It’s just three days to go until Germany take on Portugal in L’viv, and there’s time for at least a couple more pre-tournament posts before we finally get going with the real stuff. I will be keeping myself busy during the next three weeks, churning out the usual match reports and analysis – as well as posting the odd article for the excellent Bundesliga Fanatic blog. I am hoping that Caroline is going to be able to cope with what will probably feel like 24/7 stadium noise from the Fernsehen, as it’s going to be even crazier than South Africa 2012 zu hause.
I’ll be turning out two posts in the build-up – here’s the first, which will provide a brief (or perhaps not so brief, once I get going) discussion of the potential starting line-up.
There has been much debate about Joachim Löw’s intended starting eleven, with much of the discussion focussing on five main areas – the suspect left-back position, the centre-backs, the defensive midfield combination, the attacking left midfield and up front. Following the dismal showing of Marcel Schmelzer in his recent outings for the Nationalmannschaft, one of these debates has now been settled: with no other decent alternative at left-back, Philipp Lahm – our best player either on the left or the right – will take the starting spot, with Jérôme Boateng out on the right.
Right, onto the problem areas.
The Big Back Two
The centre-backs. This is one area where the Nationaltrainer has been dithering for the past year or so, to the point where even days away from the team’s most important fixture in two years we still have no idea who is going to start. There are two names central to this discussion: BV 09 Borussia Dortmund youngster Mats Hummels, and Arsenal’s eighty-two cap veteran Per Mertesacker. While Jogi seems to prefer Mertesacker – even an injured and less mobile than usual Mertesacker – most of those outside the coach’s office appear to prefer Hummels. With either one of the two starting alongside FC Bayern München’s Holger Badstuber.
Let’s have a look at the coach’s record here, and the combinations he has played over the past twelve months:
Austria (Wien, 03.06.2011): Arne Friedrich / Mats Hummels (1)
Azerbaijan (Baku, 07.06.2011): Hummels / Holger Badstuber (1)
Brazil (Stuttgart, 10.08.2011): Hummels / Badstuber (2)
Austria (Gelsenkirchen, 02.09.2011): Hummels / Badstuber (3)
Poland (Danzig, 06.09.2011): Per Mertesacker / Jérôme Boateng (1)
Turkey (Istanbul, 07.10.2011): Mertesacker / Badstuber (1)
Belgium (Düsseldorf, 11.10.2011): Mertesacker / Hummels (1)
Ukraine (Kyiv, 11.11.2011): Hummels (one centre-back in three-man defence) (1)
Netherlands (Hamburg, 15.11.2011): Mertesacker / Badstuber (2)
France (Bremen, 29.02.2012): Hummels / Badstuber (4)
Switzerland (Basel, 26.05.2012): Mertesacker / Hummels (2)
Israel (Leipzig, 31.05.2012): Mertesacker / Badstuber (3)
That’s a dozen matches and six different combinations, where any combination has not been employed on more than four occasions – not exactly a model of consistency to inspire confidence. Mertesacker – not usually the most mobile of the choices available – has been struggling to regain full fitness after a recent injury, but it does look as though he is the coach’s choice to start. He looked worse than dreadful against Switzerland and was rightly criticised, but was also part of the four-man defensive unit that produced a rare clean sheet against Israel – though this may have had more to do with the Israelis’ lack of offensive ambition.
Without intending to suggest some sort of anti-Hummels conspiracy on the part of the coach, I’d say that if Mertesacker does start against Portugal he can probably write a thank you letter to Israeli coach Eli Guttmann for giving him an easy time in what was the last real test before the Euros.
The Midfield: Khedira or Kroos? Poldolski or Schürrle
While the defence will continue to be a problem for Jogi Löw, there are no such issues with the midfield where there is an abundance of talent. However a couple of debates are still rumbling: should Sami Khedira or Toni Kroos partner Bastian Schweinsteiger in the defensive midfield, and should Lukas Podolski start out on the left wing, or should his place be taken by one of the other younger players such as André Schürrle or even Marco Reus?
