Erik Durm: Löw’s magic bullet for the left back position?

With Germany’s first match against Portugal fast approaching, uncertainty continues to surround Germany’s tournament buildup: is Jogi Löw taking a gamble in the striking department by putting all his eggs into one, Miroslav Klose-shaped basket? Will Mesut Özil regain his form, fitness and confidence in time? How will the team compensate the loss of one of their most in-form attacking players in Marco Reus? And finally there remain, of course, question marks surrounding the health and match fitness of key personnel such as Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira.

Ironically enough, the quest in finding a reliable left-back in time for the start of the World Cup, an issue that’s been much debated in Germany since their semi-final exit at the 2012 Euros, no longer represents the greatest concern. The player intent on making the very most of this current situation is Borussia Dortmund fullback and recent national team debutant, Erik Durm.

For the majority of Germany’s World Cup qualifying campaign, Marcell Jansen of Hamburg and Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer looked to be the only two players competing for the leftback spot in Brazil. It was only through an injury to Marcel Schmelzer, fairly early on in Borussia Dortmund’s season, that Durm burst onto the scene and onto Jogi Löw’s side. Out of the three left-backs that originally made the 30-man squad, Durm is the last one standing, ousting his Dortmund colleague Marcel Schmelzer along the way. While the former Mainz youth player certainly experienced a very promising debut season, a World Cup call-up could by no means be taken for granted. So just how did Erik Durm go from 19 Bundesliga appearances to being in contention for a spot in Germany’s starting eleven in Brazil?

It is fair to say that, with all due respect to Durm, Löw’s need for options at leftback is what got the Dortmund player into the running in the first place. On paper, the relatively inexperienced defender was still only third in the left-back hierarchy when Germany’s 30-man squad was announced, however he soon managed to impress Löw and convince him during the training camp in South Tyrol that he can be a worthwhile addition to the team. Löw’s omission of Volland, despite a lack of more traditional striking options, underlines that Durm’s inclusion must not be understood as a case of desperate times requiring desperate measures.

It is no secret that Jogi Löw was never fully convinced by Schmelzer’s performances for Germany. The coach’s unfortunate public criticism of Schmelzer in October 2012 made this more than obvious. While Löw rightly came under fire for his comments, his general frustration was somewhat understandable, seeing that neither Schmelzer nor Jansen managed to deliver convincing performances for Germany with any sort of consistency. On top of this snub, both Jansen and Schmelzer have struggled with injuries throughout the season and Löw made it very clear that he needs players to be 100% fit for the Brazilian World Cup. By the end of the training camp, it was confirmed that Schmelzer’s standing in the Germany team simply was not good enough to merit the same special treatment given to someone like Sami Khedira.

A lack of fitness is something Löw won’t need to worry about with 22-year-old Erik Durm. His acceleration, stamina and pace are outstanding, the physical demands of the World Cup should therefore not pose a problem for him. While his physical conditions already gives him an important edge Durm, a former striker at youth level, also offers a greater attacking threat than Marcel Schmelzer, despite being naturally right-footed. It is a real shame that the potentially devastating speed and attacking prowess provided by a Dortmund duo of Durm and Reus on the left flank is no longer an option for Löw.

For all his attacking potential, it was Durm’s performances against Real Madrid (2:0 in Dortmund) and Bayern München (3:0 in Munich), when he managed to subdue the likes of Gareth Bale and Arjen Robben, that earned him a World Cup nomination. His defensive skills are therefore not to be underestimated and based on the aforementioned performances, Marcel Schmelzer is likely to face stiff competition from Durm for club and country after the World Cup. Being able to impress in his his first season will also have given the 22-year-old a huge deal of confidence. Indeed, he does not appear fazed by big occasions as his impressive Champions League performances demonstrated, something that was most certainly a deciding factor in Löw’s selection of Durm.

While the combination of these various factors all in all justify his inclusion in Germany’s World Cup squad, the Dortmund defender’s lack of experience may nevertheless be highlighted as a potential problem. For all his deficiencies, 150 Bundesliga appearances, 23 Champions League starts and 16 caps are evidence of Marcel Schmelzer’s experience at the top level. Based on these statistics one may well argue that Löw is taking a gamble by not giving Schmelzer the opportunity to get fit in Brazil. Of course, Durm would not be the first player to go into a World Cup without much experience and do well. However, expecting Durm to “do a Müller” and rise to stardom would not be fair, seeing that the Bavarian already played a key role in Bayern’s double winning season and route to the Champions League final in 2010 before excelling in South Africa.

Despite a lack of experience, Durm’s critics may also point towards his unfortunate performance in Dortmund’s 3-0 Champions League loss to Real Madrid, when he struggled to cope with Gareth Bale’s pace throughout the match. Moreover, Ibrahima Traore likewise posed significant problems for Durm in Dortmund’s 3-2 win at Suttgart on match day 28. However, on both occasions Dortmund failed to defend effectively as a collective unit, leaving the youngster all too often isolated on the left. Should Durm play for Germany at the World Cup it will therefore be equally important that he receives consistent defensive support from the likes of Andre Schürrle, Lukas Podolski or Julian Draxler.

The same applies, of course, should Benedikt Höwedes get the nod ahead of his Dortmund rival against Portugal on June 16th. The Schalke skipper’s experience could still give him the edge over Durm, especially now that Löw will have to rethink how his left flank will line up. Fielding a well attuned Dortmund trio of Hummels, Durm and Reus is no longer an option and this may count to Höwedes’ advantage. His solid performance and second-half partnership with Podolski against Armenia will have given Löw plenty of food for thought.

Whatever will happen to Durm in Brazil, his emergence at left-back, essentially out of nowhere, has given German fans new hope looking into the future — the Dortmund youngster was even voted Man of the Match by the fans against Cameroon. At the same time this underlines that expectations will have to be managed carefully by Löw. But even if we don’t see a lot of the 22-year-old in Brazil, he will almost certainly bring a lot of joy to Jogi Löw and German fans in years to come.

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Leon Weber

Born in Germany but having spent five years studying in Glasgow, Leon never quite warmed to the SPL. He likes writing on German football though. @leonweber87

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