When Bayern Munich hit their midseason blues, manager Julian Nagelsmann dialed back the complexity — with marvelous results. Asking players to focus on one set role paid dividends for the likes of Sadio Mané and Leroy Sané, even if both were shifted from their usual locations at the start of the season.
Simplification may be one of the keys forward for Germany manager Hansi Flick. And he has another problem: Germany are overloaded with attacking midfield talent, but have lacked a proper striker for years. Fortunately, in Chelsea FC’s Kai Havertz, he has the chance to address both. It’s not quite two birds with one stone, but it might be as close as he can get.
Germany’s creative wide forwards and attacking midfield roster is seriously stacked. There’s Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala, Leroy Sané and Serge Gnabry, Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt and Karim Adeyemi, Gladbach’s Jonas Hofmann, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Mario Götze...the list might go on. RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner probably fits best here, making runs off the left wing. Havertz himself can be included, too, and attacking midfield is probably where he can offer the most.
But Havertz showed — particularly against Costa Rica — that he has some serious goal-scoring chops of his own. His second-half brace as a substitute clawed the game back for Germany to give them a chance at advancing, and he was frequently occupying (or charging into) the central forward spaces in the box alongside Niclas Füllkrug.
Füllkrug is new to the Germany setup, and there may be a spot for him still. In international football especially, the 4-4-2 might be making something of a comeback, and his assist for Havertz was every bit the delightful jogo bonito that marked Tottenham Hotspur forward Richarlison’s third goal for Brazil against the Republic of Korea. He should at least be able to mentor this side of Havertz’s game, which is reaching a crossroads at club level as well.
We should remember Germany’s recent history, too. While Füllkrug has had a good run, so too did Kevin Volland for AS Monaco for a time, and Lukas Nmecha for VfL Wolfsburg — names that faded really fast. Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko is the next big hope, but it’s far from clear where his footballing fortunes will take him in the coming season. Maybe he explodes onto the scene next season and Füllkrug continues his run — or maybe not. Flick can’t bank on that and wait for several international camps from now to start from scratch if it doesn’t pan out.
Havertz has the height and at least a developing sense of where and when to make the runs. If he won’t ever be a prototypical nine on his own, he might be the closest thing to it Germany can get in the next eighteen months while also preserving Flick’s preferred style of high-pressing and intricate teamwork in the final third.
Germany’s squad forced Flick into compromises at every corner, and that cost them in this tournament. It’s also a reality that won’t likely fade away any time soon. A clear, early commitment to one set of compromises — if it can answer the big striker question that has been looming over the team for years — might help them navigate the next one better.
Whatever Havertz’s club role may be, let’s see him get a clear one in the national team for the foreseeable future — at center-forward. And let’s let Flick build the German renewal from there.