When Michael Ballack limped off the Wembley turf, kicked out of the FA Cup Final and World Cup by Portsmouth’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, thousands of German’s groaned in horror. The leader, midfield general and guiding force of a talented but inexperienced side was out and it appeared a mortal blow to the team’s chances in South Africa.
The suggestion that Bastian Schweinsteiger was the heir apparent to Ballack would have provoked laughter and incredulity from many Germans. The Bayern Munich player had been seen to be talented but temperamental and had a habit of disappearing in big games. He was often seduced by temptation off the field and could regularly be seen in clothing even the German public found bizarre. Schweini as he was unkindly known was good but unreliable.
At this World Cup however, in a new, deeper position Schweinsteiger has come into his own. Mesut Özil may be dominating the headlines due to his eye-catching displays in behind the German front three but Schweinsteiger is the team’s heartbeat.
With almost 80 caps to his name, few realise that Schweinsteiger is still only 25. He made his international debut in 2004 and performed superbly at that year’s European Championship in Portugal. From then on he has been an international regular, never lacking in confidence but sometimes struggling to add substance to show as an advanced playmaker.
It was Louis van Gaal, his coach at Bayern who decided to deploy Schweinsteiger in a deeper role. The player is well built, athletic and rarely shirks a physical challenge and soon became the fulcrum of the side that reached the Champions League Final in May. Van Gaal also altered Schweinsteiger’s off the field persona, instilling a discipline and focus in his new protégé that had previously been lacking.
For Germany the player’s influence has been similar if not more far reaching. In the 4-2-3-1 formation used by Joachim Löw he is pivotal to the balance of the side. Schweinsteiger does the defensive side of the game well enough, sweeping up in front of Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker. His anticipation and work rate has impressed many but he really comes into his own when the Germans take possession.
Every attacking move now seems flow through him. Schweinsteiger’s deeper starting position often means that when he takes possession there is space in front of him. The extra time this provides, combined with the excellent view of proceedings panning out in the final third allow him to showcase his full passing range and excellent vision.
The formation depends on movement. Miroslav Klose, the central striker looks to hold the ball up, bring others into play and lurk in and around the box looking to poach goals. Lukas Podolski on the left, Özil and Thomas Müller on the right buzz around him, interchanging and playing between the lines in search of space and goalscoring chances. Schweinsteiger sees this developing in front of him and throughout this tournament has invariably picked the right pass. He keeps the ball moving and rarely looks to force the killer ball, operating like a metronome at the centre of proceedings.
Schweinsteiger remains a goal threat too. He makes intelligent runs and offers a threat exacerbated by the fact that runs from deep are harder to track. His 21 international goals are a testament to the fact that he is an excellent finisher.
In the second round match with England, much was made of Gareth Barry’s inability to shackle Özil. As important was the freedom given to Schweinsteiger to launch counter attacks. His sumptuous lofted through ball put Özil in on goal early in the game only for the young playmaker to be denied by the legs of David James. His driving run and well timed pass then set up Müller for the crucial third goal. The move began with an England free kick deep in the German half.
Against Ghana he was tireless; working throughout to maintain possession and launch attacks in what was a far closer game. Similarly against Australia his control and reliability was such as to provoke a foul from Tim Cahill that earned the Everton midfield player a red card.
The change in Schweinsteiger has been truly remarkable. The bleach blonde hair and painted nails are gone in favour of a sleeker, more mature look. German newspaper Bild has since referred to him as “the boss”. Schweinsteiger once famously featured in an advert for a dairy firm in which he impersonated a chicken. At this World Cup he has finally become the fox. He has been the outstanding deep lying midfield player in this tournament.
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