Ever since Euro 2008 and until recently, Lukas Podolski was a lock for the role of left-winger in Joachim Loew’s Germany team. At the time he was converted from a striker role, the Nationalmannschaft had limited ball-retention quality in midfield and tried to catch opponents off guard by counterattacking.
Podolski’s pace and work rate made him a viable option for the wing, and when the opportunity lent itself, he would cut to the inside to serve as a second striking option. Germany have since become a much stronger team in midfield, however, and with their increased possession, Podolski’s opportunities to play play as a central striker while counterattacking have vanished. Accordingly, his tally of goals has come to a screeching halt.
Having found the target just once in his last 13 appearances for country, the 27-year-old has lost his starting role on the wing to Marco Reus. And with not only Reus, but Mario Goetze, Andre Schuerrle, Julian Draxler and at least half a dozen young prospects currently or soon to be in the running for a role out wide, it’s doubtful that Podolski will ever again be Loew’s first choice on the left wing.
With all that having been said, Podolski is the most important player for Germany ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
There always had to come a time when Miroslav Klose would be too old to be counted upon, and that day is fast approaching. With due respect to Germany’s second-most capped player, he is physically in decline: His pace has dropped dramatically, and although he continues to excel at club level, the demands of international football have found him capable of managing around 70-75 minutes per game. These attributes will only continue to wane as time passes, and there is still a lengthy wait of nearly two years before the 2014 World Cup.
Just how much of a role Klose will be able to play at 36 years of age cannot be predicted, but based on the precedents set by hundreds of strikers over the years, the odds of him being able to score reliably and endure the rigors of a strenuous month-long tournament are not looking good. Loew would be foolhardy not to have alternates trained and prepared to play within his system as the central striker.
Looking around the German squad, there is an abundance of depth in all positions but that of centre forward. Mario Goetze is more than capable of replacing Mesut Ozil, while any pair of Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus and Andre Schuerrle can play on the wings, and this number will soon include a multitude of others. Holding midfielders include Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan, Lars Bender and a multitude of others. The list goes on and on.
Until recently, Loew’s only alternative for Klose was Mario Gomez. But while the Bayern Munich man has improved his performance for Germany since his disastrous Euro 2008 campaign, he remains a loose cannon. Despite Gomez scoring three goals in the first two group games of Euro 2012, Loew’s trust waned and the player was used for just 55 minutes in the knockout rounds.
Gomez has come up big in important matches at club level, but he has often gone missing. And because he is not the type of player to create chances for teammates and join in the passing game, there is a reasonable likelihood that he will go completely anonymous in any given match. Gomez is a huge risk for Loew, and the trainer is wary of the danger in relying too much upon him.
Beyond Klose and Gomez, the likes of Cacau, Patrick Helmes, Stefan Kiessling, and Kevin Kuranyi are remnants from the days of a vastly inferior Germany side, and none has an international future.
There are some prospects, such as Samed Yesil and Timo Werner, but the pair will be 20 and 18 when the World Cup begins. Neither can be expected to be mature enough to step into Klose’s boots by that time.
The final option for Loew is to reinstate Podolski as his lone striker, one with which the trainer has already experimented. The Arsenal man does have his limitations. For one, he is strictly left-footed. However, his underwhelming aerial skills are hardly a problem for a DFB team that prefers to play passes on the ground. And like Klose, Podolski has the tactical aptitude of a midfielder and the ability to play in deep and wide areas, stretching opposing defenses.
Perhaps most critically, Podolski has a strong record in big games, so long as he is used in his natural position or has the opportunity to operate as a pseudo-winger. While he has struggled on the wing in recent years, his performance at the 2006 World Cup was outstanding. Even on the flank at Euro 2008, he was a key player, particularly in Germany’s win against Portugal.
In spite of Gomez’s many goals for Bayern, his inability to link with the attacking midfielders and his propensity to fall off the radar make him too big a risk to be counted upon. Podolski may not be a perfect fit in the long term, but he’s the appropriate one at least until Euro 2016 qualifying begins. When the time comes, Yesil, Werner or another talent can take the reins. Until then, Podolski is the key man for Germany.