Bundesliga expert Susie Schaaf looks at the contrasting fortunes of Germany’s World Cup-winning centre-back pairing and reveals how Jérôme Boateng has stolen a march on Mats Hummels in the race to be recognised as the best central defender around.
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Germany’s two brightest central defenders, Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, seemed to play one-upmanship against each other at Brazil’s 2014 World Cup. Either were perfectly capable of winning Man of the Match plaudits on different occasions as the DFB stormed their way to their fourth trophy, but their divergent paths, pre and post Brazilian glory, present a puzzle.
Both led comfortable upbringings – Boateng in Berlin with his father (apart from half-brother KevinPrince, who lived in a less affluent section of the city with his mother) and Hummels in Munich under the guidance of his father, Hermann, a youth coach for Bayern Munich. The pair started their football careers at the age of six (Hummels with Bayern and Boateng with Borussia Tennis Berlin) but took drastically different paths to get to their present clubs.
Hummels was assumedly a Bayern lifer, spending nine years with the youth set-up and a few with the Amateuere side, before getting his one senior team appearance in Die Roten’s 2007’s final match against Mainz 05. He would go out to Borussia Dortmund in January, 2008, on loan, but was immediately included in regular action by coach Jürgen Klopp and never looked back.
Boateng’s path to present club Bayern took a bit of a circuitous route. He joined Hertha Berlin as a youth before spending one year with the senior team, but after an unwillingness to sign a long contract with BSC he moved to Hamburger SV. With his size and raw skill, the Premier League soon came calling, and with it a disastrous year at Manchester City. A bizarre aeroplane drinks-cart accident in pre-season, and then Roberto Mancini’s insistence on playing him as a wing-back, pushed him to Bayern and Jupp Heynckes in the 2011-12 season.
Boateng was finally in his preferred position at centre-back, while Hummels’ reputation was skyrocketing with the black-and-yellows. His partnership with Neven Subotić allowed him to get forward; and he was involved in the build-up of play to devastating effect as Dortmund won two straight Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012.
The 2013 season would finally see Boateng start to steal a little thunder from Hummels as Bayern mauled the Bundesliga, and the Champions League, on their way to a treble. His partnership with Dante worked magic at the back as he coupled his physical attributes with ever smarter decision-making and positioning.
In the 2014-15 season the paths of Boateng and Hummels would begin to diverge as Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund – much like Pep Guardiola’s Bayern – suffered a massive injury crisis that was unrecoverable in the Hinrunde (first half) for Borussia. With no real ‘Plan B’ for Klopp, his players were tired and prone to many individual mistakes that cost matches, Hummels definitely included.
Meanwhile, in Munich, Guardiola’s singled-out tutelage of Boateng would begin to pay real dividends as gradually the whole package came together. His speed and size were now also complemented by a calmer demeanour and a surprisingly accurate long-passing game going forward.
Though Dortmund got their act together to make the European places in the second half of last season, team captain Hummels has failed to get over his mental yips this year – scoring an own-goal versus Hamburg and giving up a penalty against Krasnodar in the Europa League.
Offensively, Bayern and Dortmund are quite evenly matched. Indeed Dortmund would be winning every other league in Europe with the points they have accrued so far… but their defence is letting them down, giving up 20 league goals compared to Bayern’s paltry eight. As captain of the team and leader of the backline, Hummels has had a lot to answer for. But has had nothing really constructive to say, instead going on the defensive on Twitter after getting pummelled for those two aforementioned mistakes: “It is enough with this exaggerated critique,” he wrote. “Unbelievable what there is to expect! Totally unrealistic.”
Boateng and Hummels are also quite evenly matched as far as skillsets go: tall, strong and with a nose for getting forward, with both averaging around a 70% successful tackle rate. One wonders why the results, then, are so different. Perhaps this season can be partly attributed to Subotić’s injuries: when Hummels ventures forward without the cover of a bruiser like Subotić behind him, the defence is put on their heels and more goals are conceded.
One has the idea that Mats Hummels will eventually sort himself out – he’s too talented not to – but for now Germany and Europe’s most talented centre-back is, without a doubt, Jérôme Boateng.
Read more from Susie here!