Two games down, potentially five more to go: Germany will look to shake things up ahead of their final Group F match against South Korea at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Manchester City winger Leroy Sane and Borussia Dortmund’s World Cup-winner Mario Götze have been left at home, but with Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus passed fit in time for the tournament, coach Joachim Löw has incredible strength in depth to call upon…
Naturally as the home of the world champions, the Bundesliga has contributed some 15 players to the 23-man selection for Russia. Join bundesliga.com as we track how Löw assembles his cast for the finals…
Germany's 23-man World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Kevin Trapp (PSG)
Defenders: Jerome Boateng (Bayern), Matthias Ginter (Gladbach), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Mats Hummels (Bayern), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern), Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha), Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), Niklas Süle (Bayern)
Midfielders: Julian Brandt (Leverkusen), Julian Draxler (PSG), Leon Goretzka (Schalke/Bayern), Ilkay Gündogan (Man City), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Mesut Özil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern)
Forwards: Mario Gomez (Stuttgart), Thomas Müller (Bayern), Marco Reus (Dortmund), Timo Werner (Leipzig)
Cut from provisional 27-man squad: Bernd Leno (Leverkusen), Nils Petersen (Freiburg), Jonathan Tah (Leverkusen), Leroy Sane (Man City).
Don't fix it if it ain't broken...
There were no real surprises in Germany’s starting line-up for their opening game against Mexico at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Löw went with the 4-2-3-1 formation that served him so well in qualifying – all but three or Germany’s 10 games, all of them victories, utilised it. Jonas Hector was ill so Marvin Plattenhardt stepped in at left-back; Julian Draxler and Mesut Özil were preferred to Reus, despite the Dortmund man being arguably Germany’s best player in pre-tournament friendlies against Austria and Saudi Arabia.
Mexico took a 35th-minute lead through Hirving Lozano, but Löw stuck to his guns until the hour mark, when final third operator Reus came on for defensive midfielder Sami Khedira. Striker Mario Gomez replaced left-back Plattenhardt with a little more than 10 minutes to go as Germany’s formation got progressively more attacking, but by the time Julian Brandt replaced Werner the game was lost.
So what did Löw do for the Sweden game? As expected, there were no changes to the style of play or the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the tactician did bring in four new faces. Jonas Hector took Marvin Plattenhardt's slot at left-back and Antonio Rüdiger started in place of Mats Hummels, who suffered a neck injury in training and was rested as a precaution.
He also drafted in Sebastian Rudy in central midfield instead of Sami Khedira. The thinking behind that move was to give the side greater organisation and defensive discipline after Germany were left exposed by Mexico's lightning-fast counter-attacks.
“If seven or eight players attack then it’s clear the attacking force is greater than the defensive stability,” Hummels lamented after the loss to El Tri. “We often talk about that in the group. Our cover wasn’t good. Too often it was just Jerome [Boateng] and I at the back.” With Rudy on the pitch, Germany looked much more stable, and remained so when he was forced off with a suspected broken nose to be replaced by Ilkay Gündogan.
The other change was to hand Reus a maiden World Cup start ahead of Özil, who had begun all of Germany's previous 26 matches at major tournaments. The Dortmund winger's inclusion was vindicated by a livewire display in which he was the team's most dangerous attacking outlet, and he also scored the crucial equaliser early in the second half.
So where does that leave Germany ahead of their third and final Group F encounter against South Korea? Werner impressed in the second half against Sweden in a wide role on the left, while Mario Gomez got into good positions and had a couple of decent chances. Bayer Leverkusen's Julian Brandt also staked a claim for a start - perhaps at the expense of an off-colour Julian Draxler - and hit the post for a second successive game in Russia with another rasping shot from distance.
Germany's Road to Russia
Germany qualified for the finals with a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 in UEFA Group C. No fewer than 21 players found the target as Die Mannschaft became just the second team in history – after Spain in 2010 – to progress with a 100 percent record.
Löw nonetheless showed certain predilections, formation aside. Familiar faces from 2014 racked up the minutes in qualifying – Hummels and Thomas Müller started eight and nine games respectively – while their Bayern teammate Joshua Kimmich removed any doubts that he would be the natural successor to the retired Philipp Lahm at right-back, scoring two and providing a team-high nine assists. The space behind him was exploited by Mexico, but such is Kimmich's nascent talent he can expect to be given the chance to choose his overlapping runs with more caution.
Löw initially struggled to settle on his first-choice centre-forward with a Miroslav Klose-shaped gap to fill, though. Götze, Sandro Wagner and Lars Stindl started three games apiece. Götze played the most minutes with 323, Wagner scored the most goals with five, yet not one of that trio will be in Russia. Stindl is injured, while Götze and Wagner are surprise exclusions.
Löw is famously conservative in his squad selections: Phillip Max ended the season just gone as the Bundesliga defender with the most assists since records began, usurping Lahm, and yet the Augsburg man had little chance of dislodging Hector at left-back – a player relegated with Cologne but who has 37 caps to his name.
