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Jun 5, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

Last Saturday, after Germany's 2-1 win over Serbia in the team's final preparation match for Euro 2008, defender Christoph Metzelder faced a camera to explain how and why his side had fallen behind. He gracefully admitted that it had been his error of judgement which led to Serbia's goal.

And then, according to various news outlets including the website you're currently visiting, he said: 'I have always been criticised before tournaments, but then become a real giant during the finals and things are going in the same direction this time.'

A real giant!? This is some bold statement. It's what you call 'going out on a limb', if this here non-native speaker knows his idioms. It's even, er, downright cocky, isn't it?

Well, no, it isn't. Because Metzelder never said that. He told the reporter he was quite aware that people consider the German backline the team's weak spot and particularly regard himself as a liability. (In part because of his long lay-off and his lack of match practice or fitness, perhaps both.)

Then he said this was not a new situation for him and that, in the past, he's always managed to become a 'feste Grösse' during tournaments. 'Feste Grösse' is a term from mathematics. It literally translates as 'a constant'. In football, it means a player who is firmly established, a regular.

And it didn't take cockiness for Metzelder to claim becoming just that, quite simply because he already is firmly established as our starting full-back playing alongside Per Mertesacker. He'll have to blunder big-time to lose his place in the team. Largely because I'm under the impression that national coach Joachim Löw thinks he has no other options.

That's not the same as not having options, of course. Hertha's Arne Friedrich and Schalke's Heiko Westermann are both trained full-backs, though they haven't always played (Friedrich) or aren't playing (Westermann) this position at their clubs. But Löw apparently considers them either more suited to the wing-back role or less suited to his idea of central defending. In any case, he'll know - he is the coach.

But the long and the short of it is that most observers feel Germany look shaky at the back. However, as Metzelder correctly points out, it wasn't any different two years ago. Back then, Jürgen Klinsmann and his then-assistant Löw decided to solve this problem by keeping the opposition away from our goal by putting a lot of pressure on them.

There's been no change to this philosophy that says attack is the best form of defence. In fact, the goal for which Metzelder stood accountable on Saturday came about because he signalled for the back four to push up-field instead of drop back.

At that moment, it was the wrong decision. But that's okay. We know that our team is playing a risky game, yet I'm fairly sure that the vast majority of fans prefer the occasional mistake, even the occasional goal we may have to concede, to the cautious, lumbering football our team played at the last two European Championships.

(Not to mention that the timid approach was hardly more successful. Germany did not win a single game at the previous two Euro finals.)

And so, a mere couple of days before Germany meet Poland, the question is not whether we will be daring, but rather how much we will dare. Which basically translates into: who will play the wide positions in midfield?

Actually, this is coupled with the question of who will partner Miroslav Klose in attack. Many people consider Lukas Podolski the logical choice, but quite a few people would prefer to see Mario Gomez upfront. Gomez has an uncanny scoring record, both in the league and for the national team, and is by and large the only potential first-teamer who wasn't already in the squad back in 2006. (Clemens Fritz would be on the very outer fringes if Bernd Schneider was available.)

I guess I belong to the group that says Gomez should start on Sunday. And that's because of something I have mentioned in these columns more than once in the past. Namely that I can't quite figure out why Podolski's club coaches (not to mention the player himself) insist his best position is upfront and why they are reluctant to use him elsewhere.

When I was coaching teams we always tried to find a player like Podolski for one of the wide positions in midfield, someone who is most dangerous when he's got some space in front of him. These players aren't great crossers of the ball, but they don't have to be. They like to cut inside and can then hurt you in all kinds of ways, provided they remember the overlapping wing-back and set him up once their own route is blocked.

Like I said, we tried to find such guys and then pair them with another offensive midfielder who is happy with the ball at his feet on the other wing. But, and at last here's the hitch, when we had such players... we often didn't play them.

Why? Well, I guess we just chickened out.

Playing Podolski on the left side of midfield, Bastian Schweinsteiger on the right and then Klose and Gomez upfront looks very enticing on paper, but it's an armchair selection that's easy to make when you're wearing slippers and opening a can of beer. When you're really calling the shots, however, it's quite understandable to get cold feet.

Because using Podolski in midfield would not only carry the obvious risk of weakening that one flank defensively. It would also have consequences for the two central midfielders, one of whom is Michael Ballack. Germany's skipper is already doing more than you should expect from one single player, but adding attacking punch on the wing would basically mean Ballack will have even less margin for error and be forced to pick the moments to move forward with still greater consideration.

Yet, all things taken into account, I reckon I would give it a shot on Sunday. If only because this whole discussion, that has suddenly sprung up concerning Podolski in midfield, clearly sends out a signal to the other sides in the competition. I mean, there can't be too many teams that are seriously debating the question of whether to start four attacking players supported by guys such as Frings and Ballack, who are also potential offensive threats.

Should this gung-ho approach fail... well, then we still have two games left to correct matters. Plus, our giants at the back would have an excellent excuse for whatever goes wrong.

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