Did Joachim Loew sideline Mats Hummels prematurely?
Background image: Urby2004, CC BY-SA 3.0
A premature exit in last year’s World Cup took a big toll on Germany’s reputation. Stung by the defending champions' “curse”, Die Mannschaft had severe repercussions to face. The hammer didn’t fully drop until almost six months after the humiliation.
Joachim Loew basically gave Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels early retirements by announcing he wouldn't pick them again. All three had underperformed in Russia. Despite their long service, they experienced a cruel axe.
While Muller and Boateng’s absence isn’t felt at present, Hummels' certainly is.
Three days before last night's 2-0 win at Northern Ireland in Euro 2020 qualifying, Germany were handed a stern reality-check by the Netherlands. Ronald Koeman's side were brave but more importantly, knew the pressure points to tap into exposing Die Mannschaft's vulnerability. Neither Jonathan Tah, Matthias Ginter nor Niklas Sule is immune from making mistakes.
Those three central defenders are bound to leaning on each other, benefitting off one another's positives and collapsing as soon as something goes wrong. Tah's a towering individual whose lapses of concentration have cost both his club and country this season. Ginter’s experience and authority don't prevent him from crumbling under slightest pressing from attackers. Sule’s perhaps the most well-rounded, yet even he struggles against mobile opponents without anyone there to shadow his movement.
With Germany's chosen centre-backs prone to vulnerability, there’s always the worry of errors undoing the team's good work. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, although a big-game performer, isn't the one-man machine he once was.
Hummels is the defensive general Die Mannschaft are missing. It's not because he's immune from hiccups, tending to lose his positional sense and on occasion get outpaced. The 30-year-old has the necessary, valuable composure to hold a backline. His calmness on the ball, ability to work possession is something few can replicate. Moreover, the 6’4’’ centre-half is practically unmatched aerially and uses anticipation to time his challenges perfectly.
Germany’s younger centre-backs possess a few of Hummels' qualities, but not all. Be it lacking leadership, distribution skills or the knack for predicting danger, there's a missing guiding factor to ease their nerves.
In his 70 international appearances, Hummels helped keep nearly twenty-five clean sheets. Without him, Die Mannschaft have conceded seven goals in their last six matches.
Of course, Loew's team remain in a transitional period after cutting multiple senior members. Regardless of their talent, the youth will take time to adapt to the more competitive international surroundings. While the side makes do with a new attacking line, tinkering with the backline isn't bringing many positives.
Loew's been forced to try different tactics hoping to find his best combinations. He's gone with a 3-4-3 formation on multiple occasions. Its downsides were exposed by the Netherlands. Germany's current centre-backs aren't quick or strong enough to play a broader three-man system. They can't distribute possession like Hummels. Once forced to step out of their comfort zone, the defensive shape breaks.
Loew is adamant he won’t be bringing Hummels back. This obstinacy can only prolong Die Mannschaft's issues as they don’t have an experienced head to guide youth and prevent danger. Considering their centre-halves are still growing, it’ll take time for them to settle into one solid unit. Ginter has the most know-how, at 25. Sule and Tah are one, two years younger respectively. Typically, a centre-back reaches their prime at 27/28.
Granted, then, Germany's defence could become an impenetrable unit by the 2022 World Cup. That is of no use to next summer's Euros. Should defensive problems continue, Loew will rue sidelining Hummels.