Much like winter, the World Cup is coming. In winter, even.
Okay, except that it will be held in Brazil, in June, and average temperatures at the World Cup venues will be somewhere between 70 and 90F, which don’t exactly sound very winter-like unless you grew up in Florida or Southern California or something, and your definition of winter is walking outside and not immediately breaking a sweat.
Aside from all that, the World Cup is finally (almost) here!
Obviously we here at Der StatsBomb will be covering as much World Cup stuff as we can make time for, and it starts with discussing who should be picked for the various big national teams. I’m going to lead off with Germany, partly because I tend to follow the German players fairly closely, and partly because Jogi Loew is expected to announce his initial squad tomorrow and I wanted to beat the deadline.
In addition to my own opinions, which are based on a combination of statistical analysis and watching a ton of football, my choices will be guided by players’ Goal Impact ratings as well. For those who are unfamiliar with what Goal Impact actually is, you can find detailed information here. Needless to say, this is a tremendous additional tool to have access to, especially when trying to evaluate such a massive pool of potentially good players.
Germany are the powerhouses in Group G in this World Cup, the group that is widely considered to be this year’s Group of Pain. Or Group of Maiming. Or maybe it was the Group of Mostly Dead? It’s definitely something like that. Anyway, they are the best team in the group, but they will have to compete against Portugal and Ronaldo, Ghana, and the always scrappy United States squad (TM).
Regardless of how you slice it, it’s a tough group of teams. Thankfully for followers of Der Mannschaft, the pool of players Germany has to choose from is really bloody good. Not good enough, however, that there isn’t a big gaping hole right at the top of the formation that will need to be filled by someone. Follow along, and we’ll discuss each of those points in detail.
Before I get into a positional breakdown, let me give you the broad strokes. Germany have one of the five best goalkeepers in the world in Manuel Neuer. That’s a good start.
Additionally, Germany has one of the best pools of combined central and attacking midfielders on the planet, to the point that a player with a transfer value approaching £40M is almost guaranteed to be riding the bench at the start of every one of their matches. They are deep and extremely talented in the center of the pitch.
Center forward is a massive issue, and left back is a minor one. One of these is a gaping hole that will need to be filled either by a player who doesn’t normally play in that position. The other is not a real problem – there’s talent there – but more a big question mark of who is best to fill that spot right now. I’ll propose a couple of answers for each, along with my Starting XI and finalized squad list at the bottom.
We’ll start with Germany’s biggest weakness. It is strange that the team with perhaps the greatest depth in talent at attacking midfield have almost no viable center forward candidates right now, but that’s the position Germany find themselves in.
Mario Gomez, he of the Gomez Button and amazing goalscoring rate with Bayern Munich, has been out injured all year. He’s unfit and I’m crossing his name off the list.
Former World Cup golden boot winner Miroslav Klose turns 52* three days before the World Cup starts. I’m not ageist, but it’s possible he will have a tough time making it through the condensed tournament schedule. (*Okay fine, he turns 36. Still!) I’m only taking Klose if I am truly desperate.
After those two guys you have a host of question marks. Max Kruse has seen playing time there in the last year, and he’s good, but he’s not really a true CF. Nor is Thomas Muller, who is amazing, but best when he’s not the focus of all defensive attention. Pierre-Michel Lasogga is a beast, but lacks the necessary refinement to lead the German line at the World Cup.
Perhaps the most natural, talented fit is a guy who has somehow never really been in contention for the national team setup – one Stefan Kiessling. Now age 30, Kiessling’s stats have been exceptional for the last half decade, and his Goal Impact remains in the top 6 of all potential names for the German forward slot. That said, Loew has never shown an interest in choosing him, and I’m going to assume that despite the need and Kiessling’s natural goals-coring talents, he will again be overlooked.
This leaves the German manager in a tough spot. Goal Impact says that throwing Muller up front will lead to best statistical starting lineup. I’m okay with this, but I have a slightly different preference.
