If you have any trusted homespun remedies for the flu, send German coach Joachim Löw an email. A summer sniffle sidelined center-back Mats Hummels against Algeria, hobbling Germany's defense and attack alike.
Who would have thought that Germany's World Cup hopes could hinge on tea and honey? The impotent first-half showing against Algeria on Monday was a case study in Mats Hummels' importance to what has apparently become Joachim Löw's World Cup formation.
Easily the most modern defender at Löw's disposal, Hummels could probably try his hand at playing midfield for the right team. The Dortmund defender is comfortable on the ball, boasts an excellent eye for a long pass, and loves to bound forward whenever the opportunity arises. He started out as a striker in Bayern Munich's youth academy. Sometimes, these traits can turn a defender into a liability, but Hummels is the perfect fit as part of Löw's new, bulky back four comprising essentially a quartet of central defenders.
Under this unusual system, Hummels has disciplined support on his flank. Right-footed "left-back" Benedikt Höwedes is not much of an offensive weapon on the wing but can offer outstanding cover when Hummels goes rogue. Furthermore, Philipp Lahm's right in front of Hummels in his new midfield home, often dropping back to play as a sort of "quarterback" - stood in between the center-backs, directing the build-up play early in Germany's possessions. All of this gives Hummels license to roam if and when the mood takes him.
Hummels not just free to roam, he needs to
The problems arise when you take Hummels out. As he sat out with flu, Shkodran Mustafi stepped in at right-back, with Jerome Boateng moving across into Hummels' central spot.
Unlike Boateng, Mustafi is not an effective weapon on the right. Algeria left him space early in the game, focusing their pressing on the middle of the park. When Mustafi had early chances to cross, he could not muster a quality delivery. As for Boateng, he may have pace to burn and a decent right foot, but he lacks Hummels' vision and sure-footedness when playing in traffic in the middle of the park.
This left all of the early playmaking duties squarely on the shoulders of Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos; all victims of Algeria's fierce pressing, unless they retreated into their own half. Germany lacked an outlet. Lahm is a metronomic passer, but not one to bomb the odd long ball behind the lines as Hummels can. On Monday, the captain often found himself with four options: Boateng, Mustafi, Höwedes and the sometimes cumbersome giant Per Mertesacker. Alternatively, Lahm could look up the pitch to Schweinsteiger or Kroos, but only if he was willing to pass to marked men.
At Bayern, this issue is moot, because Lahm usually has Rafinha and David Alaba roving down the wings: so the simple wide outlet pass is not just possible, it actually sets attacks in motion and creates space centrally.
The tactically astute French coach Didier Deschamps, a defensive midfielder in his playing days, will have watched Germany's faltering build-up play in the middle of the park with interest.
Modern defender in the middle
Löw's oft-maligned 4-3-3 system, moving captain Lahm away from his full-back home and ignoring fan favorites like Kevin Grosskreutz and Erik Durm, relies on having a "21st-century defender" at the heart of his rather mismatched back four. When Hummels threatens to advance, the opposition ignores him at their peril. And whoever moves to pick him up is leaving the side of Schweinsteiger, Khedira or Kroos - also an irresponsible defensive decision. Hummels, in short, helps create the space Germany so often lacked against Algeria.
Assuming that Löw doesn't believe Matthias Ginter to be ready for this role at the World Cup - tonight could have been a chance to play Ginter in the middle, keeping Boateng out right - Hummels really is the only German to fit this mold. He's Germany's answer to Thiago Silva, or indeed to Real Madrid youngster Raphael Varane of quarter-final opponents France.
With Marco Reus injured, just one Borussia Dortmund player regularly represents Germany in Brazil - but he's the lynchpin in Löw's oversized defense. Should the fresh fruit, fluids, vitamin C supplements, and bed-rest fail to prepare the 25-year-old for Friday's game against France, Löw might be forced to change his Brazilian game-plan. Or he might need to borrow a (clean) handkerchief from his Dortmund defender.