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FEATURE | Robert Huth – forever under-appreciated by the German national team set-up?

Being a key player in a mid-table team in any of the big European Leagues should not be enough to earn a place in the German national team, especially given that they are currently the World Cup holders. However, what happens when this player’s team goes on to sensationally win one of the best leagues in the world? What happens with his international career when he is one of the main reasons behind their dramatic triumph?

Robert Huth has had an honourable career. Starting out at his local club before joining Union Berlin’s youth side as a 16-year-old, Huth impressed coaches before joining Chelsea’s youth team in 2001. At Chelsea, he was going to experience the dramatic ups and the downs of professional football.

At 17, Huth made his professional debut for Chelsea in the Premier League in an away defeat at Aston Villa but from a young age, he already showed great promise and his height, together with his strength, made him an intimidating opponent to face.

Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea manager at the time, might have considered his debuting of Huth to have been a gesture of mere trust on his part, to show the German that the club and he believed in him, but something special went on to develop between them, a mutual understanding that would end in a Premier League title 14 years later.

Huth found playing time hard to come by in London, given the form of John Terry and William Gallas, and so the German looked for a new venture. In 2006, he found a destination where he must have considered the grass to be greener, as he joined Middlesbrough as a 22-year-old for £6m. After three years on Teesside, Huth swapped the Riverside for Stoke City where he played football for nearly double that amount of time, making 149 Premier League appearances for the Potters.

A move to Leicester City beckoned through an initial loan deal in 2015, a move that was quickly transformed into a permanent one following a string of impressive performances under Nigel Pearson. Leicester would represent Huth’s last real stint in the Premier League and one might assume that he would have been happy with limited playing time. Instead, he won the Premier League.

Ranieri joined the club after the sacking of Pearson following a topsy-turvy first year in the Premier League. Many had questioned the appointment, given that the Italian had failed catastrophically as the Greek national team coach after stints in Italy and France. His time at Chelsea had been mediocre, but the scepticism around him went away when he won his first league game at home against Sunderland.

His Foxes side put four goals past Sunderland on the opening day to get Leicester’s season underway with a bang. Many would claim the rest is history. Ranieri’s Leicester City would go on to lift the Premier League title in May 2016, an unfathomable triumph that became reality as captain Wes Morgan sent shivers down global football fan spines when he lifted the trophy.

Huth had in many ways become a forgotten asset, a player many Germans simply left out of national team discussions. Although not even close to being in contention for die Mannschaft this summer both owing to his performance levels and stature, he certainly should have been a few years ago. Huth in the past has been ruled out of contention almost arbitrarily because on the premise that a footballer for a mid-table club in England will not be an option for one of the best national teams in the world, even though he had earned a chance.

Ranieri’s tactical set-up during Leicester City’s title-winning season ensured that Huth’s role was simple: to perform consistently as a rudimentary, no-nonsense defender. With a very competent colleague in Morgan and with N’Golo Kanté in front of him, one of the best defensive midfielders the Premier League has seen, Huth had all the components required to execute this role successfully. While Huth possesses a decent range of passing, his strengths lie in combat-like defending and this was where Ranieri made him focus. Going on form, he should have been considered for Germany’s Euro 2016 squad, but why was he not?

Joachim Löw is known for his pragmatism and flexibility. He tweaks his tactical set-ups to fit the players at his disposal, rather than forcing individuals into a pre-determined set-up, which is one of the many reasons for his immense success as the coach of die Mannschaft.

However, to be able to play a flexible and pragmatic game, Löw craves versatile and flexible players. This is one of the reasons behind Jonas Hector’s inclusion this year, a player who has had a mediocre year at Cologne, but who is flexible and trusted by Löw’s staff.

Huth has 19 caps for Germany but clearly Löw just didn’t consider him to be good enough, but the consensus in Germany in 2016 was that Huth should have been included in the squad. After a sensational season as his, it seemed inevitable.

If winning the Premier League doesn’t send you to the European Championship, then what does? Many considered him to be a better choice than Shkodran Mustafi or Antonio Rüdiger. The simple explanation to the lack of Huth in Die Mannschaft in 2016 is largely down to Huth’s playing style.

At Leicester, he was protected by a system constructed to make him and Morgan, two rather limited defenders, play as simple football as possible. This would not have worked in Löw’s system as he craves defenders who can both fill in at other positions, but that also have the passing and technical abilities needed for the demanding role of a side that seeks to overload and play from the back.

The German national team under Löw has also become an excellent example of football nepotism and elitism. Löw only includes the absolute best or individuals that he trusts. Many great players have missed out on chances in his stint, Stefan Kiessling is one of these and Sandro Wagner another. He uses players that he has historically always been able to rely upon, thus creating bonds and building trust. However, this does also limit his adventurousness in terms of squad selection and this was also an essential reason for the shameful lack of Huth at the European Championship in France.

Simply put, the way Huth played won him the Premier League, but it lost him a place in the Germany squad at Euro 2016, a place that would otherwise likely been inevitable.

By Axel Falk.

 

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