“Unbeatable for years to come”. That was Franz Beckenbauer’s confident vision for a soon-to-be reunited Germany after leading them a World Cup triumph in Rome in 1990. It did not quite work out that way. The legions of East German players who would provide even more guile and firepower to the Nationalmannschaft in The Kaiser’s grand vision trickled down to a handful before too long, and a football nation punch drunk on winning Euro 1996 with an antiquated sweeper system failed to realise that the train heading towards modernity had left the station without them.
Only two years later, the national coach, Berti Vogts, was rummaging through the family tree of the Brazilian striker Paulo Rink, a journeyman from Bayer Leverkusen, in an desperate – and successful – attempt to unearth a German grandmother. The South Africa-born forward Sean Dundee (later a regular non-scorer at Liverpool) was hastily naturalised with the help of the government, despite not having any German ancestry whatsoever. Where had all the players gone?
A generation later, there is still only one player born in the east in the World Cup squad, Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos. But a dearth of talent is no longer a key concern, irrespective of three of Joachim Löw’s best players never making it to Brazil. Marco Reus, 25, the Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder who had been widely tipped to be Germany’s most influential player in Brazil, hurt his ankle in the last pre-World Cup friendly against Armenia. His club team-mate, the 23-year-old Ilkay Gündogan, travelled to a Crimean military base to seek experimental treatment for a mysterious back injury but the classy playmaker failed to recover. The defensive specialist Lars Bender limped out of the training camp in South Tyrol with a hamstring injury.
More than a decade’s worth of very expensive, state-of-the-art youth development after the nadir of Euro 2000 – zero points! beaten by England! – has produced more technical players than anyone could cram into two squads. Löw, in charge since 2006, has often been portrayed as football aesthete committed to the beautiful game but the nature of the players that the German production line, with its 366 educational centres and 1,300 highly qualified coaches, has churned out has inevitably determined the identity of this side just as much as Löw’s tactics.
The amount of players who are very good with the ball has shifted the centre of gravity to the middle of the park – to an unfamiliar space, traditionally seen as territory that had to be passed through quickly or given up altogether in favour of keeping things tight at the back.
German teams used to be shaped by outstanding players at either end of the pitch – Gerd Müller and Rudi Völler, Beckenbauer and Sepp Maier. Occasionally, you would have one man who could play a few of these roles at the same time, like Lothar Matthäus in 1990. Or a stray, mistrusted genius like Günter Netzer, the hero of the Euro 1972 win at Wembley, would delight his public with runs from deep and diagonal balls. Dominating the midfield as an end in itself was not seen as desirable, nor did Germany have the requisite personal for such an outlandish endeavour.
Löw’s side, by contrast, have become little more than midfield, a team of midfielders. The groundwork for that development was laid by Louis van Gaal during his tenure at Bayern Munich from 2009 to 2011 but the Germany manager has been happy to accommodate more and more central players to replicate the Bavarian’s possession game.
Löw has described the move as a necessary evolutionary step after opponents had adjusted to Germany’s counterattacking game from the 2010 World Cup – “they all played deeper against us, they knew what we are about,”– and that dynamic has created a new reality with new set of priorities. Like Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, and Barcelona and Spain before them, Löw’s Germany dispensed with strikers altogether to give yet another starting berth to a midfielder.
In Brazil, concerns about the difficult playing conditions have seen a partial retreat from tiki-taka towards a more flexible approach, with a “real” striker in Miroslav Klose and Germany alternating between counterattacking and possession.
Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, the ethereal No10, has been moved to a more peripheral role out in the flanks. His role as the linchpin of the team has been taken by Kroos. The 24-year-old was once described as “the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge” by Bayern Munich’s former youth director Werner Kern but it has taken him three tournaments to win over his numerous critics inside and outside the dressing room.
Kroos’s technical prowess has never been in doubt but he often came across like a player too wrapped up in his own, quiet, discrete excellence to truly dominate games. That has changed in Brazil. As Süddeutsche Zeitung has noted, it is ironic that the man who Bayern have seen as dispensable – too aloof, too dispassionate – has become indispensable shortly before leaving the club. He is off to Real Madrid, after refusing to sign a new deal beyond 2015 at the Allianz Arena.
Sami Khedira might well have to make way for Kroos at the Bernabéu but that’s a concern for another day. The 27-year-old was in danger of being little more than glorified mascot-cum-team psychologist mediator at this tournament – Löw was adamant he should be here because of his positive influence in the dressing room – but the box-to-box tyro has surprised everyone with his strong performances after playing precious little football following his knee surgery in November.
If Khedira is the legs and Kroos is the brain, Bastian Schweinsteiger is the heart. The Bayern Munich midfielder, too, had come into this competition not fully fit after nursing various problems for more than two years. Praised as the “Comandante” by O Globo after the Brazil win, the 30-year-old has rediscovered his authority just in time. His great skill is being able to set the pace of Germany’s game simply by the direction of his passing.
Germany have never had such complete midfield, and it would be almost unfair to single one out as a leading candidate for the Golden Ball. Maybe they could just pass it around among themselves for the next four years.