Germany’s Joshua Kimmich must beware of Mario Gotze’s fall from grace
Bayern Munich players have had very different experiences at the tournament so far
Germany’s Joshua Kimmich battles with Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik in the side’s last-16 clash, which the world champions won 3-0. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images
A decade after that remarkable tussle in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and four years after the game at the same stage of Euro 2012 in Warsaw, Italy put their astonishing unbeaten record in competitive meetings with Germany on the line again in Bordeaux tonight.
The world champions will start as favourites; but after the way Antonio Conte engineered the defeats of Belgium and Spain, only just.
Both sides come into the game with momentum after good second-round wins and while Italy’s defeat of the defending champions carries more clout, Loew will be pleased with the way his side clinically dispatched Slovakia.
Germany have been improving over the course of the tournament, with the balance of the side improved by the introduction of Joshua Kimmich, who made his competitive debut against Northern Ireland at right back, as well as that of Mario Gomez for the out-of-sorts Mario Gotze.
Both changes provide evidence of Loew’s willingness to let his team evolve over the course of a tournament, as it did in Brazil, and Kimmich is another indication of the strength of Germany’s youth development system, not to mention the manager’s faith in young players.
Like the team’s left back, Jonas Hector, the 21-year-old had not played a top-flight game when his country was beating Argentina in the World Cup final two years ago. However, his progress since has been relentless, first at Red Bull Salzburg and then at Bayern Munich, where he became a particular favourite of Pep Guardiola last season.
In common with so many of the nation’s young stars, he is comfortable in several positions but he was regarded primarily as a midfielder, attacking or defensive, until an injury crisis at Bayern prompted the coach to play him at centre back. He excelled and despite a lack of height that makes him slightly vulnerable in the air, Guardiola was effusive, insisting after the scoreless draw with Borussia Dortmund in March that: “He has absolutely everything. I love this lad.”
Kimmich ended up starting 15 league games for the Bundesliga champions, featured in another eight and got some Champions League experience too in this first season, something that the club was undoubtedly quick to point out to 18-year-old Renato Sanches as they pinched the midfielder from under the noses of every other big European club a few months back.
Having been capped for the first time just before this tournament, Kimmich has taken to playing full back for the international side with almost staggering ease, looking assured whether he is looking to win the ball, as he does with particular effectiveness, or pressing forward at speed.
His promotion to the team, initially at the expense of Benedikt Howedes, means that just three outfield players – Liverpool’s Emre Can (22), Jonathan Tah of Bayern Leverkusen and Schalke’s Leroy Sané (both 20) – have not been used in France. But none will view the situation as hopeless with potentially three games still to go.
Kimmich might do well, though, to view the case of Gotze as a cautionary tale with the man who scored Germany’s winner at the Maracana now desperate to halt a slide in form and fortune that, after a terrible spell at Bayern Munich, now seems to have extended to the national team.
At just 24, Gotze has already played 55 times for his country, scoring 17 times, but his time at Bayern has gone from bad to worse. While the forward is reluctant to leave, his poor form in France, if it continues, will reinforce the impression that he needs a fresh start under a coach who believes in him.
A product of the Borussia Dortmund youth system, Gotze left in controversial circumstances in 2013 after Bayern triggered the €37 million release clause in his contract. The news came out two days before Dortmund were due to play Real Madrid in the Champions League and Jürgen Klopp made no secret of his anger at the timing. However, he insisted the move was inevitable because Gotze was a favourite of Guardiola and wanted to play for him.
In fact, it seems that Guardiola wanted the club to buy Neymar but the Bayern hierarchy – a string of high profile ex-internationals – preferred to maintain the German flavour to the team and all were admirers of a player who Matthias Sammer had previously described as “one of the greatest talents Germany has ever had”.
Some injury problems haven’t helped but it would be impossible to argue that Gotze has delivered on that sort of billing. He hasn’t helped himself by coming across as arrogant and aloof but it is still hard not to feel sorry for him after the way the club has dumped on him in recent times, with Guardiola repeatedly critical of him in public and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge observing earlier this year that: “We signed him as a big star. It would be nice if he played like one between now and the end of the season.”
He was to get few opportunities to do that and with Carlo Ancelotti having indicated that he is happy to let him leave, the club have declined to extend a contract that only has a year left to run and are actively trying to offload him.
This, as it happens, must all ring a few bells for Gomez who was through the Bayern ringer himself after a few spectacular season at Stuttgart made him a target for Die Roten back in 2009 when they paid over €30 million for him. As with Gotze, it was a record between Bundesliga clubs at the time.
He struggled to settle then got 28 goals in his second season but couldn’t quite convince on a sustained basis and after losing his place to Mario Mandzukic (who in turn lost it to Robert Lewandowski), he headed to Fiorentina in the summer of 2013 for €20 million.
More than 20,000 turned out there to see him unveiled but the move went poorly for both parties, with the striker embarking of on a downward spiral of missed chances and confidence lost.
Eventually he left on loan for Besiktas, where he promptly came good again, scoring 26 goals in 33 games in the season just ended and helping the Turkish side to a first league title in seven years.
Along the way, he earned an international recall and his goal in the friendly against England in March was his first in four years. The resurgence has continued, with the now 30-year-old scoring against Northern Ireland and Slovakia in the last two games. A physical presence up front, he has also freed up Thomas Müller to play his preferred roving role.
Gotze was dropped for the Slovakia game by a manager who repeatedly said he would keep faith with the player and he cannot be hugely optimistic about a recall against Italy. He will hope in the longer term that his own turnaround, if it comes, takes less time or travel to engineer.
As for the young lads, they can be forgiven just now for being incapable of believing that it might one day also go wrong for them.