany will miss most. Low hopes that Bastian Schweinsteiger will have learned the ways of captaincy from many years as Lahm’s team-mate, both for Germany and Bayern Munich. Should the Manchester United man be unable to escape the physio’s room, however, the armband goes to Manuel Neuer, who is often the only player in his half of the pitch.
What they’ve learned
The world has learned that this is not the Germany of recent years. Of the 30 qualification matches preceding World Cup 2010, Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014, Germany won 27 and drew three. With results like that, it’s easy to see why fans had grown accustomed to sparkling qualification runs.
Instead, Germany suffered their first ever defeat to Poland in the second match of Euro 2016 qualifying, then drew at home with the Republic of Ireland three days later. Close calls with Scotland and Georgia and a loss to the Irish did little to allay fears that this team was in the early stages of a complex rebuild rather than a simple reload. The recent 3-1 friendly defeat to Slovakia – albeit with an experimental side – did little to disprove that.
take your pick
Down the centre of the pitch, Low can field a virtual Who’s Who of stars. Starting with Neuer in goal and moving forward through the outfield, you can’t swing a baguette without striking a world-class player. Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze provide an embarrassment of riches between the flanks.
The additional benefit of all that experience in the middle is the veteran leadership it can manifest when the need arises. Muller, after his team blew a two-goal lead in half an hour against England, questioned the mental investment of the team – himself included – in friendly situations. Three days later, Muller and crew romped to a 4-1 win over Italy, Germany’s first victory over the Azzurri in eight attempts.
Square pegs, round holes
At full-back, it’s less Who’s Who and more Who’s That? But an abject lack of options in this position is no new issue for Germany: until Low shifted defensive stalwart Lahm from central midfield back into his usual right-back slot, both full-back spots were being manned by nominal central defenders (Benedikt Howedes and Boateng).
Jonas Hector is the only player who features at full-back regularly for his club, and even he has spent time at defensive midfield for Cologne. Emre Can and Sebastian Rudy have both been tested at right-back by Low, too, although what that signals is difficult to gauge.
Whether it’s uncomfortable bookends of a four-man backline or more of the three-man defensive row that Low used against Italy and Slovakia, this will be Germany’s biggest weak spot.
While the likes of Muller and Gotze (and maybe even the rebooted Mario Gomez) bask in the glory of goalscoring, Kroos is poised to further boost his growing reputation as one of the best all-around footballers in the game.
His passing game will be key to unleashing Germany’s potential in attack. Not only does the 26-year-old complete passes at an exceptional rate, his range demands conservative defending. While Low may prefer his midfielders to limit their long-range efforts, Kroos has shown that he can fluidly transition from calm possession in his own half to launching a well-targeted opportunity for someone in the attacking third.
Where the Real Madrid man is even more vital, however, is in regaining possession after it has been lost. Whenever opposing players find themselves with the ball in the middle third of the pitch, the first thing they’ll want to do is locate Kroos: if he’s not already picking their pocket and heading the other way again, he’s likely to be en route to the ball or looking to intercept the next pass. Either way, he has a natural ability to win back the ball for his team, which will annoy everyone in France but the Germans.
A common cry has been that the World Cup was won despite, rather than because of, Low. His 10-year reign has never been without its detractors – why should a World Cup win change that? Critics cite the selections of Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski as evidence of unbending loyalty to his favourites regardless of form, despite the former’s big contributions in Brazil after similar charges.
Several players openly cited team unity as a key to the title run. If a World Cup-winning coach believes those experienced heads are worth a couple of squad places, then perhaps there are contributions that can’t be quantified in a heat map.