Philipp Lahm was Germany's undisputed first-choice right-back for the best part of a decade, but Die Mannschaft's struggle to find an equivalent on the opposite flank now appears to have come to an end. Boasting an embarrassment of riches in the role, Nico Schulz and Marcel Halstenberg have been preferred recently, but Jonas Hector, Philipp Max and Christian Günter are keeping them on their toes.
It was only in October 2017 when Germany head coach Joachim Löw commented on what had long been a problem position for the 2014 World Cup winners, saying, "At full-back in particular we don't have too many players who can play on the international stage in the long run. My hope is that in future we'll have several people able to play there."
His wish now duly granted, bundesliga.com puts each of the quintet under the microscope…
Schulz may have made it to the top of the game, but he had to do so the hard way after illness (glandular fever) and injury (cruciate ligament damage) sent him curveballs early on in his career. Those setbacks have shaped him into the player he is today, however, with Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc lauding his "fighting spirit and desire to be successful" upon signing him from Hoffenheim in summer 2019.
Schulz, who played for Germany at every youth level, was not handed his senior debut until the age of 25 in September 2018 – but he promptly scored the winner in a 2-1 friendly win over Peru. Löw was, understandably, impressed.
"He made a good impression on me because from the very first day he made his presence felt on the pitch," said the 59-year-old. "Players who are new to the national team usually take a few days to get used to everything and they're usually quite reserved, but Nico was present straight away, he went into tackles and he covers an unbelievable amount of ground.
"He's incredibly quick and dynamic on the left. His strengths are getting forward in attack. He puts the opposition under a lot of pressure, but during his time at Hoffenheim he also improved defensively and tactically."
Schulz started Dortmund's first two league games of the 2019/20 season before spending several weeks on the sidelines with a foot injury. Back to full fitness, he has won an average of 53 per cent of challenges – and 67 per cent in the air – while completing 84 per cent of all passes.
Another late bloomer, Halstenberg spent the early years of his career in the Dortmund reserves and in Bundesliga 2 with St. Pauli, and only began to hit the big time after joining Leipzig in 2015, making his Bundesliga debut at the age of 25 a year later.
He has been a mainstay at Die Roten Bullen under three different coaches, his defensive stability and attacking instincts both highly prized assets. And they have not gone unnoticed by Löw. "Marcel has shown consistently good performances with his club and his displays in the Champions League have underlined that he has what it takes to compete at international level," said the Germany coach upon calling him up to the squad for the first time in November 2017.
A cruciate ligament injury forced him to miss the majority of the 2018/19 season, accounting for his relatively low number of Germany caps and absence from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but since returning to fitness he and Schulz have been the go-to left-backs in Löw's squad.
Two Bundesliga goals and two assists so far in 2019/20 are testament to his attacking prowess, while the 6'2" defender has also averaged 58 per cent of tackles won, while completing 84 per cent of his passes. With Leipzig in the title running this season and playing well in the Champions League, Halstenberg looks set to be a feature for Die Mannschaft for a while yet.
Cologne captain Hector has spent his entire senior career at the club, even staying with them following relegation to Bundesliga 2 at the end of the 2017/18 season. A favourite of Löw's – the head coach praising him for "always playing very well" and "maintaining his quality" in the second tier - Hector was given his Germany bow in November 2018, after they won the World Cup in Brazil.
Since then and until very recently, the Cologne No.14 has been the man for the left flank and was Germany's left-back at the last three major tournaments (2016 European Championship, 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup). And while he may not be as pacy as Schulz and Halstenberg, he is tactically disciplined, reliable and versatile.
Watch: Hector's Goal of the Season winner in 2018
It is that latter attribute in particular, however, that has precipitated his slip down the pecking order. "With Cologne he often plays in other positions, in midfield or in a back three, and only very rarely does he play on the left-hand side - that’s decisive for me," said Löw when asked about Hector's omission from his squad in March 2019. "At the moment I see Nico and Marcel a little bit ahead of him."
Not that the door is completely closed, though: "I've told him that he's still in our thoughts and will be in the broader squad, because Jonas is a player who always does his job exceptionally well on the left. He has tremendous technical quality." As of Matchday 11 in the 2019/20 season, the 29-year-old has not missed a single minute of play and is among the top five players in the league for tackles won (140).
Another relative latecomer to the top flight – clearly trendy in the left-back community – Max has been ever reliable for Augsburg since joining from Bundesliga 2 side Karlsruher SC in 2015 at the age of 22. He has made at least 25 league appearances per season and only missed six games since the start of 2017/18.
He helped Germany's Olympic squad earn silver at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, but unlike fellow members of that squad - including Niklas Süle, Julian Brandt, Serge Gnabry and Leon Goretzka – he has yet to step up to the senior team.
Watch: All of Max's assists from 2017/18
The son of former Germany striker Martin Max, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Augsburg No.31 has ingrained attacking instincts and calls for him to be given an opportunity at full international level reached fever pitch during the 2017/18 campaign, when his menace in the final third was on display virtually every week. Max finished the season with 12 assists and two goals – by far and away the best return for a defender and even better than a number of big-name attackers.
While he has not been able to repeat those kinds of figures he remains on Löw's radar, even if he is below the others in the coach’s thinking: "We've watched Max a few times and he played very well last year and began the season well," Löw said at the end of 2018. "He's similar to Schulz in terms of his playing style, but he's not quite as strong defensively."
Germany caps: 1
Günter is perhaps the most surprising inclusion on this list, but it is thoroughly deserved given his performances for Freiburg in 2019/20. As of Matchday 11, the Black Forest native hasn't missed a single minute of Bundesliga action and has been one of the key performers in the side's best-ever start to a top-flight season.
A tireless presence up and down the left touchline, his defensive figures are a little below his competitors here – 41 per cent of duels on and a 72 per cent pass completion rate – but the latter can be partially explained by the fact only two defenders have attempted more crosses from open play than Günter (32) at this stage. Furthermore, with one goal and three assists to his name already, he more than holds his own in opposition territory.
Günter has already been capped by Germany, his one and only outing so far in a pre-World Cup friendly draw with Poland in May 2014, but given the recent debuts for Freiburg teammates Luca Waldschmidt and Robin Koch, the defender will know that Löw is watching.
And he hasn't yet given up hope of earning a recall. "I give absolutely everything every week and try to play well so that he'll call me again sometime," Günter said recently. "I'd obviously be delighted if it happened, but I also know that Nico Schulz and Jonas Hector are very good and deserve to be in the squad. But I still hope [Löw] calls me again."
If Günter continues his recent form, the Germany coach may well have to do just that.
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