Football in Germany has come to be characterized as energetic and attack minded, executed by a dynamic generation of young players who have come through a decade long process of the nation’s revitalized and reformed youth system. The World Cup in South Africa brought to prominence such players as Mesut Özil, Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos while the league is filled with bright attacking prospects like Mario Götze, Lewis Holtby, Andre Schürrle and Marco Reus. They represent the new direction in German football, attacking players that are youthful, intelligent and technically skilled part of a high-energy offensive game plan.
The lingering stereotype of German football being defensive persists to this day though despite the attacking nature of its league and national team. The truth however is that Germany’s biggest deficiency in the past decade has been its’ porous defending. Next to the Dutch Eredivise, the Bundesliga on average has the highest goals per match ratio which is telling not only of its attacking nature but also the penetrable character of its defending. The same problem occurs at the national team level where coach Joachim Löw has failed to find a consistent center back pairing to compliment the rest of the team. Arne Friedrich is past his peak while Mertesacker is prone to lapses in concentration and does not fit the mold of a modern defender. Other players like Tasci and Westermann have been tried to no avail, which leaves the team susceptible to stagnation and vulnerable against the better strikers in world football.
Among this drought in Germany’s defensive options stands Mats Hummels, 22-year-old defender playing for Borrusia Dortmund. A former product of Bayern’s youth setup, Hummels made his loan deal to Dortmund permanent in 2009 and has since established himself as Germany’s best defender. As the son of a mother who was a football journalist and a father who himself was a professional footballer, Hummels seemed destined to play the beautiful game from an early age. Hummels joined Bayern at the age of 7 where he quickly moved up the ranks. Bayern’s reserve coach Herman Gerland made Hummels part of his team at the age of 17 in 2006 where he quickly established himself as a team regular. In December that year it was announced that Hummels would receive a professional contract. Soon after he was invited to the first team by Felix Magath in Bayern’s and played in a league match against Mainz and in the DFB Pokal semi final win against Schalke.
The following season (07/08), Hummels dealt with a spell of injuries as well as a new coach and competition from several veteran defenders. Instead of trusting Hummels with a role in the squad, Bayern decided to buy highly rated Brazilian prospect Breno and loan Hummels out to struggling Dortmund until June 2009 effectively immediately. Hummels played 16 matches for Dortmund in the second half that season, starting 9 and helping them reach the Cup final where he ironically lost to Bayern in extra time.
In the 2008/09-season Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp made Hummels his first choice defender alongside Neven Subotic, making it the youngest center back pairing in the Bundesliga. Hummels started every game when fit but suffered a season ending injury in January 2009 while participating in an indoor tournament. Despite missing the second half of the season Hummels was still ranked by Germany’s football publication Kicker as Dortmund’s highest rated player and helped them finish 6th in the table, their best finish since winning the league back in the 2001/2002 season. The team never lost a match in the league that season when Hummels played and only Schalke had a better defense than Dortmund.
Hummels’s career continued to flourish that summer as he took part in Germany’s successful U-21 Championship in Sweden. He played in only two matches during that tournament but they were the two most important, a cameo in semi final win against Italy and a full 90 minutes in the emphatic 4-0 win against England in the final, in which he was arguably the best performer on the pitch. In that match Hummels played in central midfield, a role that he also played when needed for Bayern’s reserves, which speaks of his versatility and ability to adapt when necessary. He can best be described as a defender with the skill set of a midfielder.
The 2009/10 season was the official breakthrough for Hummels and the year where he established himself as arguably the best defender in the league. Hummels played 35 matches for Dortmund that season and scored 5 goals, helping Dortmund finish 5th in the league and qualify for Europe the following year. Kicker again rated Hummels as one of the best defenders in the league and was included in their official team of the week 7 times, more than any other defender in the league. Kicker is renowned for their strict rating of players so it was no meek accomplishment for the young defender.
Hummels quickly became an integral part of Dortmund’s defense as well as the attacking style Klopp was instilling. What makes Hummels stand out above his peers is his technique and ability to join the attack and initiate plays out of the defense. When discussing Hummels, comparisons to Germany’s libero of old have been made and rightfully so. No other defender in the league joins the attack as much as Hummels does. His bursts forward and confidant link up have become a personal trademark. As a player he has developed into what can only be described as a modern heir to Germany’s long legacy of sweepers.
Halfway into the 2010/11 season Hummels has continued his progress and firmly established himself as the number one defender in the league. Kicker ranked him as the only player in the league worthy of the “international class” rank, putting him in a class of his own. Few players are a bigger goal threat on set pieces than Hummels. With a total of 17 headers on goal, Hummels is leading the league this season, tied only with striker Huntelaar. With the help of Hummels Dortmund have embarked on a record breaking league campaign with many touting them as champions as early as January.
Given the remarkable development of Hummels it is strange to find out that his first call up to the national team happened just last year in May in a friendly against Malta. While effectively integrating young attacking players into the national team, Löw has been rather timid in his shaping of Germany’s defense. If one weakness had to be picked in Germany’s game it is their frail and rather inconsistent defense going back several years now. The biggest obstacle for Loew is to find a defensive parallel to their offensive game. Only then can Germany begin to rival the likes of Spain, who have the most complete team in the world and are as secure defensively as they are in their attack. Hummels very much represents that transition and the answer to their defensive woes. As much as Spain and Barcelona are touted for their elegant attacking style it is bolstered by a sound defensive foundation that plays a big part in their gameplan and overall style.