Lahm tasked with changing Germany's mythology
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Every football country has its own mythology. Nostalgia for a specific team, player or era; an idea about how the game should be played. An ideal, even, in some places.
The interesting thing about German football is that its mythology seems to be constantly changing. The 1954 World Cup winners stood for togetherness, the notion of "eleven friends" on the pitch. Franz Beckenbauer's European champions of 1972 (and their slightly less impressive 1974 version) were much more individualistic, and they left a different legacy: in their wakes, German football was forever yearning for a similarly gifted sweeper who could guide the nation to the next title. Lothar Matthaus established the cult of the "leadership figure" in 1990. Recently, the supposed lessons of the past have become different yet again. There is now much talk about the national team needing defensive ability at the heart of midfield.
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Suddeutsche Zeitung recently wrote that "German teams have always done well if they were solid in the centre," pointing to 1990 and 1996, when Guido Buchwald (Stuttgart) and Dieter Eilts (Bremen) built a platform for trophy-winning campaigns with no-nonsense, tough-tackling performances, in what would later be called the "Claude Makelele role". Bastian Schweinsteiger was said to have publicly demanded the inclusion of exactly that type of player after Germany's embarrassing 4-4 draw in World Cup qualifiers versus Sweden (the Nationalmannschaft had been 4-0 up in Berlin).
"With a Bender [in the team], that would not have happened," Schweinsteiger reportedly exclaimed after the draw. Alas, Germany coach Joachim Low didn't play either of the Bender twins on that night in October 2012, and the two natural holding midfielders are sadly missing from the World Cup squad, too, due to injury.
It speaks volumes about the way German football and its players have developed over the last few years that classic destroyers have become so scarce. The last team that made it to the World Cup final, Rudi Voller's men in 2002, were a side that almost exclusively consisted of defensive midfielders. They played accordingly. The ensuing decade has been spent nurturing much more technical, creative players, but in the absence of tangible results, the time seems ripe for restitution.
Low's decision to field Philipp Lahm -- ironically his most defensively solid midfielder, despite having only one season of experience in the role under his belt -- is indicative of the counter-revolutionary mood that has seemingly gripped much of the nation, including the inhabitants of Campo Bahia in northern Brazil.
It should be said at this point that the Bayern Munich and Germany captain is of course much more than a destructive force. The 30-year-old has good passing range; he will act as a deep-lying playmaker, bringing rhythm and precision to the build-up play. But his biggest quality doesn't so much rest in his feet but higher up, above the neck.
Unlike Sami Khedira, his partner against Portugal on Monday; unlike his club-mate Schweinsteiger, whose place in the starting line-up he's taking; Lahm has a thoroughly developed sense of defensive positioning. For all the progress in the Low years, as far as playing football is concerned, Germany were never able to stand well. They last looked truly solid when Torsten Frings and Michael Ballack lined up in the middle at the World Cup 2006. It took both of them to interpret their role quite conservatively to get a limited Germany side to the semifinals; without the suspended Frings, Jurgen Klinsmann's team lost to Italy.
Low and his technical analysts believe that Germany won't be able to play their usual, expansive game in the oppressive climatic conditions of northern Brazil. They won't park the bus -- they don't have the players for it -- in Salvador, but there's an acceptance that they'll be without the ball for significant spells during the 90 minutes. There's no other way. When it's this hot and humid, winning it back quickly with high pressing is simply not an option. Cynics might say that the weather has at last forced Low to think more about a part of the game that he has been neglecting for eight years -- the defensive organisation of his central players. (The 54-year-old might counter that argument by stating that the imbalance wasn't so much caused by his system but the inability of his players to work through it properly. But that's not a valid excuse, given the time he's had to address this issue.)
So now Lahm will be tasked to establish order and stability in the defensive zone ahead of a back four of four centre-backs. It'll still be Low's Germany, but perhaps not as we know it. And Lahm, all 1.69m of him, will certainly cut a very different central figure than German teams have been used to. He fights his battles quietly and leads by example, not shouting. He's not a tall, elegant figure like Beckenbauer, nor a live wire like Matthias Sammer, nor a box-to-box type like Matthaus in 1990, nor a serial tackler like Eilts. No one like him has ever "led" a German team into a big tournament. After winning the Champions League with his hometown team Bayern last season, a win that destroyed all preconceptions and prejudices about Lahm's ability to guide a side to an international trophy, the time has come for him to change Germany's mythology.