2014 World Cup Feature: Will Matts Hummels' injury derail the German express?
After a 4-0 victory against a team expected to be their strongest challengers for the group leadership, it would be understandable if Germany looked at the world with a certain amount of calmness; unhurried efficiency being stereotypically their style.
One of the most vivid moments of the match however, along with Pepe losing his head, and Thomas Mueller’s hat-trick, was the sight of Mats Hummels, scorer of Die Mannschaft’s second goal, landing on the pitch after a challenge and contorting in agony. With his side already 2-0 up, the decision to replace him immediately was simple.
Hummels has become a fundamental part of Joachim Loew’s side in his 31 appearances to date, and a prolonged absence of starting centre-back would prove eminently problematic for a team who have looked as convincing as any in the World Cup to date.
He has missed a number of Borussia Dortmund matches this season, and though he was optimistic initially, the prognosis seems a little more serious.
“It looked worse than it is,” conceded Hummels in the mixed zone. “Although I have a heavily bandaged thigh, it’ll get better. He could have hit me worse”
That diagnosis was rather discredited by news that the centre-back has ‘hardening thigh muscles’, with a nasty bruise as a result of bleeding into the muscles.
The DFB themselves insist that while Hummels will need time to heal, it is unlikely his tournament is over, even if he is likely to miss the middle group match against Ghana.
Coincidentally, Hummels shared a trip to Eunapolis hospital with the man said to be most likely to fill his spot in that game; Jerome Boateng. The Bayern Munich defender received treatment and will be able to resume action immediately.
For the Black Stars, this represents only a sliver of good news. Germany’s squad means that they will not lose too much by reshuffling Boateng, and Loew has a number of intriguing options to fill the right-back berth should he move the former Manchester City man into the middle. The space he vacates could be filled by captain Philipp Lahm, although he seems set in defensive midfield now and Bastian Schweinsteiger is not yet fully fit if he does revert Lahm back to his initial role.
Defensively, Germany had problems coming into the tournament and, theoretically at least, they lined up against Portugal with four centre-backs across the defence, with Benedikt Howedes on the left and Jerome Boateng on the right – not that it showed as the makeshift duo kept Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo quiet throughout.
There is a dearth of recognised full-backs in his 23, with Dortmund’s Erik Durm – who, although right-footed, has been used primarily as a left-back in the Bundesliga –the only ‘specialist’ available, and he only recently converted after being a striker throughout his youth career.
Kevin Grosskreutz, known for his versatility, has operated as a right-back at club level, but if Loew was reluctant to use him in that role in the first game, preferring Boateng, it suggests he might not be willing to do so in the second.
Even so, using Benedikt Howedes as an ‘emergency’ left-back came a little out of the blue in the Portugal game. The Schalke youngster more usually drifts to the opposite side – indeed, he has only played left-back thrice before that game; acting as a centre-back domestically, but drifting towards the right side when Astuto Uchida, the normal right-back, is faced with two players – operating on the opposite side of the field, especially for such an influential centre-back, only served to illustrate his potential.
It is possible, then, that emergent Dortmund full-back Erik Durm, something of a surprise call-up for the squad, will be placed in the left-back spot, with Howedes moving to the right side. While the Schwarzgelben endured a torrid season with injuries, Hummels included, one of the bright spots was the arrival of Durm into their first team.
The youngster is credited with being one of the reasons Jurgen Klopp’s side were able to rally back to second in the Bundesliga, his seemingly meteoric rise proving irresistible to national coach Loew. Whether he trusts Durm enough to start him remains to be seen, but he offers an attacking option that filling the backline with a quartet of disparate centre-backs does not.
Whichever option is chosen, the absence of Hummels will be keenly noted, but likely little felt. With the Dortmund man likely to miss only one match, the enforced introduction of either Durm or Grosskreutz to the side would provide a whole new outlet for a Germany side, one that may prove difficult to resist in future (think of the arrival of Jordi Alba to the Spanish side).
An always evocative language, German has a phrase ‘Not macht erfinderisch’; a loose equivalent of ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’; if Loew finds the remainder of his defensive pieces falling into place only as a result of his best defender’s absence, it may well get considerable use over the next few weeks.