Bayern Munich forward Thomas Müller's recent claim that on an individual level Joachim Löw's 2018 squad are "certainly better" than the 2014 vintage – in part due to having two players in every position – had bundesliga.com scratching its head.
Goalkeepers: Neuer plus two?
Was Müller right? Could the squad heading to Russia to contest the FIFA World Cup 2018 really be better than its trophy-winning, legendary predecessors in Brazil four years earlier? bundesliga.com put both squads under the microscope to decide.
2018: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona), Kevin Trapp (Paris Saint-Germain)
2014: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Roman Weidenfeller (Borussia Dortmund), Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover)
On first glance, it would appear that the 2018 squad has the edge in the goalkeeping stakes. Bayern's Neuer is back and fit, No2 ter Stegen has enjoyed a fine season at Barcelona, while former Eintracht Frankfurt stopper Trapp is plying his trade at French champions Paris Saint-Germain. In sum, Löw not only has the choice of goalkeepers from three of Europe's biggest clubs, but will also sleep easy in the knowledge that Neuer can at no stage rest on his laurels – not that he would – with such high-class competitors breathing down his neck.
Watch: Check out Neuer's top five Bundesliga saves!
Look closer at the class of 2018, however, and a few cracks begin to emerge, particularly when held up against 2014: Neuer has not played competitively for Germany since a 2-0 win against Northern Ireland in October 2016 and has not represented Bayern since last September due to a broken foot. Accordingly, the captain's fitness for the biggest games – and there are few bigger than at the World Cup – remains a doubt, overshadowing preparations.
The obsession with Neuer's left foot has also overshadowed the fine performances of his understudy, former Borussia Mönchengladbach keeper ter Stegen. The 26-year-old kept 19 clean sheets as Barca romped to the Liga title, before justifiably claiming – having been talked up by Löw prior to Neuer's return – that being second choice for his country was a "disappointing situation".
Defence: How irreplaceable is Lahm?
2018: Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Matthias Ginter (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich), Niklas Süle (Bayern Munich), Antonio Rüdiger (Chelsea), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich)
2014: Kevin Großkreutz (Borussia Dortmund), Matthias Ginter (Freiburg), Benedikt Höwedes (Schalke), Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund), Erik Durm (Borussia Dortmund), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Shkodran Mustafi (Sampdoria)
The big names jump out of the 2014 selection, and none more so than Lahm, who - much like Neuer - was at the peak of his powers in the lead-up to Brazil. The Bayern skipper had improved after working under Guardiola for a season, and was fielded in his new midfield role and in his customary full-back berth by Löw, eventually settling in at right-back once the knockout stages began. The Germany captain was at his metronomic best in Brazil, not missing a single minute on his nation's road to a fourth global crown.
So how do you solve a problem like replacing Lahm? Well, you create a Kimmich. The latest Bayern full-back might not like the Lahm comparisons, but he really is as close as they come: Kimmich is capable of playing holding midfield, but has similarly made the right-back berth his own for club and country, while over the past season he has mirrored Lahm's consistency, notably featuring in 24 straight games in the build-up to Russia and breaking a record held by a certain Franz Beckenbauer.
If there was any muted criticism of Lahm for his meagre attacking returns, then such an accusation can hardly be levelled at Kimmich: the dynamic 23-year-old picked up a team-high nine assists in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Watch: Check out all of Kimmich's Bundesliga goals and assists!
Of course, Lahm had all that experience in 2014, plenty would suggest in response. Well, it's not as if Kimmich – even at 23 – is inexperienced: he has impressed in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League three seasons running and was named in the UEFA Euro 2016 team of the tournament, despite only playing the last four of Germany's six games. It's a close-run thing between the two.
If the notion that it is impossible to replace Lahm is disproved in the form of Kimmich, it is time to look infield to the centre-backs: while right-back initially looked the hardest position to fill post-2014 and Lahm's retirement, centre-back was the easiest. The Hummels-Boateng partnership was at the foundational stage in 2014 – yet still impressive enough to win a World Cup – and is now a fully constructed wall.
Although coming off the back of injury-hit campaigns, Khedira and Özil are now more central to Löw's plans than in 2014: the former for his off-field leadership within the group and his on-field understanding with Kroos; the latter for his peerless vision and record of delivering in big games for his country (unlike, perhaps, for his club). Furthermore, in a slightly younger group than 2014, both are expected to impart the wisdom gained from previous tournaments.
Draxler, meanwhile, the other 2014 midfield survivor, has matured no end since leaving the home comforts of Schalke and Wolfsburg for the bright lights of Paris Saint-Germain in early 2017, to the extent that he captained Germany at last summer's FIFA Confederations Cup.
That Löw has more combinations in midfield – this squad boasts eight midfielders to 2014's seven – is primarily thanks to Rudy's versatility.
The 28-year-old, who was involved in nine of 10 qualifiers en route to Russia, is nominally a holding midfielder, but will also be pencilled in as an emergency right-back in case of injury to Kimmich, allowing Löw more scope in his forward-thinking midfield options.
