Only days after winning the biggest prize in football, Germany’s captain Philipp Lahm announced his decision to quit international football. Hailed as one of the best fullbacks in the modern game, the German skipper brought an end to his exploits for the national team, notching up five goals in his 113 caps for his country.
After ten years of consistent displays from the player dubbed the ‘Magic Dwarf’, the German team will obviously suffer in his absence. Every team would suffer after losing their captain and one of their most influential players in one fell swoop.
But it goes further than that; the Germans now face a crisis in their full-back positions.
Going into the World Cup, Lahm was the only recognized right sided fullback in the German squad. Excluding Lahm, Germany manager Joachim Löw brought eight other defenders. Six of them were centre backs, while Kevin Groβkreutz is a winger who filled in as a right back for Borussia Dortmund for large parts of last season. The remaining defender is Erik Durm, who also plays for Dortmund but at left back, but he is not even breaking into his club team yet and has one cap for Germany.
And even with there being only one proper right back in his squad, Löw took a leaf from Pep Guardiola’s and started playing Lahm in the centre of midfield. So up until the quarter finals against France, Lahm was deployed in his new midfield role while Löw had centre backs operating in the full back positions.
Germany’s left back throughout the entire tournament was Benedikt Höwedes, who plays primarily as a centre half for Schalke. Up until the France game it was either Jerome Boateng or Shkodran Mustafi, both of whom are central defenders for their respective clubs, who was given the job of right full back. If it wasn’t for Mustafi’s injury and Löw’s loss of faith in Per Mertesacker as a centre half (leading to Boateng playing there) Lahm might not have been moved back to full back at all.
The argument can be made that Germany won the World Cup with centre halves double jobbing as full backs so it doesn’t matter. Well it does matter, especially when one looks at how Germany play.
The first game against Portugal can be written off due to how bad the Portuguese were. Until Lahm’s re-introduction as a right full, Germany were seriously lacking width in their team. With Löw opting for a combination of Götze, Muller or Özil on the wings instead of the more traditional wingers in Schurrle and Podolski, the full-backs were charged with providing most of the width and penetration on the flanks. And with Germany having centre halves as stand-in full backs for the majority of the tournament, the likes of Höwedes and Boateng just did not have it in their arsenal to provide that kind of penetration from wide positions.
Without this natural width in the team the central midfield of Germany was more stretched than they should have been, making ball retention harder and limiting the amount of time the midfielder has to operate creatively. When Lahm went back to full back, it gave the German midfield a natural outlet on the right to move the ball to and thus give them more time play through the middle of teams or even to allow Lahm to deliver quality crosses into the box.
Borussia Dortmund’s left back Marcel Schmelzer was injured for the World Cup and would have been a starter in the left back position had he been fit. But with Lahm’s retirement, there is no ready made replacement to take his place at right back and Löw cannot keep playing centre halves there in his absence.
Gavin Nolan, Pundit Arena.