When Germany star Marco Reus went down injured in last Friday's friendly with Armenia, the Mannschaft's supporters collectively gasped. Who would Joachim Low call up to replace the in-form forward? The DFB announced on Saturday that Sampdoria center-back Shkodran Mustafi would be the man to take Reus' spot.
The decision to bring Mustafi into the squad was a curious one and may well be remembered as a mistake, if not for the most obvious of reasons. Low was right to replace Reus with a defender, but he chose the wrong man. Marcel Schmelzer would have been a better choice.
To firstly address the criticism of not replacing the forward-minded Reus with another attacking option: There is no player who could possibly have served a role in Low's squad. The decision not to bring center-forwards Mario Gomez and Pierre-Michel Lasogga (both of whom were injured until recently) as well as winger Sidney Sam and attacking all-rounder Max Kruse was made weeks ago when Low announced his provisional squad for the World Cup.
The only attacking option Low could bring in is Kevin Volland, whom he cut from his provisional squad. But it's quite evident that the Hoffenheim man did not earn Low's trust. The 21-year-old is young and has no Champions League experience; he'd play behind Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze and Julian Draxler. Or, in other words, he wouldn't play.
Mustafi probably won't play either, given that Low has Per Mertesacker, Mats Hummels and Matthias Ginter as available center-backs even if Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes are used as full-backs.
Schmelzer, on the other hand, could have been useful. In Germany's most recent friendlies, Low has used Howedes and Erik Durm at left-back. Neither is experienced as a left-sided defender, let alone established as international class. The former is a natural center-back who in his early days filled in as a left-back in what amounted to a utility defender role under Felix Magath at Schalke. He's played at right-back for Germany in the past, with his positioning being disastrous more often than not. And after an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013-14 campaign, it would be bizarre for him to play out of position at the World Cup.
Durm is even less experienced than Howedes, having played as a forward for the Dortmund and Mainz reserve teams in prior to 2013-14 and served only as emergency cover for Schmelzer in the most recent campaign. He has a tremendous work rate and gave some heroic performances in the Champions League, but also showed his naivety on several occasions.
How a player will react to the pressure of playing at the World Cup is always difficult to predict, regardless of class shown at club level. Thomas Mueller, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil were instant heroes at the 2010 World Cup; Toni Kroos and Holger Badstuber failed to make much of an impression in South Africa or at Euro 2012. Schmelzer, like Durm and Howedes, is untested in major international tournaments.
However, it would have been wise for Low to recall the experienced, natural left-back Schmelzer to keep as an option in case Howedes and Durm struggle. The trainer has a record for shuffling his lineups during major tournaments: At Euro 2012 he removed Mario Gomez from the starting XI after the group stage and at the 2010 World Cup he put Boateng in at left-back after Badstuber disappointed. He may well find that Howedes and Durm just aren't prepared to make such a big change.
Low's decision to call up Mustafi was almost an admission that the 23rd man in his squad will play no role. And it's entirely possible that no matter who he called up, the trainer may not have given many chances to the player who replaced Reus. But having an experienced, natural left-back at his disposal could have been useful and Schmelzer would have fit the bill. Low has legitimate grievances about the fitness of his options in many positions, but if Germany struggle at left-back, he'll have only himself to blame.