“Die Mannschaft” has been in scintillating form in the World Cup Qualifiers. The last 12 months have been rather stellar for Joachim Löw’s men. In fact, they have lost just 1 match since the start of the World Cup Qualifiers last September, against USA, in a friendly match which could easily have been considered Germany’s B team, so to say. They are undefeated in their qualifying group with a 4-4 draw against Sweden being the only blotch on an otherwise perfect record & have scored a staggering 28 goals in the process. As a result, Germany is now on the brink of qualifying for the WC finals in Brazil next year.
So, while Germany’s attacking play and resources are of least concern to Löw, their Centre Back pairing is quite the opposite. While their record doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, Löw has been openly questioned by the German Media over his preferred centre back pairing heading into Brazil 2014.
At the start of the qualifying phase, Löw opted to play Per Mertesacker and Holger Badstuber as his Center backs. However, after the latter’s poor showing against Sweden and his subsequent Cruciate ligament injury, it appeared as though BVB’s Mats Hummels and Mertesacker were his preferred options in the heart of the German defence. The combination seemed to work. While Hummels was your modern, ball-playing, centre back who went in for his tackles (averaged 3.2 tackles/game last season), Mertesacker was the classy centre back who relied more on his reading, positioning and heading.
However, Hummels’ form has dipped significantly over the last 5 months. Often careless in possession and caught out of position, Hummels was held culpable for the Germans’ 3-3 draw with Paraguay in August. Over the recent few matches, Löw has opted to play Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng as Mertesacker’s partner.
And the results seem to have vindicated Löw’s stance. Germany had failed to keep a clean sheet since March. Ever since Boateng and Per teamed up as CBs, Germany has conceded just a solitary goal in 3 matches and kept 2 clean sheets. Speaking to SID, after the recent 3-0 victory against Austria, Löw explained, “Hummels is a very good central defender, [But] I’ve seen him in recent games for Dortmund. Maybe he lacks the security. In the last one or two games with us and at Dortmund, one could see that he may not have had the reliability of yesteryear. Boateng earned this opportunity because of his performances for Bayern Munich. You cannot always prevent opponent’s chances, but it is always up to the whole team.”
Be it Badstuber-Mertesacker or Hummels-Mertesacker or Boateng-Mertesacker, one person has been omnipresent in the pairings and that is Per Mertesacker. So, instead of first deciding who Mertesacker’s partner can be, let’s first analyse why Mertesacker has cemented his place in the XI. Arsene Wenger said last season, “Per is the glue that holds Arsenal’s defence together.” When a person of Arsene Wenger’s stature says something like that, one thing you can be sure of is that the player has real talent. Mertesacker’s big frame is one of his biggest assets. He is always a threat from Indirect free-kicks in addition to clearing headers from his own box. According to the Opta Index, Mertesacker won almost 70% of his aerial duels as well as scored three headed goals, last season for Arsenal; but one criticism which has always stuck with Mertesacker throughout his career has been his pace, or the lack of it. Despite this, whatever Mertesacker lacks in pace, he more than makes up for it with his exemplary positioning and reading of the game. According to Whoscored, Mertesacker made the highest interceptions, blocks and clearances last season than any other Arsenal defender. He also has this knack of just putting his big foot in to make those last ditch challenges. That being said, Mertesacker doesn’t dive into tackles which is highlighted by the fact that he has received only 3 red cards through his career. So, while pace and tackling are not his forte, his strength, discipline and positioning make him a perfect foil for a ball-playing, hard tackling defensive partner.
So, who will be a better partner for Mertesacker- Hummels or Boateng? Well, if statistics are anything to go by, Hummels is the man. If we compare their statistics for the last season, Hummels bettered Boateng in tackles per match, Interceptions, as well as clearances per match. However, we must remember that Boateng was also played out of position at RB, on a number of occasions throughout last season. It is a testament to his versatility that he still managed to have a more than decent defensive record and eclipsed Hummels, in blocks per match and passing percentage.
It’s clear from the above graphic that Hummels was the better defender of the two; but then again, if football games were won and lost on a board filled with numbers or statistics, it would have been such a simple task. So, while the stats don’t lie and all that, stats can never be the truest measure of one’s contribution towards the cause of the team, because going by that logic, Michael Carrick, whose contribution, statistically, is a little intangible, should never have been considered as one of the best players from last season. To put it plainly, stats aren’t always the truest reflection of a player’s performance.
As mentioned above, Löw’s stance to choose Boateng over Hummels has been vindicated by the former’s performances and the results as well. Löw was full of praise for Boateng, whom he claimed “has clearly improved in some areas.” Often used out of position at right-back, the 25-year-old never impressed for Germany until recently. In fact, he was not always a starter for Bayern last season, particularly because he had the same kind of inconsistency that Löw attributed to Hummels. However, there is no doubting the fact that Boateng has seized upon the opportunity of playing at the heart of the German defence with both hands and he has matured over the last season. After the fiasco against Chelsea in the CL finals, Boateng has really improved, and has recently won over the support of new boss Guardiola. If he does continue to play at this level for the next 8 months or so, there is no reason why he won’t find himself partnering Mertesacker in Brazil. This is easier said than done though, and it’s worth noting that Hummels had also started last season on a very positive note but his performances went below par as the season progressed which may be attributed to fatigue, concentration lapses or just poor judgment, which ultimately led to his ouster from the Playing XI. So, it’s imperative for Boateng to keep up this good showing in the coming matches and be cautious of losing his concentration in key moments like he did when he got a needless red card in the midst of a comfortable 4-1 win against BATE.
At the same time, one cannot simply ignore a world class talent like Mats Hummels. After Boateng was given the start against Austria, Juergen Klopp was quick to come to his protégé’s defence saying,“ There are days when the midfield does not defend well. In such situations, I will not speak about the defence for even a second then. [He] has had one or two problematic situations but you need to deal with the players.”
He is arguably the more gifted footballer of the two, and he must have surely felt the pinch of his exclusion from the starting role. Hence, he must be determined more than ever to reclaim his spot in the team. The same logic which applies for Boateng is applicable for Hummels as well; his consistency over the next 7-8 months is going to be ever so crucial. Löw also mentioned his carelessness when in possession of the ball and that is one area of his game which he needs to tighten up on.
Joachim Löw is a shrewd tactician. It might also be that he is trying to reignite the flame of inspiration in Hummels’ heart. He may have gone on record criticizing Hummels, but something tells me that in his heart of hearts, he still believes Hummels is his man.
So coming back to the question we started this article with, Is Boateng/ Mertesacker the right CB pairing for Germany going into Brazil 2014? Personally, I don’t believe so. It will be premature to assume this stance at this moment of time. The season is still young and consistency in performance for club and country will be rewarded.
As to the second question, where does this leave Hummels? Well it really is upto Hummels himself. There is no doubting his talent. If he lives up to his potential & takes care of his positioning, I see no reason why he can’t win his place back. As they say, “Form is temporary. Class is permanent.”
The next 7-8 months are vital for both the players and the manager, and in turn, Germany’s chances of bringing the cup home from Brazil. Should we assume already that it’s going to be Boateng/Mertesacker partnership? It’s only been two games, and hence I would say, not yet!
– By author Anuj Chiplunkar