Germany’s teen sensation Moukoko deserves place in World Cup squad full of surprises

ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae breaks down how the domestic league has built the foundation for Germany‘s World Cup squad, and he looks ahead to the round of fixtures that will close out the club calendar year.

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We had known for a while that Thursday would be decision day for Die Nationalmannschaft manager Hansi Flick, but there were always likely to be heartwarming stories for some and unwelcome surprises for others.

In attack, Germany have been searching for a top-echelon solution for several years, and Flick has decided to pick two in-form players at opposite ends of the age spectrum who weren’t necessarily on the radar a few months ago.

At 29, Niclas Fullkrug doesn’t cut the figure of a glamourous modern-day footballer, but has the knack in front of goal. It goes deeper than the 10 he has scored for Werder Bremen this season, with five of them coming in the final five minutes of matches, while three have been of the aerial variety. Fullkrug might have zero international experience but he is a seasoned pro, a line leader, a focal point and frankly the type of gritty old-time player Germany will need in certain situations at the World Cup.

Like Fullkrug, 17-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko was no sure bet to make the squad at the start of the season, but the Borussia Dortmund starlet has timed his form perfectly with a view to getting the nod from Flick. His sparkling brace in the 2-0 win over VfL Bochum last week boosted his cause and there have been other big Bundesliga moments, such as the late winner in the Revierderby and the crucial goal to haul Dortmund back into contention in the 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich.

Injuries in the past few days to Timo Werner and Lukas Nmecha helped solidify the judgement in their favour.

You would have to be a philistine to gloss over the inclusion of Mario Gotze, the man who etched his name in German football folklore with his goal to win the 2014 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro. Gotze has gone five years without playing for Germany, with health problems at the root of his initial absences.

A spell in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven lifted his confidence, but the summer move to Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt is what has really enlivened the 30-year-old. Frankfurt signed Gotze to help break down deep-sitting, defensive-minded opponents, and Flick noted his quality as well as his ability to play numerous games in quick succession this term and praised his great personality.

Clearly, Marco Reus would have been named in the squad had he been able to win his race against time on the fitness front. Reus has been the unluckiest high-profile German player of his generation, missing major tournaments in 2014, 2016, 2021 and now 2022.

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Flick also explained the Florian Wirtz situation clearly. The Bayer Leverkusen talent is only just back in training after missing most of the year with a torn ACL, and it will benefit him much more to remain with the Werkself and prepare for the January restart. A common-sense decision all around as it would have been an act of folly to rush him back.

Opinion is split over veteran defender Mats Hummels. The 33-year-old is enjoying a marvellous season at Dortmund but failed to make the cut. Flick outlined his reasons by saying the coaching staff generally believes in having an eye on the future. It’s worth bearing in mind Germany will host Euro 2024 and will be expected to be among the candidates to win it. Tournament experience for a younger player now could reap hefty dividends later.

Antonio Rudiger is the defensive chief, in Flick’s own words, and Germany have in Nico Schlotterbeck (Hummels’ BVB teammate) someone with pace as well as tenacity. Flick denied that Hummels’ tendency to offer forthright criticism on the back of poor team performances had anything to do with it. It’s a big call, but Hummels has lost pace and was set to be the fifth-choice central defender, and to have such a senior figure with such a lowly status makes little sense.

There is an array of other good options in that position, although Southampton‘s Armel Bella-Kotchap can be regarded as a surprise and likewise the inclusion of RB Leipzig‘s Lukas Klostermann, who hasn’t featured since matchday 1 due to injury. Klostermann’s versatility has been the decisive factor here as right-back remains a position of relative weakness for Germany. That Niklas Sule has recently played there for BVB could also be helpful.

There were no shocks on the goalkeeping front, with Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen joined by Frankfurt’s Kevin Trapp. Flick said, unlike other countries who have selected four keepers, he feels in this case three is sufficient.

If there’s one player who can be a wild card for Germany, it’s Dortmund’s Karim Adeyemi. His ability to cut on to his left foot from the right flank coupled with pace and finishing ability make him, in Flick’s words, a “weapon.”

Bayern’s Thomas Muller in his fourth World Cup will have a key role to play on and off the pitch, and although currently on the casualty list, Flick hopes to have him on board for the pre-tournament friendly against Oman. Minus Muller, Germany’s Rekordmeister Bayern eased to a 6-1 victory over Werder Bremen on Tuesday with Serge Gnabry the headline grabber, scoring a hat trick against one of his former clubs. Bayern are guaranteed to go into the Winterpause as table toppers, with Union Berlin twice losing their advantage against FC Augsburg and having to settle for a 2-2 draw.

Dortmund fell to a 2-0 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg and have now been overtaken on goal difference by in-form Leipzig, who defeated third-placed SC Freiburg 3-1. Frankfurt remain fourth after an attacking festival against TSG Hoffenheim with outstanding contributions from Gotze, Randal Kolo Muani and especially the irresistible Jesper Lindstrom.

The seemingly never-ending action will finally stop on Sunday after three more days of Bundesliga action. Flick must hope, above all, that every member of his 26-member squad avoids injury this weekend.

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