Thirty-one, and counting down...

The first month of 2016 is almost over, and there are less than five months before this year’s European Championship finals start in France. After a topsy-turvy and at times painful qualifying campaign, Joachim Löw’s Mannschaft booked their place at the month-long showpiece – where they have been grouped together with Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland.

We all had to wait until the end of the first week of May for the announcement of the rump squad for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014; this time, we have been presented with a list of thirty-one names before the end of January. With the second half of the Bundesliga season just about underway, the decision to give us a list of potential squad members now is just a little bizarre – but it does give us something to talk about before the next friendly fixture against England in March.

I myself cannot really see any logic in naming a rump squad this early in the year – an argument highlighted by the injury to FC Bayern’s Jérôme Boateng in the first match after the Winterpause. Central defender Boateng – a crucial pillar of the German back line – has essentially been promised his place should he be fit and able come June, but it will just take a couple more injuries to knock any long-term plans out of kilter. (And mess up the Panini sticker album too, of course).

Should everything run to plan, the mission is to whittle this group of thirty-one down to the twenty-three who will be on the plane to France. If the injury problems are anywhere near as bad as they were two years ago however, watch for a few more names to be thrown into the hat.

There are five ‘keepers in the list, which essentially means “Manuel Neuer and four others”. The FC Bayern custodian is joined by regular contenders Marc-André ter Stegen and Ron-Robert Zieler, while Bayer Leverkusen’s Bernd Leno remains in the picture after being on the last (and somewhat ill-fated) friendly fixture shortlist. A new name is former Eintracht Frankfurt number one Kevin Trapp, who has impressed many watchers since moving to French league leaders PSG.

Worryingly, Neuer’s deputies not only lack his unique presence and ability, but also his experience. Compared to the Bayern man’s sixty-three caps for the Nationalmannschaft, the other four have just ten international appearances between them.

The defence has always been a problem for the Nationaltrainer, and this time around the story is no different. The retirement of Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker – with more than two-hundred caps between them – left a gaping hole in this area of the squad. There are ten named defenders – including the recently-injured Boateng – of which only three have more than ten international caps.

There is more than a whiff of desperation about the selections: Borussia Dortmund’s Erik Durm hasn’t played at all during the first half of the Bundesliga season, while Schalke 04’s Benedikt Höwedes – the third-most experienced of the ten with thirty-two caps – has struggled for both form and fitness since the summer of 2014. To put things into context, Höwedes has only made three international appearances since the World Cup final – and just one in all of 2015.

With the exception of Boateng and his central defensive partner Mats Hummels, there are no real world-beaters in this group. While there is plenty of potential, nobody among the remaining eight names have really set the world alight in the Schwarz und Weiß. This will continue to be the biggest problem for the coach as he looks to fine-tune things ahead of the Euros.

If this German squad lacks depth in defence, there are an abundance of riches in midfield. Twelve players have been named in this preliminary squad, and I am sure everybody can name at least one player who could have made this initial shortlist. Schalke duo Leroy Sané and Max Meyer and Eintracht Frankfurt stalwart Alex Meier to name but three.

Given the number of established stars and up-and-coming players available, some may accuse the coach of picking his established favourites. the almost ubiquitous Lukas Podolski looks set to creep closer to Lothar Matthäus’ record of 150 international caps, while the out of form André Schürrle also gets the nod.

If the defence lacks depth of experience, the midfield picks have plenty. In addition to centurions Podolski and skipper Bastian Schweinsteiger, there are four other players with more than fifty international appearances – with Schürrle one game short on forty-nine.

The squad is completed by the forwards, with the recalled Mario Gómez among the four men selected. Having donned the Nationaltrikot for the first time in more than a year against France in Paris at the end of last year – only his second international in more than two years – the experienced striker has had something of a resurgence in Turkey with Beşiktaş.

Gómez is the only out and out striker among the four, and his return to fitness is a welcome boost for the team – particularly after the retirement of all-time leading scorer Miroslav Klose which has left the squad without a genuine front man. It remains to be seen whether the coach will play a system that truly accommodated an orthodox number nine, but a fit and hungry Gómez will certainly give him and the team additional attacking options next year in France.

Goalkeepers (5)

Bernd Leno (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 0/0)
Manuel Neuer (FC Bayern München, 63/0)
Marc-André ter Stegen (FC Barcelona, 4/0)
Kevin Trapp (Paris Saint-Germain, 0/0)
Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover 96, 6/0)

Defence (10)

Jérôme Boateng (FC Bayern München, 57/0)
Emre Can (Liverpool FC, 3/0)
Erik Durm (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 7/0)
Matthias Ginter (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 8/0)
Jonas Hector (1. FC Köln, 10/0)
Benedikt Höwedes (FC Schalke 04, 32/2)
Mats Hummels (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 44/4)
Shkodran Mustafi (Valencia CF, 9/0)
Antonio Rüdiger (AS Roma, 7/0)
Sebastian Rudy (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, 9/0)

Midfield (12)

Karim Bellarabi (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 10/1)
Julian Draxler (VfL Wolfsburg, 16/1)
Ilkay Gündogan (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 16/4)
Sami Khedira (Juventus Torino, 57/5)
Christoph Kramer (Bayer 04 Leverkusen, 11/0)
Toni Kroos (Real Madrid CF, 62/9)
Thomas Müller (FC Bayern München, 68/31)
Mesut Özil (Arsenal FC, 70/18)
Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray S.K., 126/48)
Marco Reus (BV 09 Borussia Dortmund, 27/9)
André Schürrle (VfL Wolfsburg, 49/20)
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United FC, 114/23)

Forwards (4)

Mario Gómez (Beşiktaş J.K, 61/25)
Mario Götze (FC Bayern München, 48/16)
Max Kruse (VfL Wolfsburg, 14/4)
Kevin Volland (TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, 5/0)

Thirty-one, and counting down…

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