Same Names, New Heights: How Germany's Midfield Has Improved Since Euro 2012
Looking through the midfielders nominated to Joachim Loew's Germany team in recent months, it would appear that little has changed in the Mannschaft midfield since Euro 2012. With very few exceptions, the options in the center of the park are the same.
Looks can be deceiving, however. Almost every player in the German midfield has improved. For some, age has led to physical development and/or the acquisition of new skills. For others, achievements at club level have given experience and composure that will be advantageous in the stressful environment of next summer's 2014 World Cup. Here's a look at all the top German midfielders and how they have developed since Euro 2012:
Lars Bender is not exactly the most remarkable example of improvement in the German squad, but has undeniably matured since Euro 2012. The 24-year-old has another year of experience under his belt, and is entering his physical prime.
The consistent and ever-reliable Bender was better on average last season than in 2011-12 (according to Kicker). And critically, he now has more experience in the Champions League and with Germany. Heading into Euro 2012 he had just one season of Champions League football and less than an hour's worth of playing time in six Germany caps. He since has multiplied his playing time in a Germany shirt more than sevenfold, and will benefit greatly from further experience in the Champions League with Leverkusen this season.
Euro 2012 came too early for Julian Draxler who, despite making Loew's preliminary squad for the tournament, was dropped after making his debut in a 5-3 friendly loss to Switzerland.
Draxler has since experienced a meteoric rise and is well on his way to becoming a starter in the German national team. The Gladbeck native has a knack for making his impression felt in big games. He scored in the derby against Dortmund last season and has arguably been man-of-the-match in all three of Schalke's Champions League wins thus far this season.
Although the last six months or so have been disappointing for injury-plagued star Mario Goetze, the 21-year-old's development over the course of the 2012-13 season cannot be ignored. The playmaker was injured for the latter stages of the 2011-12 season and appeared for only 11 minutes at Euro 2012.
Last season was a pivotal time in Goetze's career as he played a key role in Dortmund's progression to the Champions League final, scoring 19 goals and giving 22 assists in all competitions for club and country. His market value has since increased by 50 percent, from €30 million to €45 million according to Transfermarkt.
Although he had a rough start to his career as a holding midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan matured over the course of the 2011-12 campaign and by season's end was not only starting for Dortmund, but nominated to Loew's Germany squad. Inexperience as part of the Mannschaft and an ankle injury resulted in the Gelsenkirchen native failing to earn a single minute at Euro 2012, but Gundogan was spurred on and took a giant leap in his career the following season.
Since Euro 2012, the 22-year-old has been one of BVB's best players and even scored in the Champions League final. He's established himself as Bastian Schweinsteiger's first back-up in Loew's team, and it is foreseeable that in the not-so-distant future he could replace the Bayern man or Sami Khedira in the Mannschaft starting lineup.
Sami Khedira was the most consistent and arguably the best performer for Germany at Euro 2012, and has maintained a consistent level ever since. Any improvement the former Stuttgart man has experienced has been minimal.
One way Khedira has certainly developed is in attack. The 26-year-old was never prolific but last season he ventured more into the box and had arguably his best season in attack since joining Real Madrid, setting a career high in goals.
For all his fine performances in 2011-12, Toni Kroos was not ready for Euro 2012. He was dejected after Bayern had finished second in three competitions and his decision not to take a penalty kick in the Champions League final was indicative of a player who still lacked confidence. Loew used Kroos as a substitute at Euro 2012 and the player sulked throughout the tournament. After each game he walked past reporters without a word and was first on the team bus. When he was finally given a start in the semifinal against Italy, he was unprepared.
Kroos is a much more mature player now, and at age 23 is entering the prime of his career. He has grown in confidence since Bayern won the treble last season and his recent form suggests he has benefited enormously from the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Bayern. By now he is absolutely in the category of Europe's elite central midfielders.
Even though he scored in the Champions League final, Thomas Mueller had a poor 2011-12 season by his lofty standards and struggled at Euro 2012. He has since found the form that made him a superstar in previous seasons and reached even greater heights.
Mueller scored a career-high 28 goals and gave 23 assists last season as Bayern won the treble. Individual and team success have emboldened the 24-year-old, who now is developing into a total footballer: He has been used in a central midfield position this season and has started Bayern's last two games as a forward. Mueller's increased versatility and ever-evolving skill set makes him even more unpredictable than before and a better and more dangerous player than he ever has been.
For all his good performances at Real Madrid, Mesut Ozil was misused and poorly placed in the Spanish capital. The team was not built around him and when he played for Germany, he was always better. Still, he took some time to find his form at Euro 2012 and although he impressed in the knockout rounds, there is reason to believe the ex-Schalke star had more to offer.
Now that he has moved to Arsenal, Ozil is in an environment where he can thrive. The Gunners' attack is built around him and the 25-year-old has more freedom than when he played in Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow. In addition to maintaining a more consistently high level of play, he is shooting more often and more effectively. It appears that not only Arsenal but also Germany will benefit from Ozil's move to the Gunners.
He may have been Germany's Player of the Year, but heading into Euro 2012, Marco Reus was still a Gladbach player with no Champions League or Europa League experience. He'd earned just six caps and 153 minutes of play with the Germany senior team and accordingly was not fully integrated into the DFB setup. As such, he made just two appearances at Euro 2012.
Reus has since become a permanent starter in Loew's team, having started six of Germany's eight World Cup Qualifiers and directly contributed to nine goals. He was sensational in his first season at Dortmund, delivering key goals in all three of BVB's away matches in the group stage, inspiring their dramatic comeback against Malaga, and forcing a penalty that led to Gundogan's equalizer in the final. Like Mueller, his propensity to show up on the grandest stage is invaluable to Loew as he looks to create a squad with the mental fortitude to contend with the best in Brazil.
Euro 2012 followed Andre Schuerrle's first season in Champions League play, and the step-up from Mainz to Leverkusen was one for which he perhaps was not entirely ready. After a lackluster club season, the 21-year-old made two appearances at Euro 2012. Against Greece he was guilty of a defensive mistake leading to a conceded goal.
Schuerrle had a better second season at Leverkusen and earned a transfer to Chelsea, where he appears to have caught the favor of Jose Mourinho. He's appeared in nine of the Blues' 11 competitive games this season, six times as a starter in what is a highly competitive squad. Mourinho is a fan of hard-working, athletic players, and his transformation of Khedira into an elite player bodes well for Schuerrle's future.
Any improvement Andre Schuerrle has made since Euro 2012 is, admittedly, debatable. The winger was in the form of his life in 2011-12, although his performance for country in the summer left plenty to be desired.
Podolski played for Koeln before the Euros and had never quite made a mark at a big club. He had a good season at Arsenal last year and began the current campaign quite well before suffering a hamstring injury that will keep him sidelined until November. He is at least in the right environment to thrive if healthy, and with Ozil in the same Gunners team he can expect to have plenty of chances to score.
The spring and summer of 2012 was a low point in the career of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who played through the pain barrier for months and missed the critical penalty as Bayern lost the Champions League final to Chelsea.
Schweinsteiger has still yet to recover from his ankle injury. Its aggravation recently sidelined him for two weeks and he has missed every international friendly since September of 2011. At the same time, Bayern's treble in May has made him a better player. Schweinsteiger was for years haunted by his missed chances. Now that he's crossed the finish line, he will be more comfortable in finals. Xavi won most of his major international titles after passing his prime. Maybe the same will be the case with Schweinsteiger.
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