I feel like Germany should put Andre Schurrle up front as the primary option. He’s big, strong, can run at opponents, and provides an excellent option on the counter. It also frees Muller to do what he does best, and find space off the ball, while combining with the rest of Germany’s amazing midfield, either as the starting right wing, or off the bench. Schurrle has some limited experience in this role with Chelsea and it’s been mixed at best, but I feel like he’d have better support in the national team, and is the best healthy, non-Kiessling option on the board.
What? I left Podolski out? As someone who has watched him play at Arsenal for the last two seasons all I can say is yes, of course I did. He’s not a center forward. You might bring him off the bench late in the game, but he’s not your 60-minute man in the middle.
Dear lord, to be blessed with such riches… Assuming you have Schurrle up front, and are playing a basic 4-2-3-1 shell, which of the following do you leave out of the starting lineup?
Ozil. Gotze. Reus. Muller. Kroos.
That assumes that you aren’t playing Kroos deeper, because there are great options there as well.
The first three names on that list are probably 3 of the Top 10 creative midfielders in Europe right now. The 4th is the most continually underrated player on a team that won the Champions League last season and locked up the Bundesliga title in a record number of games this season. And the other guy is Toni Kroos.
If you based your selection strictly on Goal Impact, Reus would be the odd man out, and your starters would be Ozil, Gotze, and Muller. That’s not crazy, but for an attacking setup my preference would be Reus on the left, Gotze central (remember, they played like that at Dortmund), and Ozil starting on the right and doing his floaty thing. You’d have the best right back in the world behind him, so I feel you can get away with this without suffering. Against Ronaldo, however, I’d start Muller right and expect him to do more two-way duty.
As mentioned above, Germany’s surfeit of attacking midfielders is a blessing almost every other national team in the world would like to have. The quality of the players in their midfield pool nearly matches it.
The first name in the midfield is this guy: Bastien Schweinsteiger.
Schweini has been the rock in the middle of the Bayern Munich and German midfields for a decade now, and is one of the winningest players ever in Germany. Of the players on the GI list, only teammate Philip Lahm eclipses his Goal Impact number, and the fact of the matter is, Schweini is a living legend. Only 29, he probably has another Euros and World Cup after this before he looks to hang up the boots. For those who are curious, this is his ridiculous GI plot:
The average Bundesliga player has a GI of 110.
The second name on the sheet, however, is tricky. In part, it depends on opponent matchups, but I feel more probably depends on the health of Sami Khedira. If Khedira is back to fitness, then he is the box-to-box machine that best fits the German system. He’s a dervish on both the attacking and defensive ends, and plays an important role in disrupting opponent attacks, while being best able to flood zones for overloads in the attack.
If Khedira is not fully healthy, then I have the following names on my list to pick from:
Kroos, Lars Bender, Sven Bender, Roman Neustadter, Stefan Reinartz, and Daniel Baier.
Kroos is the guy I would have against any team where I wanted to emphasize attack more than defense. He’s capable of being a deep-lying playmaker or a more pure attacking midfielder, and he has a hammer of a shot from deeper positions. If Khedira isn’t ready to go full speed, Kroos gets his spot in the bulk of matches. After that, it gets very tricky.
Both Bender brothers have been on the outskirts of the national team for some time, as has Neustadter. All play for teams that regularly appear in the Champions League, and all have defensive/holding qualities that pair well with what Loew has shown he wants to do in the past. Reinartz has 3 NT appearances, but is a bit further afield and probably not a real consideration, though his GI number says he should be.
I honestly don’t see a ton between any of these choices. The Bender brothers probably have more flexibility in their skill set, while Neustadter is basically the perfect, clean DM. Not a lot of flash in his play, but a ton of quality and good choices made along the way.
The last name on MY list is Daniel Baier. He plays for Augsburg, and hasn’t been involved in any level of German National Team since 2005, but in my opinion, has been the best defensive midfielder outside of a CL team this season. The guys like Rene Maric over at Spielverlagerung are also big fans, so I feel like I’m in good company with my man crush. He was absolutely everywhere for Augsburg this year, and at age 29, this represents probably his one and only opportunity to appear for Germany in an international competition. I feel he deserves it on merit, but given how far away from the NT setup he’s been, he’s a very long shot to make the team.
