As Germany’s enduring centre-forward struggle threatens to reach its finale, who will lead the line in the nation’s Qatari quest for glory?
Amidst the seemingly never-ending wrangle of Germany’s disputed number-nine position, an interesting apotheosis has surprisingly been reached. With the latest chapter suddenly sprung upon us with the news that the tried and tested Timo Werner is to miss this winter’s World Cup with an ankle injury, the contentious spot in the Germany eleven is up for grabs once more.
Though whilst heartfelt sympathies must go out to a man who will undoubtedly be heartbroken as his opportunity to represent his country on the greatest stage goes amiss, Werner’s untimely injury has inadvertently opened the door to several other possible candidates. Regrettably for the RB Leipzig talisman, candidates who are probably preferable, and those who represent longer-term fits to finally put an end to the ceaseless quarrel.
Youssoufa Moukoko and Niclas Füllkrug certainly appear the outstanding beneficiaries of Werner’s misfortune, with head coach Hansi Flick calling upon the services of the painfully inexperienced pair. Karim Adeyemi, Serge Gnabry, and Kai Havertz were also named in the travelling party heading forth to Qatar, thus providing Flick with additional options for the number-nine role, should Flick opt for a sense of wisdom, or if unfortunate injuries abruptly manifest.
Moukoko’s frightening juvenility and obvious international inexperience doubtlessly poses an enormous risk. But it is he who stylistically provides the most appropriate fit to this Germany team. Timo Werner has been relied upon time and time again for his technical ability, sharp movement, and sublime link-up play, with young Moukoko offering all of the above and more. Moukoko has shown on a number of occasions for his club Borussia Dortmund that he is capable of acting as the fulcrum of the side, the lynchpin of collective attacking plays, as well as having displayed an excellent passing range and goalscoring ability.
The 17-year-old is also hugely adept within the realm of pressing, having shown an in-depth understanding of pressing triggers, when to drop deep, and when to hurtle into the box. Last month’s Der Klassiker, when Dortmund came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with habitual Bundesliga winners Bayern, bestowed Moukoko’s greatest audition yet – one that he overcame with commanding superiority. The youngster was up against Matthijs de Ligt and Dayot Upamecano that day as his hold-up play, first-touch, movement, and general sense of fearlessness dazzled truly top-class opposition.
Caveats must of course be applied though, particularly with Moukoko’s delivery of genuinely high-calibre performances only realistically fleeting at best. But can we really expect anything more from a player who is not yet an adult?
A mightily impressive skillset is clearly there, and in international football, where the games are slower and the defences frailer, Moukoko might just be the man Germany need to lead the line. Worries inevitably persist over the potential exposure of a player so clearly still in the midst of his development to the daunting standard of a World Cup, though with age firmly on his side, Moukoko can learn heaps from this tournament – something that will prove immensely valuable to Germany particularly as Moukoko represents the national team’s most promising long-term option. Whisper it quietly, but the supposedly interminable number-nine debate may finally be reaching its long overdue denouement.
Having only just returned to Germany’s top-flight this season after an utterly devastating 2. Bundesliga campaign, Füllkrug’s recent club form has catapulted him into the national team, with his 10 goals in 14 appearances evidently leaving an impression on Flick’s mind. Unquestionably helped by his nation’s distinct lack of depth in the centre-forward position, Füllkrug rapidly emerged as the leading candidate to dispel the ghosts of Germany’s great number-nines of old.
Due to Füllkrug’s substantial and bulky figure, comparisons are naturally drawn up with the likes of Mario Gómez and Miroslav Klose, two out-and-out strikers who provided Germany with important goals as well as the glue that facilitated the flourishing of others.
That will probably be Füllkrug’s most useful asset and his greatest offer to this team – a target-man-like centre-forward who can hold the ball up well and prod home teasing crosses. Though Flick will presumably prefer a more in-the-box striker à la Moukoko, with the youngster’s far superior technical quality nudging him ahead in the pecking order.
Füllkrug has so-far recorded a pass completion rate of 61.4% in this season’s Bundesliga, with the Bremen striker also ranking a lowly 18th out of 25 in terms of touches in the opposition’s box amongst the league’s forward-men. Whilst similarly lacking in experience at international level, Füllkrug is at least not still a teenager. The Werder marksmen can therefore still offer a wealth of domestic experience to the group, with his inclusion in the squad totally deserved.
Though Flick may in fact remain blighted by apprehension when it comes to selecting either of the two aforementioned players, as their inexperience at this level is stark. To make matters worse for Moukoko and Füllkrug, Havertz, Gnabry, and Adeyemi not only all have a vast array of experience at international level generally, but have also on occasion been deployed as Germany’s number-nine more specifically.
It should therefore come as no surprise if Flick opts for one of the latter three names to lead the line into their World Cup campaign. Havertz’s supreme technical ability and exquisite link-up play makes him a decent candidate, whilst Gnabry’s dribbling inefficiencies and lack of pace would suitably be covered up in the centre-forward role with his off-ball movement and finishing strengths simultaneously being given license to sparkle. Adeyemi is also an effective presser, who also retains the in-box technical quality to knit together and finish off attacks.
But the reality remains that neither of those three are best suited to the number-nine role for Germany. After all, what is the point of taking two genuine centre-forwards if neither of them are going to play? Gnabry must surely play as the right-sided attacker in Flick’s system, having explosively burst back onto the scene in timely fashion, tearing it up for his Bayern side, with his elite output in terms of goals, assists, finishing qualities and crossing abilities making him an important member of the team.
Havertz and Adeyemi on the other hand, have entirely fizzled out in recent times, with Havertz’s Chelsea having crumbled, and Adeyemi’s Dortmund struggling for form. Both players would be effective bench players though, with Adeyemi’s directness and bundling energy making him the perfect impact-sub. Havertz’s elevation of form whenever he dons a Germany shirt means he remains a crucial member of this team, and although he may well start for Flick, his services are probably best offered from the bench. Moukoko and Füllkrug should therefore be the explicit choices for the number-nine position, largely because (to point out the obvious) they are the squad’s actual centre-forwards.
A Germany front-four of Sané, Musiala, Gnabry, and Moukoko, in front of a midfield-two of Kimmich and Gündoğan, offers a starting frontline with the ability of overpowering opponents. Pace, creativity, technical quality, with goals and assists in abundance, that is a front-four that could take Germany far. Whether Flick will select it remains a fundamentally different matter however, and with a week to go, only time will tell if this Germany team will come of age and deliver a World Cup to remember.