The Khedira versus Kroos debate is for me a simple one, but given the longevity of the discussion on the various forums, blogs and discussion boards I get the nagging feeling that it will never really be settled. I’ll keep things simple and throw out my theories here: when the team needs to play more defensively, it will always need a calm head and a tactical brain. In short, Khedira – who gives genuine meaning to the term “defensive spine”. However when a more creative approach is required, the hugely-talented Kroos may be a better bet. It really is that simple.
Of course, this is all based on the assumption that Schweinsteiger is going to be fully fit: if not, it’s a case of problem solved – though I am sure that both Lars Bender and İlkay Gündoğan may have something to say about that. Again, it’s a case of Löw having way too many quality players at his disposal. If only some of them could also play at left-back.
Like Per Mertesacker, Podolski – who has joined the tall centre-back at Arsenal – has long been seen as another one of the coach’s favourites. In his favour, he has the experience, an excellent tournament mentality, and – even though he has failed to find the back of the net in his last six matches – a more than acceptable goals per game ratio for a man positioned out on the wing. The downside is that in most of these last six matches he has been decidedly average at best.
Against the Israelis Poldolski looked isolated and lost, a one-legged former sharpshooter hogging the left touchline; as soon as he was replaced by Schürrle the dynamic completely changed, and the static left flank suddenly burst into life as the Bayer 04 Leverkusen youngster mixed things up by making runs off the ball and cutting inside – capping things off with an excellent right-footed strike. Is Poldi really on the slide, or does he just switch off for friendly matches? He turned in some excellent performances for a poor 1. FC Köln side this past Bundesliga season, and the Nationaltrainer is likely to stick with him – with Schürrle probably being lined up to make a number of second-half appearances.
This may actually be a good thing. Schürrle has not turned in many noteworthy performances whenever he has started, but has been exceptional coming on off the bench: by introducing a completely different approach mid-stream, he has proved to be an excellent “balance-shifter”. I’d imagine that this is my opinion based on observation rather than any strategy being employed by the coach, but it seems to have worked fairly well so far.
The Man Up Front
Finally, the much-vaunted centre-forward position. Klose or Gómez? Gómez or Klose? While the latter has had an phenomenal season both domestically and in the Champions’ League for FC Bayern München, the side’s veteran has undergone something of a renaissance in Serie A with SS Lazio. Going just by this, there should be no major problems – but nothing is ever that simple, particularly when deciding who should lead the line for the Nationalmannschaft.
Gómez has scored over forty goals this past season, and the figures speak for themselves. Or are things as simple as that? While the FC Bayern hitman has been prolific for his club, his record has been not as impressive for the national side, where his style of play has never really seemed to fit. He has often appeared isolated, and is clearly not as fluent as Klose when linking up with the players around him. His poor first touch is another thing that has let him down badly, and given the way that the national team functions this is something he will really need to work on. When it comes to scoring goals Gómez is naturally right up there with the best of them, but when he has a bad day he can be quite woeful: some of his misses have bordered on the comical.
Klose by contrast is a man who right from the start has slotted in perfectly with the Nationaltrainer’s style; he combines excellently with the men on the flanks outside him, has excellent movement and awareness, and a sound grasp of tactics. Crucially, he also has a relationship with midfield playmaker Mesut Özil that could be described as almost telepathic. All good, save for the fact that there are serious doubts about his fitness – crucial in a major tournament where one would be expected to play up to half a dozen matches in less than three weeks.
If Klose were a few years younger and could be trusted to be fully fit, his position as first choice striker would be a no-brainer; as things currently stand we may see some switching around between him and Gómez – and may even see Marco Reus, Thomas Müller or Lukas Podolski enter the fray as backup. It’s going to be interesting.
For what it’s worth, here’s my starting line-up for this weekend’s opener against Portugal, including substitutes:
Neuer – Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm – Khedira, Schweinsteiger – Müller (Reus), Özil, Podolski (Schürrle) – Klose (Gómez)
Tomorrow: some facts, stats and opinions on our three group opponents. You can also get to hear me in person on the latest Bundesliga Fanatic Podcast, where I discuss a range of topics with resident experts Niklas Wildhagen and Cris Nyari. How Danish bacon managed to squeeze itself into the discussion, Gerd only knows.