Mats Hummels – The unsung hero of German football

by Cristian Nyari

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.

14 Responses

  1. Richard Chambers says:

    Lovely post, Cristian.

    I’m a huge fan of Hummels, his obvious skills with the ball at his feet and the tremendous partnership he has developed with Subotic.

    How do you feel Dortmund will measure up in the Champions League next season (presuming they make it of course)?

  2. Great writing Cris !!!

  3. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

    Thank you guys.

    Richard, I think if Klopp keeps his players grounded and builds on what he has done so far they could do very well. Of course it depends on outside factors such as the draw, injuries, etc.

    He also needs to hold on to the core players in the summer. Many clubs are after Subotic and Barrios and whether he can hold on to them will be decisive in the progression of this team.

  4. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

    I invite everyone to watch the highlights from Dortmund’s win against Wolfsburg today to get a clearer picture of what Hummels is about.

    Focus particularly on the second goal which started when Hummels confidently dribbled the ball to the halfway line where he made a defense splitting pass to the right that led directly to the goal.

    The finally goal shows his smart positioning on set plays.

    http://www.101greatgoals.com/videodisplay/wolfsburg-borussia-dortmund-8337447/

  5. Anne says:

    Excellent article. As a devotee of the German NT, I am very excited about Hummels coming through. I think Jogi recognizes what a shining light he has in the young CB, so it seems likely he’ll be a frequent if not permanent fixture over the course of 2011, leading nicely into the EURO.

    As a Bayern fan, I can’t help but shake my head – Breno has been a disappointment, and has been riding the bench more often than not, with a NON-DEFENDER starting in his place. Oy vey. That said, Hummels-Subotic and the whole of Dortmund is a delight to watch, so I can’t be too cranky about it.

    Who do you envision linking up with Hummels in Germany’s defense? He’s certainly a good start, but there are three other elements to the puzzle! Lahm is a no-brainer – what an excellent fullback, it would be nice to see him complemented by excellent center backs. At CB… I don’t know if I’d say Friedrich is really over the hill yet. He’s single-handedly tightened up Wolfsburg’s defense immediately after returning from injury. I think a Friedrich-Hummels pairing could work quite well. Badstuber, maybe? Seems an awful young duo to rest the national team on. As for LB, I think Schmelzer seems a shoo-in if he continues to put in good performances on the bigger stage, and he obviously already works well with Hummels. I’m curious to hear your thoughts though.

    1. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

      Thanks for the kind words Anne. I always wondered why it took Loew so long to call him up. I fully expect him to start against Italy next week and keep his place from here on out.

      I still shake my head when I think back to the day they made his loan at Dortmund permanent. I always thought that was one of the biggest mistakes Bayern made. At that point they could have used a versatile player like him. I have a feeling that things will come full circle though and he’ll be back, unless Uli. and Co. are too stubborn to admit their mistake.

      As for his potential partner for the NT, I think either Boateng or Hoewedes would compliment him well. They have the experience they shared at the youth level and Hummels is best buddies with Hoewedes. Until Loew trusts them enough for that Friedrich is a good stop gap. Lahm is a no brainer and at LB it will probably be an alternation between Schmelzer and Boateng, both of whom are good enough to get the job done.

      The real change I think has to happen in Podolski’s position. Despite his great record with the NT I don’t think he quite fits the system and the upcoming group of young players.

  6. Lars says:

    “what can only be described as a modern heir to Germany’s long legacy of sweepers.”

    Enthusiasm clouded the analysis for a second there.

    It can be described less hyperbolically (that is, with less essentialism). . . he is a great player.

    1. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Hummels is the reincarnation of Beckenbauer. However, in this age of superlatives I’m simply using history as a reference and yardstick to describe a certain kind of player, one who is actually lacking in German football.

      Pique is constantly compared to the libero of old and for the right reasons.

  7. leroyred says:

    Pretty impressive and educative reading this article is for me i daresay. I am grateful for the enlightenment on this talent and i will start to look out for him henceforth. I have not givrn the bundesliga much attention of late until i saw the young assemblage of players at Dortmund and the stand out man for me was Mario Goetze in the match against Leverkeusen. I will be on the look out for him. Thanks again..

    1. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Goetze is on his way to becoming another Oezil in my opinion. Something very special about the boy.

      If you watch Dortmund, keep an eye on the halfway line. You should spot Hummels there sooner or later. :D

  8. Cristian Nyari Cristian Nyari says:

    Today’s game against Italy was yet another example of the glaring weaknesses in Germany’s defensive game. Mertesacker and Badstuber both looked slow and out of sorts.

    Cassano had a field day playing between the lines with both defenders failing to step up and check him. Hummels unfortunately was snubbed again and came on in the second half.

    Hopefully Loew realizes this sooner rather than later.

  9. reklamedame says:

    Thank you for this great review.

    I think Hummels is still way underestimated. Critics often complain about his high passes to the front, because Joachim Löw clearly does not want them. But today (in the German championship game) he showed again, that this strategy works very well. The second goal against Nürnberg was 90% Hummels achievement.

    He is a great defender and should be on the German national team for sure.

    And (here is the girl comment – even though I’m a sports journalist) – He’s just gorgeous and therefore he should be on TV more often! ;-)

    reklamedame

    1. Cristian Nyari Cris says:

      Yea, his build up play and passing from the back is truly outstanding and puts him above his peers. You can argue that he has been the best player in the Bundesliga this season.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply