Loew's youthful revolution still only in its infancy
Germans hoping crisis inadvertently gives rise to golden generation, writes Ralph Honigstein
If it is true that every great football team is built around a strong backbone, Joachim Loew's Germany were in danger of crawling to the World Cup as an invertebrate.
In the space of two months, they lost their first-choice goal-keeper Rene Adler (broken ribs), first-choice centre-back Heiko Westermann (ankle), the two holding midfielders from the Euro 2008 final, Simon Rolfes (knee) and Thomas Hitzlsperger (lack of match practice) and their captain Michael Ballack (ankle). Miroslav Klose they had already lost before, in a sense: the Bayern Munich striker was spending most of the season in the Allianz Arena on the side-line, trapped in a strange kind of lethargy.
'Diagnosis: broken axle', was Sueddeutsche Zeitung's despairing headline when Ballack, the most important component of the DFB team's spine, was ruled out of the competition in May.
While many were fearing the worst for this severely depleted team, Loew kept his cool and faith. "We have enough quality and plenty of solutions," he bravely insisted, in the face of contradictory evidence. The coach ended up selecting the youngest Germany squad since 1934, with an average age of just under 25. But, in reality, it was less than two years old; unrecognisable from the one that lost the Euro 2008 final against Spain in Vienna.
Only Lukas Podolski, the sometimes listless Cologne striker who plays as left midfielder for Germany -- cynics say the touchline helps him find direction on the pitch -- Klose and the tall defender Per Mertesacker have survived in their original positions. Philipp Lahm, Ballack's successor as captain, has moved from left to right-back. Arne Friedrich, who was Germany's weakest link as a painfully plain right-back in 2006, is now a moderately solid centre-back.
Bayern's Bastian Schweinsteiger underwent the biggest transformation of all. The 25-year-old spent four increasingly frustrating years on the right side of midfield, where his lack of pace led him to do lots of showy but pointless stuff. In November, Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal installed him in front of the back four to change the club's and the player's season around. 'Schweini', as the tabloids used to call him, matured into Schweinsteiger and excelled in his new role. An initially reluctant Loew ("we need him on the right") only let him assume the position alongside Ballack in March for the friendly against Argentina, but quickly saw the light.
The other half of Germany's likely XI against England in Bloemfontein simply did not exist a year ago. 'Keeper Manuel Neuer was second or third choice behind Adler and Hannover's Robert Enke, who tragically took his own life in November. Mesut Ozil, the Bremen playmaker/shadow striker behind Klose, had his first start in a Germany shirt in September last year.
The first cap for full-back Jerome Boateng, soon of Manchester City, came in the crunch qualifier away to Russia in October of last year. Sami Khedira was somewhere between fifth and sixth in the pecking order of central midfielders and 20-year-old Thomas Muller was nowhere -- or in Bayern Munich's reserves, to be more precise, playing in front of small crowds in provincial stadiums. Those five have 40 caps between them. James Milner and Wayne Rooney, England's two youngest starters today, have 73.
So who are these 'New Germans' and how good are they really? The first part of the question is easier to answer. Neuer, 24, has been Adler's equal for a couple of years. The difference between them came mostly down to taste.
Neuer is a slightly flashier and brasher character; Adler seemed the more assured 'keeper, but then found it difficult to live with the pressures of wearing Germany's No1 shirt -- after the winter break, the 25-year-old started doing some bizarre things in the box that could only be described as "English" by mean-spirited Bundesliga reporters. Injury to his rib cage spared Loew a difficult decision.
Neuer has looked good in the competition so far and penalties would not faze him: he brilliantly saved two spot-kicks to help Schalke get past Porto in a Champions League game in 2008. Boateng is a technically accomplished all-rounder, but can be prone to lapses of concentration. He might be replaced by Marcell Jansen in case he does not recover from a slight knock in time. Khedira, 23, has been praised by Loew for "bringing symmetry into Germany's game" with his decent passing.
The Stuttgart midfielder also offers a goal-scoring threat as a stealthy box-to-box player; Loew compared him to "a younger Ballack" the other day.
The son of a Tunisian immigrant father and Swabian mother, he is naturally attack-minded, though against Ghana there were two or three worrying 'Lampard and Gerrard' moments when he and Schweinsteiger had forgotten Loew's instruction "to shut down the middle". Should Schweinsteiger's hamstring trouble not clear up in time, Germany's back-four might be exposed even more: Toni Kroos, 20, Schweinsteiger's only possible replacement, is yet to start a game for Germany.
The 13 that Muller wears on his back belonged to his famous namesake Gerd and Ballack before; the 'roaming vagabond' does not mind though. "I won't run away from that number," says the man with the surprisingly spindly legs. Muller's awkward movement belies wonderful ball control, but he is less effective stationed out right for Germany than moving all over the pitch in inscrutable patterns the way he does as a second striker for Bayern.
In light of the squad's migratory background -- 11 players could have turned out for a different country -- and Loew sticking to a 4-2-3-1 formation with short passing and a somewhat Latin philosophy, one newspaper was right to suggest that "this German team is the product of a much-needed cultural revolution, in sporting, political and social terms". The problem with such radical change is that it can rarely be had without some sort of collateral damage or at least huge setbacks along the way.
Despite the public optimism, the players themselves seem to rate their chances at this World Cup in very realistic terms. "This tournament is about laying the foundations for the next years," Neuer said tellingly last week. "A chance to win confidence and respect."
Loew's young men have done that already. Going one step further against a resurgent England is probably beyond a team that should come into its own by the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Fabio Capello's men would be well advised to take their chance now.