Before the dust had even had a chance to settle on the after-party of Germany’s triumph over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final, Philipp Lahm announced that he was retiring from the international scene.
At Euro 2016, Joachim Low’s side have had to adapt. The Panenka looks at what this means for Die Mannschaft and how the World Champions are shaping up without their leader.
Exactly five days passed between Germany lifting the World Cup at Maracana in Rio de Janeiro and Philipp Lahm revealing to his national team coach over breakfast that he was going to step down from international football.
At the tournament in Brazil Lahm occupied numerous positions in the Germany side before adding his 113th cap to his resume in the 1-0 victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final. As well as his leadership, Lahm’s versatility is something that will prove nearly impossible to replace.
In France at Euro 2016, Germany are competing in their first tournament without the Bayern Munich stalwart since 2002. Germany eased out of Group C in top spot without conceding a goal with wins against Ukraine and Northern Ireland. Their performances however have raised questions over how well Joachim Low’s men can handle the gaping hole left in their ranks by Lahm’s exit. The 0-0 with Poland being the biggest example so far.
Bastian Schweinsteiger was the natural successor to the captain’s armband. However, the 31-year-old is not guaranteed a starting spot in the team causing Germany to look further down the line as to whom will adorn the armband from the off.
At Euro 2016 so far, Manuel Neuer has assumed the role of captain with the Manchester United midfielder only being utilized from the bench. The vacancy left by Lahm, although filled, has helped spawn a ‘Germany Players’ Council’ that is dominated by the squads senior players.
Joining Scweinsteiger and Neuer within that group is; Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels. The more leaders the better, right? Not quite. Even with the World Cup safely within their grasp, a hugely popular debate in German football has continued to rage over the leadership of the team, something which dates back to before the triumph in Rio de Janeiro.
The German word ‘Fuhrungsspieler’ has been mindlessly waved in the German team’s faces as the team dragged themselves out of Group C without impressing. The German word means ‘leader on the pitch,’ but since Lahm’s retirement, and even with a host of winners in the squad, Germany are still having to defend their credentials.
“This Führungsspieler discussion puts a smile on my face,” Low said after drawing with Poland at Euro 2016. “We also had it two years ago in Brazil. Now we draw one game 0-0, and it’s back again. As an outsider, I’d be very quiet.”
Low was right to point out that this team had heard it all before, and Sami Khedira was right to list a number of players who were indeed big, vocal personalities in the squad: Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Schweinsteiger and Khedira himself.
“We’ve never had more of that,” the Juventus midfielder said in dismissing the leadership debate “as comedy.” Low, too, insisted that the players mentioned were “outstanding leaders. They voice their opinion. They ask questions. The way they get involved is amazing.”
Franz Beckenbauer, one of few men to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach, heaped criticism on Lahm’s decision to call time on his international career. The highly regarded former Bayern Munich playmaker believes Lahm called it quits too soon.
He told reporters a year ago: “I would have understood it by many, but not Philipp Lahm. At 30 years of age, he is still desperately needed. He is the one who can divide the forces, no matter what position he plays in.”
Adding: “He has become World Champion, but that is no reason for him to hang up his boots. The team badly needs him, he is the leader. In any case he is going to be hard to replace.”
Like Schweinsteiger, Lahm’s inclusion in the Germany set-up predated nearly all of the squad. Despite their success, this younger generation has come into criticism due to their upbringing in the game.
Harsh judgments of the new German generation comes from the thought that the perfectly executed plan to win the World Cup through the foundations laid in the successful 2006 World Cup bid, has bred a crop of players who are sheltered, physically and mentally weak, without individual thought, lacking in character and each too similar to one another technically.
Lahm was blooded into international football with the shadows of the Euro 96 and Italia 90 winning Germany sides still prominent. Helmer, Hassler, Klinsmann and Bierhoff will have all played with Lahm, making him one of the last surviving lynchpins of continuity between the 90s to now.
Retirement by retirement, that experience has slowly died out and Die Mannschaft are left with the likes of Kroos and Ozil who, although talented players, were brought up through the safety of synthetic academies which supposedly breed a lack fight and ignore the attributes of the Führungsspieler.
Philipp Lahm’s leadership is a big miss, unavoidable because he’s been a mainstay of the Germany set up for a decade and a half. What is probably most worrying for Joachim Low is the loss of a string to his bow tactically.
Lahm’s primary position for Germany has been full-back. In the period preceding Euro 2016 however, Die Mannschaft have successfully failed in the thankless task of replacing their captain among the back four.
Emre Can of Liverpool and Sebastian Rudy of Hoffenheim have been tried, tested and removed from Lahm’s flank. At Euro 2016 Benedikt Howedes of Schalke seems to be the man Low has settled with. Howedes is a good defender but honestly, bears no comparison to Lahm.
The attacking full back is a mainstay of modern football and is a role the former Germany captain pioneered and executed to perfection. Without an attack minded full-back Germany’s attacks have blunted and stripped of the extra wide player to handle the ball intelligently. Furthermore without the agile perception of a brilliant break from someone like Lahm, Germany can no longer easily transcend from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 in order to overload opposition defenses.
Moreover, the loss of Lahm the midfielder has created a conundrum in itself. When Pep Guardiola took the helm at Bayern Munich he quickly instated Lahm as his holding midfielder due to his superior technical abilities, reading of the game and host of other qualities.
In Die Roten’s midfield the Bayern captain set off a trend around European football where ageing experienced players switched to central midfield. In England, Ryan Giggs exemplified this move, as does the recent renaissance of Wayne Rooney at Euro 2016. Lahm however, is the best example. In the Bundesliga he consistently totted up pass completion rates above 90%, sometimes notching up 100%.
These skills and versatility are missed by Germany at Euro 2016 where the options to partner Kroos and Khedira in central midfield become limited to the attack minded players within the squad. Talents such as Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Julian Draxler or the vastly inexperienced yet highly regarded Julian Weigl, are all great players but aren’t always what is needed in the tenacity of nip and tuck tournament football.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is the only other option to steady the midfield in a tense game but he has hobbled his way into the squad and could be only few caps away from international retirement himself. Undoubtedly the lack of the third defense midfielder is a big problem for Germany.