Germany go in search of equalling five-time world champions Brazil as record FIFA World Cup winners when they land in Qatar shortly, but who will be taking the field when their campaign gets underway and how will Hansi Flick be setting out his stall?
Following a two-year spell at Bayern Munich in which Flick collected two Bundesliga titles, DFB Cup, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Champions League trophies, the 57-year-old took his country's reins in August last year.
Typically, of a coach who led Bayern to an unprecedented sextuple, Flick took to international duty in fine fashion.
Predecessor Joachim Löw finished his tenure with two losses, a draw and just one win as Germany exited the UEFA Euro 2020 championships at the last-16 stage to old foes England.
One of Flick's first decisions was to immediately reinstate Thomas Müller to his side and the fresh face of a new coach saw the team hoover up eight successive victories. Now with 16 games under their belt, the former shopkeeper's side still boast an impressive run of results (W10, D5, L1) and they again look a force to be reckoned with.
Watch: Tireless Thomas Müller
It shouldn't come as a surprise when you consider that Flick served as Löw's assistant when Germany claimed a fourth world title in 2014.
Since taking the big job, the national team have scored in 15 of those 16 matches and hit four or more goals on six occasions, including a 9-0 demolition of Liechtenstein as Germany made light work of qualification for Qatar.
As was the case during his spell in the Bayern hotseat, Flick has settled on a 4-3-2-1 formation for all but one of his games in charge, instead opting for a 3-4-2-1 in the 1-1 draw with England in June.
Interestingly, versatile defender Thilo Kehrer has played by far the most minutes under Flick, with the former Schalke man beginning on the right and left of Germany's defence five and four times respectively and at centre-half in another four of his starts.
He's clearly a player trusted by his coach and his versatility will be a major asset in tournament football. Many might think Kehrer is most likely to start from the bench when Germany are at full strength, but perhaps he could be a repeat of Benedikt Höwedes in 2014, the unexpected World Cup-winning left-back.
Far more certain is the place of captain Manuel Neuer, who will again be his country's No.1 going into what will be the 36-year-old's fourth World Cup.
Neuer has started between the sticks in 10 of Flick's 16-game tenure. Only Kehrer (13), clubmates Leroy Sane (12) and Joshua Kimmich (11), as well as RB Leipzig frontman Timo Werner (also 11) and Borussia Dortmund defender Niklas Süle (10) have appeared more frequently in Flick’s starting XI.
Antonio Rüdiger has emerged as the first-choice pick at centre-back alongside Süle, with BVB teammate Nico Schlotterbeck next in line, while Jonas Hofmann has been a regular selection at right-back, largely for his attacking instincts to provide extra width. However, Flick has himself stated that this move hasn't always worked.
In front of them, Kimmich has been partnered in almost equal amounts by Leon Goretzka and Ilkay Gündogan, and it appears a straight shootout between the latter two as to who lines up alongside Bayern's No. 6.
Flick's tenure so far might suggest that Müller and Sane are fairly certain of starting berths, but the former has struggled for fitness in recent weeks and the latter will miss the Japan game with a knee problem. And there is such fierce competition for places and, with so many in outstanding form prior to the domestic break, the attacking spots remain up in the air.
Former Bayer Leverkusen starlet Kai Havertz hasn't yet nailed down a spot of his own but his ability to play anywhere in attack, coupled with the fact he is naturally left-footed, could help his cause.
Watch: The best of Manuel Neuer
Serge Gnabry scored four times in Flick's first four matches but has started just two of Germany's last 11.
Considering Gnabry's previous success under Flick for club and country, as well as his record of a goal approximately every 125 minutes in international football, and his more natural ability to operate from the flanks, it was conceivable in the weekend leading up to the tournament that he and Sane could line-up either side of Müller in an all-Bayern supporting cast.
With fellow Munich-based attacker Jamal Musiala in spectacular form, however, it would be a big surprise if he didn’t get the nod from Flick. The coach singled out Musiala for praise ahead of the recent Nations League tie with England, hailing the 19-year-old’s development over the last couple of years.
“From the first time he trained with the first team at Bayern you could see how talented he was,” the tactician said. “His progress has been great and he is brilliant in tight spaces. He’s got a good feeling for space and is a really good dribbler. He’s very good defensively and wins a lot of balls for us. I’m happy he plays for Germany.”
Watch: Jamal Musiala - teenage sensation
Gnabry too has been outstanding of late and his greater experience on the international scene is likely to be valued highly at the World Cup. He has also operated through the middle for his country, and playing him up top would mean Flick could draw on what's known in Germany as the “Bayern Block” – a core of players for the national team coming from Bayern. For that reason it’s said that the record champions doing well is good for the country.
Given their overall form in the run-up to the tournament, plus how well attuned they are together, it would be no surprise if the Bundestrainer decides to deploy his former charges with the national team. It could also see much of that in-game flexibility we’ve seen at Bayern, with Müller and Gnabry rotating between leading the line, dropping deep and going out wide.
Germany's strength in depth is remarkable, with world-class options in reserve at every station on the pitch.
Barcelona custodian Marc-Andre ter Stegen has filled in for Neuer when the captain hasn't been present, and the long-standing back-up will surely be next in the pecking order - ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt's Kevin Trapp - in Qatar, his shot-stopping qualities and ability with the ball at his feet making him a reliable alternative.
With Kehrer looking like he's the man in possession when it comes to a full-back slot, Flick has given himself options as cover in Hofmann and also Lukas Klostermann. The RB Leipzig man was a surprise inclusion given he hasn’t played a single minute since August, but the coach sees him as a versatile back-up for across the defensive line.
