Going into the EUROs both Germany’s and Mats Hummels defensive performances were questioned but following his and the team’s strong showing against Portugal, the Borussia Dortmund defender may have finally arrived at the international stage and in Joachim Löw’s starting line up.
The image of Mats Hummels in a Bayern Munich shirt has long been forgotten, not simply because he only played one senior game for Bayern but also because of his pivotal role in Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund’s side. The centre-back has flirted around the fringes of the national side but after this season, he is starting to look comfortable on the international stage.
His performance against Portugal was nothing short of exemplary but there is more to the 23 year olds performance than producing a textbook 90 minutes. Hummels represents the return of a lost central defender something oppressed by the gratuitous tactical infrastructure of the modern game. As Jonathan Wilson highlights in “Inverting The Pyramid”, it was Tottenham Hotspur under Arthur Rowe in the early 1950s that uniquely (for Britain) started to build from the back and not limit defenders to simply defensive duties. Holland in the 1970s were obviously the most notably side to manipulate this ‘total football’ concept and there have been a great deal of sides that have tried to do so since but the essence of it has been lost behind the pressure to achieve results. Since winning games has become paramount to the method of victory for most sides, fluidity is either fleeting or confusing, which often leads to a mid-game meltdown.
Choosing to avoid this can be completely understood. Fluidity is an extremely difficult concept to implement on the football field and so to focus solely on individual or unit tasks can, and has, lead to success. To dominate at heading, tackling and blocking is to be a defender of great value because that is the art of defending. To be more than that is, as previously stated, a risky decision because it requires more. It demands both a bigger footballing brain as well as a higher level of technique. Jan Vertonghen of Ajax and Rio Ferdinand in earlier Manchester United years displayed certain adeptness at it and although there are a great number of defenders in the modern game attempting to implement a higher level of defending, few do it successfully and most pivotally, consistently. Mats Hummels is most definitely one of them.
The temptation to play the ball long out of defence in haste, anxiety of having possession and/or desperation has long since haunted defenders and teams. It is something that typifies one-dimensional defenders, many of whom, as highlighted earlier, simply opted to find their ceiling and then excel. Hummels last night played through balls from defence last night, opening up the play and converting defence to attack in a ruthless and effective manner. He ran out of defence at a Portuguese midfield who seemed completely unsettled by his progress. He moved his side higher up the pitch, something that allows his team-mates to swarm forward and overwhelm the opposition.
Admittedly, Germany did not do this to great effect, or as well as they have in previous games but when they did, it was more often than not that Hummels instigated the surge. Moments later he was found making a sliding tackle or a defensive header. He was both creator and destroyer. His performance had echoes of Matthaeus about it (all he needs is a goal or two now), maybe even Beckenbauer too and although Hummels is not a sweeper, he displayed the same attributes of a player capable of successfully switching between attack and defence.
Loew’s decision to choose Hummels over Mertesacker seems completely justified but it must also have the Arsenal man fearing for his place after such an established performance from a man who has already caught the European eye after only one group game. He will be tested by an angry Dutch side next week, who themselves play a similarly expansive and fluid game, but Hummels is ready. He plays like he always has been.
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