Germany appear prepared for life without injured Bastian Schweinsteiger
Bastian Schweinsteiger's worrying fitness level and undistinguished form this season were set to be the biggest talking points in Joachim Löw's press conference this afternoon. But by the time the German national manager sat down to address reporters in Berlin, his captain was already in Munich undergoing a knee scan.
The outlook was "not positive," Löw said, and soon after, confirmation arrived. The 31-year-old Schweinsteiger had suffered "a partial tear of his medial collateral ligament," the German FA announced, and will be out for a few weeks. Schweinsteiger's race to get back into shape ahead of the Euros will now be much harder.
It was interesting to hear German general manager Oliver Bierhoff publicly warn that the player's "motivation and focus" had to return for him to start in France, as if to say the Manchester United midfielder could have done more in recent months. His recuperation process will be closely watched by the German hierarchy and while Löw is inclined to give his skipper all the time necessary to get back into the team, he can't afford to build his side around him in light of such uncertainty.
At best, Schweinsteiger is looking at the same sort of job share Löw introduced during the group stages of the World Cup, when neither Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm nor Sami Khedira started the tournament fully fit. Löw will at least have the opportunity to think about and try out some alternatives in the coming months.
Against England, Toni Kroos will probably slot into Schweinsteiger's central midfield spot next to Khedira, which will free a space for the No. 10 role farther up the pitch. Mario Götze, in desperate need of some playing time (he's being frozen out by Pep Guardiola in Munich), could be the beneficiary.
Yet Kroos' deployment as one of two deep midfielders at Bayern, at Real Madrid and for Germany has not been an unqualified success. The 26-year-old's defensive positioning is often not ideal. Tracking opponents back into the area around the box isn't really his game, either.
In Brazil, Löw addressed these limitations by affording Kroos a more attacking role with two players behind him. Suddenly, Germany had the balance at the heart of the team that the Bundestrainer had been searching for so long. If Kroos lines up as one of two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 German formation in Berlin, Löw must carefully look at his defensive movement to gauge whether he can be trusted there in France. Kroos played well enough in the 2014 World Cup final, after injuries to Khedira and Christoph Kramer had forced Löw's hand, but the national manager would probably prefer a more natural solution.
One option might be Ilkay Gündogan, for example. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder is having a fantastic season under Thomas Tuchel but wasn't called up for the friendlies against England and Italy because of a bruised foot. Gündogan will undoubtedly be Löw's first choice to replace Schweinsteiger in France. Maybe the 25-year-old, a target for Liverpool and Manchester City, will play in any case; his form certainly warrants an automatic place. Gündogan's guile and poise make him the perfect deep-lying playmaker behind Kroos, and crucially, he's technically strong enough to offer "pressing resistance" -- the ability to get away from attackers looking to disrupt Germany's build-up play.
Fortunately for Löw, Bayern and Dortmund have also thrown up alternatives, if need be. Joshua Kimmich, 21, and Julian Weigl, 20, have been outstanding for their respective clubs. Neither was called up by Löw (Weigl will be playing for the U-21s), but it's almost inconceivable that they won't make the Euro 2016 squad if they continue to feature regularly at the club level.
Kimmich and Weigl would offer the possibility of a more pragmatic set up, with two truly defensive players in midfield. Kramer (Bayer Leverkusen) is also available, and there are excellent theoretical backups in Lars Bender (Bayer Leverkusen), the Schalke duo of Johannes Geis and Leon Goretzka, and young Mahmoud Dahoud (Gladbach).
Either way, Löw has too many players to regard the latest Schweinsteiger news as a crisis. It seems Germany can't help but go into a major tournament with their captain getting injured. Unlike in 2006 and 2010, when Michael Ballack was the most important player (or at least widely considered such), Schweinsteiger's frequent problems in recent years have seen the team develop a degree of independence from their hero of the Rio final.
Schweinsteiger's latest injury surely means Löw will work even harder to ensure he won't be missed in France. The danger for the midfielder is that Löw and his men will succeed in mowing past him, even if he makes it back in time for the tournament, which is less than three months away.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.