Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany reacts during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between Germany and Greece at The Municipal Stadium in Gdansk, Poland. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Germany's best player spent the entirety of Euro 2012 playing on an ankle injury. Should it be a surprise, then, that they fell at the first serious hurdle? Follow @SBNationSoccer
If it seemed like there were more blue shirts than white in the center of the National Stadium pitch, that's because there were. It shouldn't have mattered. Nobody has any real doubts about the quality that the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio bring to the table, but the simple fact of the matter is that Germany should be about to do more than Italy with less, thanks to a more dynamic set of midfielders.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira can do it all. They're capable of covering more ground than their Italian counterparts, they're better at winning the ball and they don't give up much in the way of creativity either. Add in Toni Kroos, no slouch himself, and you have a midfield trio that should have been expected to hold the Italy center in something resembling check. They did no such thing in Warsaw, and that's the main reason Italy are in the final while Germany are heading home.
The German double pivot of Khedira and Schweinsteiger contains, in theory, one world-class player. That would be Khedira, who starts in central midfield for Real Madrid. Calling Schweinsteiger a mere world-class player is an insult, because Schweinsteiger at his best is something closer to a heavenly force than a footballer. With Michael Essien fading away into anonymity, the Bayern Munich dynamo is without a doubt in a class of his own at the top of the box-to-box midfield pile.
This is the same player who was rendered utterly anonymous by an Italy midfield that's good, but not spectacular. So what gives? It's pretty simple, really. Schweinsteiger played hurt for much of last season, and continued to play hurt at the Euros. A healthy Schweinsteiger would have enabled Germany to close down the center. Instead, they got a ghost.
At the beginning of the season, Bayern Munich looked unstoppable in both domestic and European play. Midway through, they suddenly didn't. The turning point was a collarbone injury to Schweinsteiger, who was injured in a collision with Napoli's Gökhan Inler during a Champions League match in early November. Without their best player, Bayern looked like a shell of themselves, and Toni Kroos dropping into the midfield didn't make up for their loss.
With Borussia Dortmund overhauling them in the league, Bayern needed Schweinsteiger back as soon as possible. He recovered from his collarbone problem but then almost immediately picked up a nagging ankle injury, one not quite severe enough to force him to sit out but sufficiently troublesome to slow him down significantly. It didn't matter -- his team needed him, so he played anyway.
As the season drew to a close, Schweinsteiger was forced to play hurt and it showed. There were flashes of the greatness we're used to, but his play was massively inconsistent, a major part of Bayern's status as runners up in all three trophies they pursued last season.
Schweinsteiger was never given a chance to heal because Jupp Heynckes had no choice but to play him. The German national team, however, is a different story. This is a side whose depth is the envy of more or less everyone on the planet. Spain might be the more talented team on paper, but it's Germany who have the most options available to them. Schweinsteiger's their best player, and he gives them their best chance of winning, but only when he's actually capable of playing, and his ankle was still bothering him throughout the tournament.
Joachim Löw had plenty of non-Schweinsteiger options at his disposal. Dortmund's Ilkay Gündogan would have been perfectly comfortable in the pivot, as would Bayer Leverkusen's Lars Bender. Toni Kroos could have filled in alongside Khedira in a pinch as well. Only Kroos got any time there in friendlies.
It was painfully obvious that Schweinsteiger, save for the Netherlands match, was nowhere near his best in the group stages, and things got no better in the knockout stages. He was poor against Greece and his atrocious performance against Italy gave the underdogs an opening in the middle of the pitch, one which they exploited ruthlessly.
Khedira did a wonderful job in covering for him against weaker opposition, really showing his class over Germany's five matches. But once the Schweinsteiger-Khedira pivot came up against a midfield containing multiple genuine threats, it became impossible for the Real Madrid man to do everything on his own. That told.
The loss, of course, was more than just about Schweinsteiger. It took a miserable performance from the entire back line for Italy to turn their midfield control into a Mario Balotelli brace, and some poor composure in front of goal hardly helped the German cause either. But it's telling that the player who on paper is the most suited to blow up the soft underbelly of the Italy side was a) completely ineffective and b) predictably so.
Löw owes much of his reputation to the performance of his side at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and his adherence to Schweinsteiger despite a run of performance that was both poor and totally explainable is at least party to do with his loyalty to the players who were instrumental to that run. It might not even be the most egregious example, because Lukas Podolski continues to get starts, but it's certainly a damaging one to both player and team.
It's not as though Germany (or Bayern Munich) were unaware that there was a problem here, either. Four days prior to the Italy match, here's what captain Philipp Lahm had to say about his side's iconic midfielder:
He has a problem and obviously it is best when no player has a problem. It is OK when you miss a training session but when you need to sit out several then it is not that easy.
He played anyway.
Ultimately, Germany are out at least in part because they refused to take risks and use their astonishing depth of talent to shore up their obvious weaknesses. It's far from clear whether they'd have beaten Italy with, say, Bender in the squad, but using him instead of a crocked version of Schweinsteiger would almost certainly have given them a better chance.
Let's hope that 'Schweini' gets enough rest over the summer to return to his usual, healthy self. A world without him as a top footballer isn't really one I'm thrilled about living in.