The sale of Mats Hummels from Bayern Munich to Borussia Dortmund felt like a reasonably big deal in the summer. This was, after all, a 31-year-old defender moving between the two biggest clubs in Germany (for the third time) for the not insignificant fee of €38million.
But now, a few weeks into the seasons, it’s starting to look like the most significant move of the summer.
A few months ago, the deal was notable simply because Dortmund seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t written Hummels off. Bayern clearly believed they had better options in new signings Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, plus the vast 24-year-old Niklas Sule.
Equally, Joachim Loew decided he could do without Hummels, declaring in March that he would no longer be picked for the national team, along with Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller, on the basis that “this is the year for our new beginning.”
All of which is understandable: everyone wants to put their faith in youth and be proved right, to be the one that spotted and guided a brave new era. Equally, you ideally want to predict the moment just before a player’s value starts disappearing. But at the moment, it isn’t looking quite so smart.
Sule, the man who was supposed to – and indeed has, thus far – replace Hummels for both Bayern and the nationalmannschaft, has now been ruled out for the remainder of this season and next summer’s European Championships after banjaxing his cruciate ligaments during the 2-2 draw with Augsburg at the weekend.
“It’s a catastrophe for Bayern,” said Rafa Honigstein on the Totally Football Show this week. “Sule is supposed to be the boss, the guy who they can rely on and around whom their defence was supposed to be based after Hummels left. Suddenly selling Hummels doesn’t look that clever – maybe it didn’t look that clever to begin with – but now it’s been brought into sharp contrast.”
Sharp indeed. After their spending in the summer, Bayern have a few options to fill in for Sule, even if some of them aren’t ideal and have knock-on effects elsewhere in the team.
“Now you have to have Pavard and Hernandez, who both have issues of various kinds, having to play in the middle of that back four,” said Rafa, “which then puts Joshua Kimmich back to right-back, and also means they can’t give a breather to David Alaba on the left, who’s also been having issues. That Bayern defence on the whole looks very stretched.”
It’s perhaps more serious for Germany. Their options in the centre of defence were looking rather thin even before Sule was stricken, to the point that injury problems meant Emre Can was tried out at the back in their recent internationals. Loew has tried different combinations and systems, with Matthias Ginter usually the man to play alongside Sule in some form or another, but neither he nor Jonathan Tah have been entirely convincing. Antonio Rudiger might make a difference when he returns from a longer-term injury, but it all means there could be a rather humbling phone call ahead for Loew.
Nicklas Sule's injury is a catastrophe for Bayern. He is supposed to be the boss.
“He cannot buy the best French defenders to fill considerable gaps,” said Rafa. “I think he might just have to bite the bullet and come cap in hand to Hummels and say “All that stuff about you being out the team forever – I didn’t mean it like that. Come back!”
Meanwhile, the transfer is working out nicely for Dortmund. Hummels was brought back at least in part to provide experience and guidance for the younger members of their team, which he seems to have done pretty well. Lucien Favre’s side haven’t exactly been defensively watertight in recent weeks, but Hummels has played well and his teammates have been effusive in their praise of the centre-back.
“Hummels is a leader and has shown that from day one,” said Thomas Delaney earlier in the season. “Hummels is a leader, and the more leaders we have the better,” Axel Witsel told Kicker in August. “You could see right from the off his influence in training and in our friendly matches.”
“He would make any team stronger,” said Marco Reus, about a potential return to the national team. “But I’m unfortunately not in the position to decide that.” Julian Brandt concurred: “He has the level to be a leader on the national team and to help the team.”
We could go on. Things might ultimately work out for Germany and Bayern; Dortmund might fall away; Hummels’s influence could fade. But at the moment, for the impact he’s had both in presence and absence, Mats Hummels could be the most significant single player in Germany.
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