That characterisation is not intended to diminish Rudy's significant holding-midfield qualities, either: whereas Kramer was a last resort in 2014 (and had only won two caps prior to the tournament), Rudy has long been a nailed-on selection. A Confederations Cup winner, the 28-year-old has been playing at a far higher level – for Bayern – than Kramer had at the time (in an upper mid-table Gladbach side), perhaps also serving to underline the talent available to Löw this time around.
Gündogan replaces Schweinsteiger's midfield control; the Gelsenkirchen native is capable of bossing games from deep in the style Schweinsteiger almost pioneered in his pomp and would have been a 2014 shoo-in had he been fit. In fine fettle for Premier League champions Man. City in the second half of the season after returning from a knee injury, the former Dortmund midfielder chipped in with four goals, showing that he can mix it further forward with the best of them.
The other goalscoring absentee from 2014 is Götze, who – unlike Schweinsteiger – was fit and available for international selection, but did not even make Löw's provisional squad after capturing his form all too fleetingly this season due to a metabolic disorder. His replacement, at least in terms of position, is Brandt.
Although going into 2014 Götze was better known than Brandt is now thanks to his high-profile move to Bayern and impressive continental displays in BVB's run to the 2013 Champions League final, the positional and numerical similarities between the pair are startling.
Coming into this tournament, the Leverkusen forward boasts 27 career Bundesliga goals; going into 2014, Götze had 26. Coming into this tournament, Brandt is 22; going into 2014, Götze was also 22. Both possess that impishly creative streak; both are capable of playing across attacking midfield; both possess a preternatural calmness in front of goal; and both share a surprising turn of pace.
Forwards: The Klose-shaped hole
2018 squad: Timo Werner (RB Leipzig), Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Mario Gomez (Stuttgart)
2014 squad: Miroslav Klose (Lazio), Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), Andre Schürrle (Chelsea), Lukas Podolski (Arsenal)
Where the 2014 squad does have the edge over its 2018 successor is Löw's options in the final third.
Back in 2014, Klose – now on Löw's coaching staff – remained one of international football's most-feared goalscorers (five goals in 2002, five in 2006, four in 2010), and overhauled Ronaldo's record of 15 with his second goal of the tournament in Germany's 7-1 win against Brazil.
As for Müller – with the caveat that his domestic form really has little bearing on his international form - his goal numbers ahead of the 2010 and 2014 jamborees are worth scrutinising against those from the most recent Bundesliga campaign.
In both of the seasons prior to his five-goal World Cup hauls in 2010 and 2014, Müller returned 13 Bundesliga goals and scored a minimum of 19 across the season. Although this term he finished the domestic season as the top flight's leading provider (14 assists), the Bayern forward only netted eight Bundesliga goals – and 15 in all competitions. Although his Raumdeuter status has long since been cemented, this could be a rare fallow tournament for Müller.
Watch: Sit back and enjoy every single one of Müller's first 100 Bundesliga goals!
That said, even though he is by now a known quantity, how to stop Müller at a World Cup has proved elusive for almost every opponent. Indeed, with Klose's 16-goal record within his sights, Müller could do worse than summoning some of his major-tournament magic once more.
For his part, Reus is an unknown quantity at a World Cup, although however you dress it up, it's safe to say he's an upgrade on 2014 Schürrle. Admittedly, Schürrle – then of Chelsea – came into 2014 after an impressive campaign having helped the London club win the English title, but Reus scored one fewer goal (seven) in 11 Bundesliga games for BVB this term than Schürrle managed in a whole season (eight) for Chelsea in 2013/14.
On top of Reus' stunning form ahead of the tournament there is also the motivation factor to bear in mind. The Dortmund forward missed the 2014 World Cup after cruelly suffering an injury in the final warm-up game and was left out of the Euro 2016 final squad for the same reason: remarkable as it is, this will be Reus' first major tournament since 2012; he is chomping at the bit to impress.
In terms of back-up, 2014 Podolski edges 2018 Gomez. The former had been a feature in Germany's squads dating back to 2006 and came into the Brazil mega-event boasting 114 caps; Gomez has 74 and missed the 2014 triumph due to a lack of form.
For all his domestic goals – and there have been plenty, including another nine this season – Gomez has long been in and out of Löw's selections. The Stuttgart striker only just pipped Bayern Munich's Sandro Wagner to a seat on the plane, and brings less joie de vivre than Podolski off the field.
Indeed, in terms of back-up, Podolski also offered more versatility: the Cologne hero could play as a second striker, wide left or as a lone striker and boasted an exocet of a shot from outside the area. Although useful at times, Gomez is more of a penalty-box bruiser and predator, who needs the game to come to him.
Verdict: Overall Klose, Podolski and peak-Raumdeuter Müller mean the 2014 squad takes this one. Löw's forward options in Brazil were better and more varied than this time around, although – as the coach himself conceded – Reus is quite a "weapon" to be able to call on.