Injuries, retirements leave different German team vs. Argentina this time
The feel-good factor has not waned over the summer break: 45,000 supporters turned up two days early to see the world champions kick a few balls around in Dusseldorf's Esprit Arena. The open training session ahead of the friendly against finals opponent Argentina (sans Lionel Messi) doubled up as another victory parade; at some point in the low-intensity workout, the World Cup was presented to the crowd again.
A few of the Maracana heroes were missing, however. Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose have bid their farewell after the World Cup and will show up only to receive one final applause before the game on Wednesday night. Sami Khedira sat out the session as a precaution; the Real Madrid midfielder was later diagnosed with a thigh muscle tear. He'll be out for six weeks.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, the man who did perhaps more than anyone to pull Germany over the finishing line in Rio de Janeiro, is also out of commission. The 30-year-old suffers from an inflammation of the medial knee ligament; nobody knows for sure when he'll be able to play again. This complaint is the latest in a worryingly long list of conditions that have kept "Schweini" out of the majority of games between tournaments since 2010. Him not turning up for friendlies and unglamorous qualifiers has turned into something of a running joke (pun intended) among German football fans, especially those who don't take to his club, Bayern Munich, very much.
In that respect, it's strangely fitting that his reign in the national team -- manager Joachim Low appointed him successor to Lahm on Tuesday -- begins with the new captain being indisposed. Schweinsteiger is surely aware that the captaincy will force him to turn up more often over the coming 20 months. He notably confessed to feelings of "honour, joy and responsibility" after being awarded the armband. But he's also safe in the knowledge that Low is not seriously worried in any case. With qualification for Euro 2016 seen as a formality due to the extended field (the first two from each group qualify automatically), crunch time comes again only in June 2016. "I can always count on him when it matters. Just think about the [World Cup] final," Low said.
Manuel Neuer will skipper the team against the South Americans, as well as in the first competitive game against Gordon Strachan's Scots on Sunday. The Bayern keeper is not the official deputy, however; that role doesn't exist. In Schweinsteiger's absence, the armband is likely to rotate between members of the new players' council consisting of the aforementioned duo from Munich, their teammate Thomas Mueller, Khedira and Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund. That cast points to continuity rather than a reset, the flood of resignations notwithstanding.
Six to seven players from the starting XI from the Rio final are likely to feature in the first game at the European championships in France -- fitness permitting. Lukas Podolski's position in the squad will increasingly come under threat from the returning Marco Reus (Dortmund), Julian Draxler and, perhaps, Sidney Sam (both Schalke), too. Andre Hahn (Gladbach), Max Meyer (Schalke), Timo Werner (Stuttgart) and Maximilian Arnold (Wolfsburg) have the potential to squeeze into the very congested attacking midfield, but there'll be more opportunities on either side of the back four -- no more Lahm equals two problem positions -- and up front.
Mario Gomez has been recalled, but it remains to be seen if the Fiorentina striker can play the kind of football Low wants. Orthodox centre-forwards had been all but phased out since Euro 2012. Full-back Erik Durm (Dortmund) looks best positioned to claim a spot in the future; Stuttgart's Antonio Rudiger should also get a chance. Kevin Grosskreutz, an unused member of the Brazil squad, is expected to audition as right-back against Tata Martino's men.
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The player Low would like to see on the pitch wearing white most is undoubtedly Ilkay Gundogan, though. The Dortmund midfielder is slowly feeling his way back into full training after a one-year break with a back problem. Gundogan, 23, Reus, 25 and former teammate Mario Goetze (22, now at Bayern) need to start putting their stamp on this team in order for Germany to improve collectively. Low's side were the best in Brazil, but they were at their best only in patches -- they can still play a lot better, whether in defence or going forward. Improving performance levels will be Low's main target in the coming months.
Recent history has taught him that careful forward planning often has to give way to improvised solutions at the 11th hour. Gladbach's Christoph Kramer starting the World Cup final with the grand experience of zero competitive games under his belt illustrates the point perfectly. Another lesson he's learned was trust the instincts and expertise of his No. 2. On Monday, Low praised the "tactical" and "personal" input of Hansi Flick, who has since departed to become sporting director at the German FA, during the tournament in Brazil. Flick was widely credited for upgrading Germany's threat from dead-ball situations, a key component of their successful campaign. His successor, Low revealed, is Thomas Schneider, 40, the former Stuttgart manager and player. It's a slightly left-field appointment but in line with recent decisions.
Nobody expected Low to employ Flick in the assistant role in 2006, just as Low's own hiring by Jurgen Klinsmann in 2004 had come as a huge surprise at the time. If Schneider works out equally well, it's not inconceivable that he will take over from Low after France. Five out of 10 national managers in (West) Germany's history started out as assistants, and each one of them has delivered at least one trophy. No pressure, then.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.