This is what Baier’s radar looks like for the past season. It is one of the most unusual CM/DM radars I’ve ever seen. It’s rare you see quite that broad a set of skills offensively and defensively, and the Ints really stand out. He’s been absolutely tremendous.
THE MAGIC DWARF!!!
Wait, I have to pick someone in addition to Philip Lahm?
Fine… Kevin Grosskreutz, you’re on the plane! Not only does he rate well in GI and right back stats, but he’s flexible enough to play further forward if the need arises, though given Germany’s depth in those areas, they’d need something like a plague of ACL tears or a squad outbreak of the ebola virus for this to matter. Guys like Grosskreutz are invaluable on World Cup rosters because they cover a bunch of different roles while taking up just one roster slot.
Ahhh, we finally hit another trouble spot. The left back position in recent years in Germany has been populated by Borussia Dortmund’s Marcel Schmelzer, who is good, and Marcel Jansen who is… less good? Jansen has been stuck on Hamburg this season, a team that has struggled horrifically in spite of a massive budget, and are standing with both feet in the relegation zone with only one match to go. You have to be wildly talented to play left back on a team that has given up 72! goals this season and still make the World Cup roster. I don’t think Jansen fits that description.
One kid who does though is Erik Durm.
He completely shut down Robben in this match. He also shut down Real Madrid’s attackers in the match in Dortmund where they nearly pulled off a huge scalp if had managed to put the ball in an open goal.
Durm used to be a fairly indifferent forward (check his FIFA Ultimate Team card which may or may not look strangely like Channing Tatum), but the switch to full back has been a revelation. He has been immense the last couple of months, and I feel like he’d be the perfect choice not just to go to the World Cup at left back, but also to probably start.
The starting pairing is simple. Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker are the best two choices for Germany. Hummels’ swashbuckling style is complemented perfectly with Mertesacker as the organizer and stay at home man, and while Mert might have some trouble with extremely mobile forward lines, Low isn’t dumb enough not to help him out by giving him DM cover.
After that you hit some speed bumps. The 3rd choice is a regular player at CB for Bayern Munich, but at this point in his career, Jerome Boateng and “dumb mistake” are practically synonymous. He’ll make the flight, but there’s always an element of discomfort should he be required to perform when it really matters. Boateng is physically gifted, but I’d be unhappy if he had to play a constant starting role in my team.
The next choice is one of those roster arguments you end up having when you can only choose 23 players to go to the tournament. I feel like you have to sacrifice depth somewhere, and since CBs run the least of any outfield position and rarely seem to get injured, I feel this is the spot you cut a name, and not in midfield or at fullback.
My plane to Germany only has 3 CBs on it, but if I’m choosing a 4th, both myself and GoalImpact are choosing Benedikt Howedes from Schalke. Not only is Howedes solid centrally, but he can cover for RB when necessary.
I mentioned Neuer at the outset, but this is another area where Germany are quite deep. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, a.k.a “The New Barcelona Goalkeeper” is my second choice for this position, and the third slot will likely be taken by Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller.
GK: ter Stegen, Weidenfeller
MC: Kroos, Lars Bender, Baier
AM: Muller, Sidney Sam
CF: Kiessling, Max Kruse (can fill for AM)
Alternates: Benedikt Howedes, Roman Neustadter, Miroslav Klose(?)
Obviously my team choices are made based on my own judgments, and without any of the politics Jogi Loew has to deal with. Even without a true center forward, I think Germany have one of the deepest, most talented teams in the tournament, and they also have a good manager. They would have to get extremely unlucky not to make it into the knockout rounds, and from that point, who knows?
A big thanks to Jorg Seidel for his Goal Impact data. Aside from Reus, the only starters I have that his model doesn’t is Durm over Schmelzer, which is debatable, and Schurrle over Muller, which I’m not entirely sure is the right choice anyway. For Germany at least, GI lines up extremely well with my own evaluations for the starting 11 and most of the 23.