Germany’s 1-0 win over Chile in the final of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup was characterised by a young and inexperienced side taking the bull by the horns and coming out on top. The whole tournament had been a display of Die Mannschaft’s seemingly peerless depth in talent, and Joachim Löw now has a number of charges he can call upon in the 2018 FIFA World Cup who have shown their mettle in the pressure-cooker of international tournament football.
Before the Confederations Cup got underway, Löw had been accused of not taking the tournament seriously enough and even disrespecting it. And, from the surface, it was hard to argue if you put the power of hindsight aside. The list of World Cup winners and household names that weren’t to feature at all was absolutely staggering, including Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Höwedes, Ilkay Gündogan, Julian Weigl, Thomas Müller, Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Leroy Sane, Mario Götze, Mario Gomez, Andre Schürrle, Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos. Granted, a few would have been unavailable in any case due to injury, but that does not at all change the fact that they were absent from the tournament.
Additionally, this decision did not only impact the senior squad. Germany also, of course, were set to take part in Under-21 Euros. The decision to take a ‘green’ squad to Russia inevitably meant that the U21’s lost their top players to the senior team, meaning manager Stefan Kuntz would have to make do (Which he ended up doing quite well) without Emre Can, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich, Niklas Süle, Timo Werner, Julian Brandt and Benjamin Henrichs, all who would have been certain starters. The whole situation could have gone one of two ways – Germany could be humbled and crash out of the Confederations Cup early, or Löw would end up with a number of players who have proven that they have what it takes to compete in a highly pressurised atmosphere.
The outcome, emphatically, turned out to be the latter, as Germany played superb football and showed great resilience to win the tournament. It was all an exercise for Löw to determine who he can rely on were one of the so-called ‘first team’ to pull up injured for the World Cup, and a few players ended up being the big winners in this whole experiment. Julian Draxler is a case in point – The 23-year old was one of the few ‘seasoned campaigners’ in Germany’s Confederations Cup squad, having played a bit-part role in the 2014 World Cup triumph and starting a couple of games in the ultimately unsuccessful 2016 European Championship campaign. Having been handed the captaincy and a free role in attacking midfield by Löw, Draxler shone on his way to being awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
Handing Draxler the captain’s armband was a masterstroke by the German manager. Ever since his days at Schalke, Draxler always thrived when given responsibility and being in the spotlight. He would routinely look disinterested in league games, but explode into life in the Champions League and become virtually unplayable when he was under the microscope and in view of the world’s cameras. As such, this level of responsibility entrusted to the PSG man led to strong leadership by example and a consistently high level of play. Draxler most certainly has a strong case now to become a starter in Germany’s notoriously deep attacking midfield. Another established player, Jonas Hector, has made the left-back position undisputedly his, the Köln man consistently being a factor in attack with a number of key assists, most notably for Lars Stindl’s equaliser in the group stage clash with Chile, as well as reliably solid defensive showings.
The superb showing of Golden Boot winner Timo Werner also means that Löw may have finally found the long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as Germany’s man up front. What made Klose so valuable, even more than his record goal tally, was his movement and ability to create space for others. The Mannschaft‘s two key attackers, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, thrive on drifting into and exploiting spaces other footballers struggle to see. Müller, of course, even created his own position by labelling himself as a Ramdeuter, or ‘space interpreter’. Klose’s brilliance was based on making diagonal runs and movements that managed to pull defenders out of position for those two players in particular to take advantage – It’s no coincidence that both played their very best football for Germany when the legendary striker was leading the line. Werner showed glimpses of these kinds of movements, none more so when he assisted Leon Goretzka’s second goal against Mexico. Werner, in possession, dribbled across the Mexican defenders until he lured one of the center-backs into stepping out to toward him. The young striker then slipped a through-ball into the gap where the defender had been, which Goretzka latched onto and put into the back of the net to end the game as a contest after it had barely begun.
Werner’s improved prowess in front of goal and searing pace in behind also has shown him to be an extremely valuable asset when an opponent’s attack breaks down. There seems to be a misconception that Löw is a manager that aims to camp in the opposition’s half and play possession football, when in fact he has always stressed the importance of quick transitions and counter-attacking football. The RB Leipzig man was crucial throughout the tournament, and in particular during the final, in offering an out ball and turning defence into attack. Another major winner from this whole experiment has to be the aforementioned Goretzka, who many feels was deserving of the Golden Ball even more than Draxler. He draws quite a few comparisons to German great Michael Ballack, in that he is an all-action box-to-box midfielder that can dominate the middle of the park both in attack and defence. His runs into the box devastated opposition defences throughout the Confederations Cup, and he showed a deft finishing touch. Such was his impact on the tournament that the likes of Khedira will be anxiously looking over their shoulder before next year’s World Cup.
A special mention has to go to Lars Stindl. While inexperienced at this level, he is by no means a youngster at the age of 28, having had to work for a long time for a national team opportunity. However, he took the chances he was given in his first international tournament and made the most of it, scoring the winning goal in the final against Chile and also arguably the key goal in Germany’s tournament, the equalizer in the group-stage game against the same opponents which proved that he, and this whole Germany team, have the steel to compete under such pressure. Stindl routinely puts himself in the right place at the right time and deserves a massive amount of credit for his calmness under pressure.
Overall, the team was chock full of impressive performers. Kimmich once again showed very Philipp Lahm-like consistency and fortitude, while Sebastian Rudy in midfield barely put a foot wrong all tournament. Antonio Rüdiger seems to have taken a massive stride forward in his concentration, and looks to be growing in his understanding of how to make optimum use of his immense physical gifts, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen has surely cemented his place as Neuer’s deputy after a faultless set of outings with the gloves and Matthias Ginter proved that he is still one of Germany’s top defensive talents.
Löw took a high risk, high reward gamble, and he won the jackpot. They say fortune favours the brave, and now Germany have put themselves in the optimum position heading into the 2018 World Cup where one or two injuries to key players won’t end up derailing the entire campaign. How many other nations can say that?
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