In Neuer and Reus, Löw has two world class players at his disposal who at one stage looked doubtful. Reus – so unlucky with injury – missed the triumph in Brazil as well as UEFA Euro 2016, but returned from knee ligament damage to plunder seven goals in the final 10 Bundesliga games for Dortmund. Draxler was preferred on the left against Mexico, but after the opening-dy defeat and surprise exclusion of Sane, Reus should finally get the chance to shine at a major tournament.
Watch: Marco Reus on the injuries that have shaped his career
Neuer is fit and the captain will remain first-choice No.1. Marc-Andre ter Stegen might be the ablest understudy in world football, but if he’s impressing at the Camp Nou, it’s by interpreting the position in a way in which Neuer defined. The Bayern man is perhaps the best goalkeeper in the history of the game, let alone the best available option for his country.
Up front, Timo Werner has become the first-choice striker. After firing Germany to Confederations Cup glory last summer with a tournament-high three goals, the RB Leipzig man has now scored eight in 15 full international appearances. Gomez and Wagner would both have offered a Plan B to his pace-based game. Gomez, a veteran with 31 goals in 76 caps, has been preferred as much for his off-field influence as on-field contribution, neither of which should be underestimated.
Strength in depth
Löw is not married to a 4-2-3-1 formation. He played three at the back three times in qualifying, in victories against San Marino, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. Personnel-wise, there were five big winners when Löw changed tack: Wagner, Stindl, Julian Brandt, Emre Can and Matthias Ginter.
Brandt played 90 minutes all three times that Löw elected to play with his widest possible midfield. With Müller inside him, it was the Bayer Leverkusen man who hugged the touchline. Kimmich was trusted to fill in as a third centre-back although he spent the majority of the campaign overlapping, with Borussia Mönchengladbach's Ginter on the other side.
With San Marino and Azerbaijan boasting FIFA world rankings of 205 and 105 respectively, it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the players used to dismantle them failed to make this first cut, with Liverpool midfielder Can, Arsenal defender Shkodran Mustafi and Ajax winger Amine Younes joining Wagner on the sidelines. However, Brandt’s ability to play across the midfield and Ginter’s willingness to operate anywhere in defence have punched both men's tickets to Russia.
A change of tack?
Boateng's own injury travails – the Bayern man missed 15 Bundesliga games in 2017/18 as the Bavarians wrapped up a record sixth consecutive title – mean that Löw might be glad to have a tactical option that reduces his need for world class centre-backs in Russia.
A Boateng-less back three picks itself, but with such attacking thrust supplied from midfield, Gomez should lead the line in a 3-5-1-1. If Germany win their first two group games against Mexico and Sweden, a change in tack against South Korea goes from being plausible to probable. Werner would likely get a rest before the last 16 and penalty-box predator Gomez, who managed a goal every two games for VfB Stuttgart, would happily lap up any chances created in his absence.
Reus’ timing could hardly be better, meanwhile. With Stindl missing he is the player most adept at operating between the lines. Raumdeuter Müller might have something to say about that, but with the on-field leader offering experience in a youthful midfield, Reus could get a run out at his favourite No.10 position.
Embarrassment of Riches
While it’s possible Germany have the best XI available to any nation at the finals this summer; it’s beyond doubt that they have the best Plan C in world football. Löw could pick any of the above and still be in with a chance of lifting the trophy.
Gomez plundered eight goals in the Rückrunde alone as Stuttgart ended up closer to Europe than relegation; Kevin Trapp and Draxler were French champions with Paris Saint-Germain, yet all could find themselves bit-part players.
Watch: Timo Werner, from idolising Mario Gomez to replacing him
Ilkay Gündogan, Niklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy and Draxler were constituent parts of title-winning teams in England, Germany and France this term with Manchester City, Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, yet might have to settle for a place among the substitutes in Russia. How many countries could afford to have four champions of that calibre watching on from the bench?
Werner recently said that Germany were “absolutely favourites” to defend their crown. Given the above, would anybody be brave enough to disagree?
Not even on the plane
As if Germany’s sheer strength in depth wasn’t abundantly obvious already, just look at the players that haven’t even made Löw’s provisional 27-man squad. Andre Schürrle assisted Götze for that winner four years ago, yet the pair will watch on, alongside Julian Weigl, as Reus leaves as the only Dortmund player joining up with Germany in Russia.
Sane scored 10 and assisted 15 as Pep Guardiola's City romped to the English title, meanwhile, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year in the process. Time is on the talented 22-year-old winger's side. Defender Benedikt Höwedes, who spent last season on loan at Juventus from Schalke, may not be so lucky, though. The 30-year-old former Royal Blues captain played seven of Germany’s eight games in Brazil, but he may not get another chance to add to his 44 caps.
Quiz: Who would make YOUR Germany starting XI?