On Sunday evening, the reigning and defending world champions rounded off a spectacular qualification campaign with a 5-1 victory against Azerbaijan in Kaiserslautern. The result saw the German national team top Group C with a 100%-win record. They’ve scored a whopping forty-three goals, more than any other team in European qualification, and have conceded a mere four. The squad are unbeaten in nineteen games and look like an absolute force heading into Russia.
However, if my calculations are correct, a total of thirty-seven different players took to the field in the ten qualifying matches; at least fourteen of these will miss the final cut next summer. Joachim Löw has some tough decisions to make, let’s look at his options.
Löw seems pretty set on his default formation. In six of the ten qualifiers, he opted for a 4-2-3-1.
Against San Mario in June, the team lined up in a 3-5-2 shape, with Shkodran Mustafi playing as the only natural centre-half and Lars Stindl paired up top with Sandro Wagner. The attacking focus paid off as they smashed their opponents for seven. The formation also appeared in the following match against the Czech Republic, although this time it was less successful against a much stronger opposition. Once more, Löw opted for a 3-5-2 for the finale against Azerbaijan.
The only other experiment was the 4-1-4-1 against Norway last month. Sebastian Rudy acted as pivot in the 6-0 demolishing.
If anyone told you that Manuel Neuer’s starting place in the national team would be at risk for the 2018 World Cup, you’d be laughing. Die Mannschaft’s captain started the campaign strongly, keeping three clean sheets in as many games. However, the last we saw of Neuer between the sticks for Germany was in November 2016. Neuer has been plagued with injuries this year and it doesn’t look like he’ll be back any time soon.
Luckily for Joachim Löw, Sven Ulreich’s understudy role ends at a domestic level. Step forward Marc-André ter Stegen.
The twenty-five-year-old Barcelona stopper literally grabbed the ball and ran with it. Ter Stegen started against San Marino with a clean sheet and went on to make four more appearances in the qualifiers, conceding only twice. For so long Neuer’s second, this realistically is the foundation for ter Stegen to cement himself as Löw’s first choice. Leverkusen’s Bernd Leno also made two appearances, when the squad was rotated in Serravalle and for the final match against Azerbaijan, when qualification was already confirmed.
With Neuer out for potentially another six months, his squad spot could be at risk. Kevin Trapp will be licking his lips at the chance for his first major tournament, albeit as third choice.
The full back positions seem to be the most on lockdown. I can’t see anyone taking the right-back slot from Joshua Kimmich. In a below par start to the season for Munich, the twenty-two-year-old has been outstanding. He has seamlessly plugged the gap left by Phillip Lahm on both a domestic and international level. Kimmich has been in the side Euro 2016, where he was named in the team of the tournament. He was the only player to start in every single one of Germany’s qualifiers, providing a number of assists and clocking up two goals along the way.
Effzeh’s Jonas Hector will undoubtedly be Löw’s man at left-back. Apart from missing the last two matches due to injury, Hector has been constant at #3 and, like Kimmich, is more than comfortable playing in a higher role. A brace against San Marino didn’t go unnoticed and hopefully the form of Köln doesn’t impact him in the coming months.
There’s some serious work to do for anyone that wants to knock these two out of the side. Herta’s Marvin Plattenhardt and Leverkusen’s Benjamin Henrichs will more than likely head to Russia as back-ups, both starting once during qualification, but neither are credible replacements right now.
At the heart of defence, Matt Hummels is the first choice centre-back. The race to be his partner is slightly more open. Munich teammate Jérôme Boateng would be the obvious choice, however, this past year Boateng has been blighted with injuries and himself limited to only three international appearances. If Benni Höwedes can rack up some game time in Turin, then the versatile defender (who played every minute of the 2014 tournament in Brazil) will also be in Löw’s mind for the starting spot.
Whilst they lack the ‘major’ tournament experience of the aforementioned three, Shkodran Mustafi, Matthias Ginter, Niklas Süle and Antonio Rüdiger will all be hot on the trail to fill a spot in the final roster. All made cameos in the qualifiers and were a part of the Confederations Cup winning side.
The most diverse area of the team is in the middle of the park. For the first three qualifiers, Löw kept his midfield unchanged. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira anchored behind Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller. Halfway through the campaign, only İlkay Gündoğan, Serge Gnabry and André Schürrle had managed to break into this pack.
