Joachim Loew knows exactly what he has in Thomas Mueller. Nothing with the 24-year-old can surprise him anymore. “He can’t puzzle me further. I have experienced so much with him”, said the German national coach, when he spoke of “match winner” Mueller. The Munich player, who had prompted the 2-1 (1-0) win over Scotland with two goals at the start of the European Championship qualifications, possesses a distinctive hunger for goals. Loew had also been creative with his newest discovery. Thus once again he unveiled a surprise for most of the 60,200 spectators in Dortmund.
In the right defensive position on Sunday evening Loew lined up a player wearing the number 7 shirt and the family name “Rudy”. But by putting Hoffenheim player Rudy, 24, who earned only his third cap, as did his counterpart on the left side, Erik Durm, 22, into the four-man defence, did signal the beginning of new experimentation. Retirements and injuries had forced a reformation of the team, minus established key players, to meet the strong Scots just eight weeks after the World Cup triumph in Rio de Janeiro.
Sebastian Rudy is originally a defensive midfielder. The Black Forest-born player held this position in the U21 selection of the German Football Association (DFB) until last year, and also plays there for his club. “I simply thought it looked a good alternative to put him at right back, and he did a good job”, Loew said, stressing that he will soon have to take more unusual decisions. “We have to improvise in the upcoming months”, the national coach explained, preparing the fans for a phase in which the top-ranked team in the world will logically lose quality compared to the World Cup competition.
The realignment is also the price for the fourth World Cup title, with the energy-sapping World Cup tournament forcing many players to their limit. Bastian Schweinsteiger went far beyond, while Sami Khedira’s ruptured muscle could also be due to the thrashing in June and July. Loew said that Khedira would possibly be missing also for the October qualifiers. Against the Scots it was Marco Reus, who received treatment for some time before being led off the pitch limping shortly before the final whistle. The diagnosis came on Monday: the midfielder suffered an injury to his left ankle joint, just as he did in the last pre-World Cup friendly against Armenia, causing him to miss the World Cup. With a partly ruptured outside ligament and an overexpansion of the tarsal ligaments he will be out for four weeks. The second injury of the key player will be of more concern to Borussia Dortmund than to Loew. Schalke player Julian Draxler, Loew’s alternative for Reus, had also been injured during the 4-2 loss to Argentina in the friendly match four days earlier.
According to Loew the fact that the team “lost a bit of control of the match” in the second half in Dortmund was because all players from the World Cup squad have not reached peak fitness at this stage of the season. This could clearly be seen with central defenders Benedikt Hoewedes and Jerome Boateng, causing the defence to be slightly shaky in the second half. Toni Kroos and Mario Goetze too, still not fully recovered from the World Cup efforts, are not in top shape. But one at least functioned normally in front of the opposing goal. “If you have a player such as Mueller, who can jump 2.50m high, you cannot prevent goals. Mueller simply is a unique machine”, said Scotland’s coach Gordon Strachan about the FC Bayern striker, who has scored eight goals in the last nine international matches.
Loew need not worry unduly about the offence, but has clear problems in the defence. The national coach no longer intends to play with four inside defenders as at the World Cup, which would be possible with Hoewedes, Boateng, Hummels, and the possibly soon returning Holger Badstuber. And a three-man defence is not included in Loew’s concrete planning, although he has concerned himself with it. In the future he wants to bring in outside defenders who play offensively.
With the upcoming matches this year against Poland, Ireland and Gibraltar as well as in Spain, further newcomers could follow Rudy in getting a casting opportunity: The Freiburg duo Oliver Song and Christian Guenter, as well as Wolfsburg’s Sebastian Jung, fulfil the defensive tasks in the outside positions in the Bundesliga, while Stuttgart’s Antonio Ruediger, also named by Loew as an alternative, plays in central defence. Kevin Grosskreutz is no longer among the candidates, Loew made quite clear. But Loew has often proved that he gives returnees a new chance, which could also hold true for Marcel Schmelzer, Marcell Jansen and Dennis Aogo if they reach top form.
One fact is certain -- a Philipp Lahm, with his class, will not be replaced for a long time. But with the entire team Loew will continue to bid for understanding that could repeat such performances seen at the World Cup again only at the 2016 European Championship.