Sandro Wagner, 29, is making a strong case for inclusion in Germany’s 2018 World Cup squad. He can take inspiration from a pair of notable strikers who made an impact on the national team later in their careers.
If there's one thing Sandro Wagner doesn't lack, it's confidence. The Munich-born striker is considered a polarizing player, mostly due to what many perceive as an arrogant approach.
But in recent times he's started living up to the tag of "Germany's best striker” that he once gave himself. The Hoffenheim forward has been scoring regularly for a third Bundesliga season in a row — he has six goals and four assists in 16 games this season, after registering double figures in the goals tally in both of his last two campaigns.
But such consistent returns have not always been forthcoming. After coming through Bayern Munich's youth system before moving from one club to the other, Wagner's career stats were far from impressive. It took until the age of 26 for the striker to really make a name for himself. Wagner scored 14 Bundesliga goals for cash-strapped Darmstadt that were critical in ensuring the Hessen-based club remained in the top flight against all odds in 2015/16. His performances earned him the move to Hoffenheim.
Inspiration close at hand
Wagner's late-blooming success story is hardly new in German football. In the last 20 years, Germany's national team has often turned to older, more experienced strikers to provide goals, even when the rest of the squad has been younger.
He doesn't need to look far for inspiration, with Germany's current national team manager Oliver Bierhoff only making his debut at the age of 28, before going on to captain the side, win the European Championship and pick up a World Cup runners up medal.
Germany coach Joachim Löw tried to steer away from using a traditional striker in his playing system ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But the importance of playing with a focal point was made clear by Miroslav Klose's contribution to Germany's title winning-campaign. Klose was another striker who enjoyed great success late in his career and Wagner could be the one to fill the void left by his retirement.
Big players need more time
"Wagner offers us something different. He keeps the opponent busy,” said Löw at the press conference ahead of the friendly against England. The 57-year-old coach has previously labeled the Hoffenheim attacker as "one of the best strikers in the Bundesliga.”
Wagner, who made his Bundesliga debut in 2007 at Bayern Munich as a substitute replacing Klose, argues that physically-imposing strikers often take time to find their form "I have spoken to [Bierhoff], and he also agreed,” Wagner said in an interview to German football magazine kicker.
As well as the rapid, and likely first choice, forward Timo Werner, Wagner also faces competition for a place in Joachim Löw's World Cup squad from an even more experienced striker, Mario Gomez. The 32-year-old netted 16 times for Wolfsburg last season, and also has the advantage of familiarity in the set up, having made his debut for Germany under Löw and won 71 caps since. However, the Hoffenheim target man is, as expected, self-assured. "He has other qualities than me… He is a good player that scored goals for many years. Hats off to him. But I am who I am,” he said.
Decision time for Löw
But what does Löw have to say about the matter? "It's a decision we'll have to make.... They can both make it to the squad,” said the national team head coach said before the Germany squad departs to face England in London on Friday night.
Leipzig's Werner looks set to be Germany's leading man in Russia, and Gladbach captain Lars Stindl's impressive performances in the 2017 Confederations Cup have earned praise from Löw before. But it could well be Wagner who'll be called to make the difference in Russia should Löw decide to mix things up tactically. The late bloomer could be the ideal plan B.