At the close of the 2011-12 season, Mats Hummels' stock had never been higher. His Borussia Dortmund side had managed to retain their Bundesliga title at a canter, holding off European Cup runners-up Bayern Munich without really breaking a sweat. The attacking players got plenty of (deserved) love, but BVB were built on an incredibly solid core, with Hummels and centre back partner Neven Subotic at the heart of it.
Hummels' skillset sets him apart from the average centre half. He's as comfortable on the ball as off it, capable of pulling off mazy, dribbling runs and killer passes. He's also perfectly capable of stopping them. On his game, he's one of the top defenders in the world, and he's on his game most of the time. Add that to his creativity on the ball and you have one incredible player.
Dortmund know this, and made a huge statement of intent when they managed to convince him to stay at the club this summer. Hummels signed a extension that will keep him at BVB through the 2016/17 season. He's the most important of their players to have committed his future to the club, and keeping him around shows that Dortmund are intending to stay at this level for years to come.
There would have been no shortage of suitors for Hummels had he entered the marketplace. It would have taken a lot of convincing for BVB to sell, however -- we're talking Thiago Silva-esque prices here. €40M is certainly an exorbitant price to pay for a central defender, but it wouldn't have been out of the question for Hummels to have reached those giddy heights.
The stage was set, then, for Hummels to excel at the Euros. With Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng far less capable than he, the 23-year-old was supposed to be the rock of the Germany defence. Joachim Löw's side were expected to seriously contend for the title, and Hummels was expected to be a major part of that success.
The warning signs came early. Hummels and the Germany defence were absolutely obliterated during their first warmup friendly, shipping five goals against a team they should have beaten with their eyes closed in a 5-3 defeat to Switzerland. Hummels was let down a bit by Per Mertersacker and Marcel Schmelzer (although he did get one of the German goals), but he was far from blameless for the German performance. In fact, he was atrocious.
It was clear from watching the Euros that the Germany crib sheet had 'Mats Hummels is awesome' or something similar, because he was being talked up whenever the ball went anywhere near him. By and large, this was fair -- he certainly provided the team with a driving presence from the back, and he was, mostly, competent enough. But there were warning signs too, with mistakes in the first game against Portugal going unpunished and a worrying performance against Greece overshadowed by the four Germany goals.
Hummels' mistakes were acceptable when he was contributing to wins in other ways (and indeed while Germany were winning). But Germany, of course, lost their semifinal match against Italy, going behind early thanks to a Mario Balotelli brace and never really looking like they were capable of advancing. Where was Hummels during crunch time? The answer is 'getting annhilated'. Check out the move that led to Italy's opener:
That's Hummels, who's been called the best defender in the world, going in on the wrong side against Antonio Cassano -- who up until the semifinal had been having a relatively indifferent tournament -- and gifting the AC Milan forward the space he needed to swing in an ultimately deadly cross. Defenders get beaten all the time, obviously, but this was an absolutely egregious error in a vital situation.
The situation, however, was recoverable, at least until Germany got caught with their pants down for the second. Where was Hummels then?
Oh. Out of position, like the entire German back line.
When push came to shove, the Germany defence failed. And with that defence built around Hummels, it's fair to say that he did too. He was poor all match, and his team suffered for it.
The interesting thing, however, is that this isn't really unexpected, so far as Hummels goes. When he's on his game, he's a top-class player, as we've already mentioned, but the sometimes-fatal flaw in his play is that he seemingly, randomly makes the sort of errors that would make a schoolboy blush.
This is acceptable over the course of a season. The good of Hummels far outweighs the bad during the marathon of a league campaign. But in must-win games, he's erratic enough that it's difficult to trust him. He can put in brilliant performances and be a standout on both sides of the ball... or he can do what he did against Italy.
There's a school of thought that says you can judge a central defender by the amount of mistakes he makes. I don't necessarily subscribe to it, because an error-free defender can still get blown up based on a skills mismatch, but there's more than a kernel of truth there. A mistake from a central defender means that, more often than not, his team concedes a goal. That's not true higher up the pitch.
Hummels suffers from what readers familiar with the Premier League would probably consider 'David Luiz syndrome'. At his best, he's nothing short of extraordinary. There's no forward you'd expect to reliably beat him. He can take complete control of a game, driving the attack while shutting down the opposition. But it's difficult to trust him, because he can look imperious for 89 minutes of a match and then look like a man who doesn't know how to tie his own shoes in the other.
It's fine taking gambles when your team is inferior to the opposition. But when you're favourites, Hummels suddenly becomes a danger. The only time he'll get beaten is when he beats himself, but, as Euro 2012 has shown the world, he has a habit of doing exactly that.