Post World Cup Germany have been in a strange funk. Epitomising this state of affairs is the right back position. Philipp Lahm has ridden into the sunset, and left a huge hole in his right back position. Danny Owen discusses the problem.
As the modern game drifts ever-further infield, infatuated with in-swinging widemen and central playmakers, the full-back role has undergone unrivalled reconstruction. No longer the abode of the physically challenged, the final name on the team sheet; their roles have evolved, their importance increased to the point where Dani Alves became one of the game’s most feared attackers, Luke Shaw a £30million teen. It’s fitting, therefore, that Europe’s most progressive footballing nation embraced this very modern love affair long before the mainstream considered their importance a rival to the jet-heeled wingers and laser-eyed frontmen. From Paul Breitner to Phillip Lahm via Andreas Brehme and Berti Vogts, Germany’s pioneering full-backs have long since led the way in craft and innovation, redesigning their roles in various eras. And 2015’s Germany, though continuing to stockpile graceful playmakers and top-level goalkeepers, are suffering something of a feast and famine at full-back.
Mutton dressed up as Lahm
As Phillip Lahm swapped his studs for slippers, exited on the highest of highs under the Brazilian sun, his outstanding career received its crowning glory. Captain, legend, World champion. However, the retirement of a footballer Pep Guardiola regarded as more intelligent, more technically astute than any he had encountered before, has left a gaping chasm. After all, incredible versatility, outstanding consistency, not to mention 113 caps across 10 years of service, is not so easily replaced. A fact Joachim Löw knows only too well.
Friday’s 3-1 victory against Poland may have marked a welcome return to the incisive interplay and effortless fluidity that has been conspicuous by its absence throughout the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, yet it also highlighted an as yet unanswered conundrum. Debutant Emre Can is now the fourth player to be deployed at right back since Lahm’s departure last summer. Inevitably given his performances for Liverpool in a right-back berth, Can proved the squarest of pegs in the tightest of holes, a victim of his own versatility. His alarming lack of mobility, coupled with loose control and clear inexperience, ensured something of a nightmare debut, a performance dashing any potential future in the right-back slot. In attack, his frenzied deliveries often obliterated the pretty passing patterns weaved by Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil. A far cry from Lahm’s effortless awareness, his trademark overlapping. Furthermore, his obvious unfamiliarity in a position so difficult to master left him recurrently exposed, mistiming challenges and lacking the pace to recover. An accident waiting to happen.
Defensively, Can’s positional errors and concurrent lack of recovery speed, left him wheezing in the dust of Poland’s Kamil Grosicki. The Rennes winger’s delivery for Robert Lewandowski’s thumping header, though sublime in its simplicity, owed much to Can’s mental and physical unsuitability. In the modern game, the full back is no longer the secondary guise of the utility man. It is a position requiring specific, untaught skills. Anticipation bordering on clairvoyance, the innate ability to predict fire and snuff out the match. And the natural athleticism, the speed and energy to tread the touchline for ninety minutes. Can, with a skillset more suited to the rough and tumble of a central role, lacks both. More worryingly, however, it’s a harsh truth Löw should have anticipated. Liverpool’s 6-1 drubbing by Stoke, plus heavy defeats to Arsenal and Crystal Palace, dented Can’s reputation, the inevitable result of his poorest displays on English shores. All in a defensive role. He remains a talented prospect, a future squad fixture, but as the new Sami Khedira, not Lahm 2.0.
A New Löw
However, Can is not the first, and probably not the last, adaptable presence to be shunted into an ill-fitting ensemble. Sebastian Rudy, a midfielder by trade with Hoffenheim, performed to mixed results against Georgia, USA and Scotland while the athletic yet hulking Antonio Rudiger has disappeared from contention following a defeat to Poland and draw with Ireland. Even the master of versatility Kevin Grosskreutz, a James Milner style pillar of reliability, failed to exorcise the ghost of Germany’s departed captain in a 4-2 hammering at Argentinian hands. On occasion, Löw even experimented with wing-backs, a surefire sign of desperation. As it transpired, even a combination of right-centre half and wing-back failed to recreate Lahm’s eminence at both ends. Previously, their most safely fortified position, right-back has become Die Nationalmannschaft’s incapacitating Achilles Heel. Nico Schulz, Matthias Ginter and Julian Korb, first choice for the under-21s, offer crumbs of comfort. But Lahm’s departure remains a gaping wound, with Can, Rudy and Rudiger offering nothing more than a band aid.
A Whole Lotta Left-backs
In stark contrast, Joachim Löw’s options on the opposite flank continue to defy expectation. In Brazil, the inexperience of Erik Durm, coupled with the injury-stricken limbs of Marcel Schmelzer, forced Benedikt Howedes to fill in to the best of his limited abilities, leaving Germany unbalanced in attack. An assured, if temporary solution. Though Löw may have found his long-term answer. While Durm started six straight internationals after the World Cup, the performances of Cologne’s underrated, relatively unknown Jonas Hector appear to have nailed down a starting spot, printed his name permanently over the number three jersey.
A full-back cut from the same cloth as Matteo Darmian, Hector is the epitome of a new-age full-back. Arguably man-of-the-match against Poland, he instigated Germany’s dominance in the first-half, his understanding with Ozil bordering on the telepathic. Pushed high up the pitch with Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger offering security and stability in a double pivot, Hector pinned Poland’s defence back, before drifting inside, interchanging positions and creating chances. Lukasz Piszczek in particular struggled to cope, Hector interpreting the full-back role with all the intelligence of his pioneering forefathers. The opener encapsulated his efficiency, linking with Ozil and Karim Bellarabi to carve apart Poland’s dizzied defence. Calm, composed with the final ball, the assist was merely the coup de grace of an exceptional all-round display. Meanwhile, his first-time lay-off for Gotze, and Germany’s second, followed a theme of the opening period; raking diagonals into Hector’s path, dragging Poland’s defence across the pitch, thus opening space for his team-mates. An unstoppable outlet and a major upgrade on the defensively durable, yet slow and steady Howedes. Hector’s fifth cap. The first of many. Adept on the overlap, composed in possession, tactically aware and thrillingly capricious, Hector possesses all the early hall-marks of his esteemed predecessors.
Left and right; chalk and cheese for Joachim Löw. With Hector’s best years ahead of him, Durm in reserve and Schmelzer fit and firing at Dortmund, Germany’s left flank appears well fortified. On the right, however, head-scratching and beard-stroking continues to ensue. No natural heir, no young prince is yet to lay down a challenge to Lahm’s throne. Worringly, at the ripe old age of 31, he remains by far Germany’s finest full-back.
Written by Danny Owen