FEATURE | Where are Hansi Flick’s Germany six months out from the 2022 World Cup?

With the domestic season having once more flashed before our eyes, the familiar end of season sadness tinged with despair instantaneously hits us all. Bayern Munich were once again expectedly crowned champions – a seemingly never-ending recrudescence, RB Leipzig lifted their first ever DFB Pokal, whilst clubs like Union Berlin, SC Freiburg, and FC Köln stupefied us all and qualified for Europe.

Though despite the curtain being drawn on another fine season in Germany, we are not finished just yet. Attention must turn to a June packed full of international fixtures, with the Nations League providing us with a final flurry. Four games for Die Nationalmannschaft stand between us and a long-awaited summer holiday.

Only six months persist before the first ball of the contentious Qatar World Cup is kicked, and nations are quickly running out of time to get things right. Perhaps in no nation is this better encapsulated than Germany, who have drastically improved under new coach Hansi Flick since the disappointing Euro 2020 campaign, though fears linger that the tournament will arrive just a little too soon.

Though this represents no reason to fret. In Flick’s nine games in charge to date, Germany remain unbeaten. Eight wins, and one draw – last time out away at the Netherlands. Things appear satisfactory. Though it cannot be refuted that the previous eight wins that saw Germany routinely qualify for this year’s winter tournament, simply did not provide the real test of calibre they were so eagerly searching for. Wins against the likes of Armenia, Liechtenstein and Israel are all to be expected, particularly for a nation that boasts four World Cups, and three European Championships.

Yet, the perfect summer has transpired for Flick and his men, in terms of pitting themselves against the best, and seeing where they’re really at. “This sort of tournament is just what we need,” elucidated Flick. “Recently we’ve played against teams who are not in the top ten [of the FIFA rankings] but now we come up against teams with real quality. If we manage to win our group, we’ll be happy. That’s our goal,” added the Germany head coach.

The upcoming Nations League campaign gives Germany the opportunity to play the two Euro finalists in Italy and England, as well as offering a potentially tricky task against Hungary in what is sure to be a belligerent Budapest atmosphere.

Remarkably though, perhaps of the teams that make up Germany’s daunting Nations League group, it may actually be they themselves who have improved the most since the Euro 2020 campaign. Whilst it’s true that for winners Italy and runners-up England there simply wasn’t as much room for noticeable amelioration, Italy have since failed to qualify for this winter’s World Cup following an unanticipated play-off defeat to North Macedonia, whilst Flick’s masterful coaching and tactics have certainly propelled Germany closer towards England’s level.

Germany will begin their campaign with a trip to Bologna on the June 4, before hosting England in Munich just three days later with the Germans certainly hoping to avoid the ignominious 5-1 home defeat the last time the teams met in that particular city. Germany then make the trip down south to the Danube to face Hungary on the June 11, before finishing the summer playing host to Italy in Mönchengladbach on the June 14. A tight schedule, though a nonetheless incredibly important set of fixtures in preparation for what’s to come.

During Flick’s nine games at the wheel, the former Bayern head coach has fluctuated between systems, often deploying a back three, although most recently switched to a back four in what was the most examining fixture of his tenure thus far in Amsterdam. Perhaps a back three would provide Germany with their best-balanced eleven, particularly given the boundless number of suitable options currently in the squad, with the likes of Nico Schlotterbeck, Matthias Ginter and Antonio Rüdiger – with the latter having just signed for Real Madrid – supplying Flick with pleasurable choice. Jonathan Tah, Thilo Kehrer and Niklas Süle remain unconvincing at the highest level and Schlotterbeck must now be considered the future of the German backline, particularly if Flick opts for a back four.

And who will slot in alongside Joshua Kimmich in a midfield two? So far, Flick’s tested Leon Goretzka, Florian Neuhaus and Ilkay Gündoğan in that position, with all three providing tantalising options. Even Jamal Musiala has been tried from a deeper midfield position, though his international future surely lies in a more attacking position behind the striker, perhaps competing with Florian Wirtz for a starting place – though the latter misses this round of international fixtures through injury.

Centre-forward has persisted as an issue for the German national team, and to this day it does not appear to have been solved. Once again, Flick has predominantly opted for Timo Werner, but has Kai Havertz’s recent Chelsea form catapulted him into pole position? A fine goalscoring record, combined with sublime link-up play would perhaps suggest so. Or is Serge Gnabry the man? Although a fine option on the wing, Gnabry perhaps lacks a bit of pace, as well as not being the most clean, fluent dribbler. His off-ball movement and his finishing are notably his strengths, with his low centre of gravity perhaps making him the perfect centre-forward option. However, all of this implies that Flick will be looking to establish a sense of his first choice eleven, instead of continuing to experiment.

Though despite not being regarded as anywhere near the best in the world at this current stage, Flick gives Germany a chance. Whilst the squad is not brimming with world-class depth in every position, it nonetheless appears strong. We’ve seen before that a good squad with a world-class coach is preferable to having a top-class squad with an under-par coach, and so with that, Germany lie in a promising position.

Conte’s Italy immediately springs to mind as an example of a top coach extracting 150% from the squad at his disposal, though it must be distinguished that this particular Italy squad was far worse than what Germany currently possess. Flick boasts an incredible CV, particularly in recent times. Flick won UEFA Men’s Coach of the Year in 2020 after winning it all with Bayern Munich – with the Champions League, Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup delivering one of the all-time great seasons in club football history.

Flick was also Germany’s assistant coach during the victorious 2014 World Cup campaign, the third place finish in 2010, as well as the Euro 2008 and 2012 campaigns where Germany reached the final and semi-final. This was an extraordinary period for German football, with a level of meritorious consistency any other nation would be truly jealous of. Yet this begs the question, was Flick the mastermind behind it all? That’s not to dismiss Joachim Löw and the incredible work he undertook, though things did vastly deteriorate with the Nationalmannschaft when Flick departed, whilst the quality seems to have drastically augmented once again now that he’s back at the helm. A case can certainly be made for Germany exhibiting the best coach at the tournament in Qatar, and for that, Germany must be considered contenders, particularly given the erratic nature of a tournament, even if they are not the best team.

With the latest Nations League campaign promptly descending upon us, what will mark perceptible success for Flick’s team? Germany probably need to beat both Italy and England at least once, in order to really continue the so-far undeviating journey into genuine World Cup contenders.

Otherwise, perhaps they’ll be perceived as just a solid side, albeit one without the cutting edge. But perhaps that’s ok. Maybe that’s where Germany simply are at the moment. Though regardless of how it all unfolds, discernible improvements have been made transparent under Flick’s stewardship, and in a few weeks’ time, we’ll know where they truly lie.

James Westmacott

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