When it comes to playing 90 minutes, Hofmann would therefore have the advantage. There’s also Süle, who has played at full-back in most of Dortmund’s recent games. Flick also used him there occasionally during their time together at Bayern and it could be a way forward in Qatar.
However, Flick is not known as a tinkerer. It’s highly unlikely he’ll throw together an untried back four going into a World Cup unless forced to do so by injuries. That makes a Rüdiger-Süle axis the most likely centre-back duo going into the tournament.
Consequently, Schlotterbeck is first in line as a replacement, alongside Freiburg’s Matthias Ginter, whom Flick recently praised for being “in very good shape” and who is a survivor of the class of 2014 in Brazil when Flick was assistant. At left-back, another Freiburg stand-out player, Günter is the competition to Raum after Robin Gosens failed to make the cut. Ex-Bochum and current Southampton centre-back Armel Bella-Kotchap is also in the squad for further cover.
Goretzka struggled with injury in the early part of 2022/23 but is back firing again and set to continue his club partnership alongside Kimmich in midfield. Ilkay Gündogan is a seriously high-calibre alternative for central midfield and there will be many arguments for the Manchester City man to start alongside Kimmich.
However, there’s another influential addition to the centre of this Germany squad in Mario Götze. The person who won the World Cup in 2014 with his goal in the final has been called up to the national team for the first time in five years on the back of his strong and consistent performances for Frankfurt this season.
Watch: A tactical analysis of Mario Götze
“I think we all know Mario is a great footballer who’s played at a really high level in recent games. He’s top fit, can also play 90 minutes three times a week – that’s a good pre-requisite,” Flick explained of his decision to call up Götze, who he knows well from their time together across the playmaker’s previous 63 caps.
His return to fitness levels that saw him once heralded as German football’s golden boy is underlined by the fact that only four players in the Bundesliga have covered more ground this season than the 30-year-old. Götze could play from central midfield through to the role of striker/false nine, with his inclusion adding to Flick’s options.
The coach also has Havertz for a similar role, perhaps most likely in the false nine position we’ve often seen him play for club Chelsea given his larger frame. However, the expansion to 26-man squads has allowed Flick more options in that position. He has handed first senior call-ups to teenager Youssoufa Moukoko and 29-year-old Niclas Füllkrug.
The pair’s domestic form, with six and 10 league goals respectively, thrust them into the spotlight at just the right time, especially with Werner’s ankle injury ruling him out of action. While Werner is a striker, he isn’t your classic number nine. Germany have struggled there since the likes of Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose retired, so have often found ways around it.
Watch: All of Füllkrug’s Bundesliga goals this season
Flick, though, can draw on genuine centre-forwards, like he had in Robert Lewandowski at Bayern and Germany have had in the past with legends such as Gerd Müller. And while squad numbers don’t mean too much nowadays, it’s telling that Füllkrug has been given the number nine jersey in Qatar.
That suggests that the Werder Bremen man, who hasn’t represented his country since U20 level in 2014, is the first-choice option to lead the line if that’s how Germany want to play. And he strengthened his case further with the winner off the bench against Oman.
Moukoko started that game and will be hopeful of making his mark too. He’ll be the youngest player to feature at this World Cup, having only turned 18 on the day of the opening game, and has proven that age is just a number with him. The Cameroon-born Dortmund striker is the youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga, Der Klassiker and Revierderby history, as well as the greenest player to ever reach 10 career goals in the German top flight.
Behind whoever is given the nod, Flick has called upon two other Dortmund attackers in Julian Brandt and Karim Adeyemi to add further depth. The only real shame from a BVB and football lover’s perspective in general is the absence of Marco Reus after he suffered yet more pre-World Cup injury heartache. Germany won the tournament last time that happened, but few people would’ve begrudged Reus a crack at a world title.
Watch: All of Moukoko’s goals and assists this season
As mentioned earlier, Flick has only employed a 3-4-2-1 formation once in his 15 games at the helm, but he is a pragmatist unafraid to change if necessary.
In this variation, Schlotterbeck’s composure in possession and ability to play accurate, raking diagonal balls from the back – think left-footed Mats Hummels – would fast-track him into the starting XI. Hofmann and Raum would be given license to explore the final third of the pitch, albeit with the brief to stay wide and drag deep-lying opposition defenders out of position in the absence of a more traditional winger like Sane or Gnabry.
Goretzka or Gündogan would again be the debate for partnering Kimmich to overload the centre alongside Müller and Musiala, who probe on the edge of the area looking for gaps to exploit.
Obviously there have been fitness concerns over Müller in the build-up, and his hip troubles that have kept him out the last couple of weeks could see his role reduced to one of experienced, cool-headed substitute.
Given he, Neuer, Götze and Ginter are the only members of the 26 who won the title in Brazil in 2014 (although the latter admittedly didn’t play), Müller’s know-how for tournament football and winning in general will be vital regardless of his on-field role. In any case, he is another option in a false nine role if Flick decides to go for a back three while also making do without a genuine centre-forward.
A larger 26-man squad and the ability to make five substitutes is a first at this World Cup. Coaches have never before had to many options for their starting XI. And Flick undoubtedly has some of the best options available to him, from his best possible side right through to those important squad players.
After one final warm-up game against Oman on 16 November, Germany begin their quest for a record-equalling fifth World Cup crown against Japan on 23 November. They then take on fellow European heavyweights Spain on 27 November, before closing out Group E against Costa Rica on 1 December.
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