After the 4-0 win over Kazakhstan on Saturday, Germany cemented their position on top of their qualifying group. With half the campaign remaining their place in Ukraine and Poland next year looks as good as sealed. With that out of the way, the German Football Association has scheduled a series of friendlies leading up to the tournament, one of which included a test against last summer’s World Cup opponents Australia in Gladbach.
Löw planned this friendly as a template for experimentation. He announced before the Kazakhstan match on Saturday that those who did not feature in the qualifier would get 90 minutes against Australia so players like Schmelzer, Hummels and Bender, who were left out before would get a chance in the non competitive friendly.
Considering the tentative nature of this match, it was not a huge surprise that Germany lost this game in the end. Aside the fact that Germany generally does not fare well in friendlies, results are often hard to come by when you are fielding personnel that have previously never played together. In fact, wholesale changes like that yield the opposite result but the intention was purely experimental in theory and thus served an effective platform for team building going forward.
Germany’s loss against Australia looks poor on paper but under closer inspections it more than served its purpose and there are several positives to be taken away from Löw and anyone with German football interests at heart.
It is very rare to see a country’s National Team have an average age of 22-23 but that has been the case with this German side in the last year and a half. Since the “Klinsmann revolution” after 2004 this team has been injected with some much needed youth. The squad sent to South Africa was Germany’s youngest at a major tournament in decades and the pool of talent for the team does not seem to be growing older in age. As a matter of fact, it is getting younger and younger and even 18 year old Mario Götze has seemingly established himself as a permanent fixture in Löw’s selection.
Youthful exuberance played a big part in Germany’s success in South Africa last summer but talent in raw form is refined only through experience. Therefore it is important to provide all young players with the necessary platform to hone their potential. Because Germany’s talent pool has grown so exponentially, games like this are crucial in giving those players lower in the pecking order valuable match practice. Players like Hummels, Schmelzer and Bender have been some of the best performers in the Bundesliga this season but have had difficulties getting much first team action with their National side.
To become valuable and consistently reliable players for the National team, young players require the faith of their manager off the pitch as well as on it. Fielding a line up such as the one against Australia therefore goes a long way in developing quality in squad depth as well perpetuating a sound team building strategy.
Germany may not have lit up the field against Australia but the talent was certainly noticeable and that is enough to build on. In particular, debutant Andre Schürrle’s link up with Thomas Müller was a big bright spot as the pair constantly tested Australia’s back line. Schürrle’s intelligent running form the right gave Müller and Schweinsteiger the ideal outlet to run the game through the middle and it was no surprise when a clever fake set the Mainz striker up in the perfect position to lay the ball off to Mario Gomez for the first goal.
Since his inclusion, Özil has quickly become the creative heartbeat of this Germany side so his absence is always felt. Having a versatile mobile and quick minded player like Schürrle available lessens the detrimental effect of Özil’s absence. Similar to the effect Müller has on games, Schürrle’s running and movement during a match is an ideal compliment for more cerebral playmaking types. The more options Löw has available the better his tactical palette.
Sven Bender also had a respectable full debut. The young Dortmund player deputized for Khedira and had a solid first half performance. It diminished along with the team’s in the second but considering it was his first start in an all new team he did not look out of place at all. There are slight differences between Bender and Khedira as players in the scheme of the National side and it perhaps affected the perception of some supporters throughout the match. For one, Khedira’s role under Löw is very much that of a box to box midfielder, instructed to defend and attack along with Schweinsteiger. The pair have been so effective so far because they interchange between those duties so well.
At Dortmund, as well as this match, Bender holds a more traditional defensive role which sees him almost shielding the backline. That meant Schweinsteiger was exclusively used to link up attacks. That is not to say that this discrepancy was necessarily bad but it did create a difference on the field and affected how the team operated as a whole.
Much has been said about Germany’s defensive weaknesses. To an extent, the issues have also been overblown but it cannot be denied that it has been their glaring weakness amidst their offensive revolution in recent years. Arne Friedrich is not getting any younger while Per Mertesacker, the stalwart and now one of the veterans on the team, has been in poor form for quite some time. Meanwhile, other options such as Holger Badstuber and Heiko Westermann have failed to impress and do not seem to fit the team’s style. Löw has failed to find a defensive compliment to Germany’s effective attacking and passing game and with the constant rotation of defenders the instability of their defense has been a hinderance in the team’s development.
To continue on the theme of bright spots, the integration of a player like Mats Hummels can therefore not be understated. Arguably the best German defender over the last two seasons he fits the mold of the mobile ball playing type that Germany seem to be missing in the back. While Löw sees it differently, criticizing Hummels for his long balls and preferring the inconsistent Badstuber, Hummels brings to the table a combination of everything that Löw insists puts his other choices ahead of the Dortmund defender.
For one, Hummels is a terrific reader of the game and like Friedrich, has very astute positioning. In addition, Hummels’s build up play and passing from the back is arguably second to none in Germany at the moment and has been his trademark since joining Dortmund. While Badstuber is also known for that he has been quite inconsistent this season and has found it difficult to build on his debut season last year. Another strength, and it can be said to be the most valuable in the context of the National Team, is Hummels’s mobility. Mertesacker, while a precise tackler and strong in the air, lacks pace and mobility, which makes him very vulnerable against speedy strikers.
It remains to be seen however whether Löw will utilize Hummels consistently and rightfully integrates him into the team. To use a makeshift friendly as a determinant of a player’s abilities is not telling of the entire story and his stubbornness may just get the best of him at the cost of the team in the near future.
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