After the success of the Confederations Cup and Under-21 European Championships, there was an explosion of new talent thrust into the senior side. Julian Brandt and Leon Goretzka found themselves involved regularly, both making three starts and two further appearances as substitutes. They’ve made positive starts to the season and will surely be in contention for starting places.
The reinvigorated Mario Götze adds to Löw’s headaches. He made four appearances in qualifying before his metabolic issues arose. Now back and playing a slightly deeper role for BVB, the man who won the 2014 World Cup could play in any number of positions. We’re still to see the best of him this season, but Götze is definitely on the right track.
There are several other players jostling for the extra seats on the plane. Gnabry only made a single appearance during qualifying, but signed it off with a hat-trick against San Marino. Other attacking options include Leroy Sané, who has been fantastic for Manchester City thus far, Amin Younes and Max Meyer.
Further back, Julian Weigl has returned from injury and will look to build on the single substitute appearance made in qualifying. Emre Can (4 appearances, 2 as substitute) topped off a standout performance against Azerbaijan on Sunday with a superb goal (his first for the nation). Talking of goals, Sebastian Rudy (3 appearances, 1 as substitute) scored an outrageous strike in Belfast last week, rocketing the ball past Michael McGovern from way outside the box.
Over half of the team’s goals during qualifying came from midfield. Müller finished as the joint top scorer with five (and will be the prime choice for playing behind the front man), Draxler, Gnabry and Goretzka all bagged three and Schürrle manged a brace.
And let’s not forget Marco Reus. The Dortmund man will be desperate to travel to Russia after missing both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros due to injury. Although he hasn’t played for Die Mannschaft since March 2016, a fully fit Reus would be nothing but beneficial to the team.
There seemed to be a miniature crisis for Germany in the center-forward role. With Lukas Podolski bowing out and Mario Gómez underperforming, the gaffer turned to Götze to start up front for the first three matches. Götze didn’t find the net once.
After some impressive form for Wolfsburg, Gómez received his recall but could only find the net once in appearances against lacklustre San Marino and Azerbaijan.
Then, the Confederations Cup occurred. Timo Werner announced his arrival into the senior side with three goals and two assists in four games. Leipzig’s number 11 spearheaded the team to tournament victory. The goal-machine continued his fine form in the qualifiers with three goals in two games, before a spine injury kept him out of the last two matches against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan. Werner has made another impressive start to the season, scoring five goals in six Bundesliga appearances. If he can keep this form, you’d have to think that he’ll be leading the in Russia. Surely being the driving force behind another World Cup victory will be enough to endear him to all German fans?
Another revelation has been Sandro Wanger. Impressed with his work at Hoffenheim, Löw rewarded the twenty-nine-year-old with his first call up to the DFB-Elf, some eight years after last appearing for the Under-21s. Wagner bagged a hat-trick in his first competitive match for Germany. Granted, it was against San Marino, but this was the first hat-trick for a German ‘out and out striker’ since 2009 (Gómez vs. UAE). Wagner returned to the side for the final two qualifiers, scoring a goal in each. His record in competitive games now stands at an impressive five goals in four matches. I’d be very surprised if Wanger can’t give Werner a run for his money.
There are several other options to be considered. Lars Stindl can hold himself as either a centre-forward or second striker. He scored four goals in three games at the Confederations Cup and will seriously fancy his chances for Russia. Kevin Volland has started this season convincingly at Leverkusen, scoring four goals in seven appearances. If he can continue this form and stay healthy, then Löw won’t be able to ignore the man who has been in and out of the side for the last three years.
The quality and depth that is at Löw’s disposal is absolutely insane. A mix of experience and youth is available across the pitch and will make for some intriguing decisions once the final twenty-three are submitted next year.
Whoever is chosen, they will possess the qualities to have a deep run in the tournament. The Semi-Final exit at Euro 2016 will be a faint memory as we ramp up for Russia.
Die Mannschaft have some tough friendlies coming up. A visit to Wembley is followed by fixtures against Spain and Brazil in early 2018. This will give Löw a chance to see how his squad fairs against quality opposition. A lot can happen in eight months; I don’t think Löw’s selection picture will become any clearer in the near future.