“My job as national coach is, unfortunately, to destroy dreams,” reflected Jogi Löw at Germany’s World Cup squad unveiling on Tuesday afternoon. He’d just been asked about one of the day’s hottest topics: the omission of Bayern striker Sandro Wagner. The player reportedly wept throughout a club training session following the news.
Leaving talented players out is part and parcel of any coach’s role but Löw will be pained, nonetheless, to know how badly his decision hurt Wagner. The flipside to his job, of course, is the ability to make players' dreams come true. A case in point is the inclusion of the previously uncapped Freiburg captain Nils Petersen.
“It’s a huge honor for me,” Petersen told reporters after the squad was announced. “I am extremely grateful. Just having the chance to be involved is the crowning moment of the season.”
He should be grateful, too. The easy decision would simply have been to select Wagner. Given that Timo Werner is likely to start the vast majority of games for Germany this summer, the supporting cast of strikers will only be expecting peripheral roles, at best substitute appearances in Germany’s crucial encounters. Why risk harming a relationship with an established squad member, one that played a key role as Germany lifted the Confederation's Cup twelve months ago?
Simply put, it's because Petersen deserves it. The Bundesliga’s highest scoring German player this season, indeed the highest scoring German in any of Europe’s top leagues, should naturally be a consideration for Löw going into the World Cup. Petersen's 15 league goals were also the difference between survival and relegation. Without them, Freiburg would have been 19 points worse-off; relegated in last position.
By contrast, Wagner's 14 league goals were scored for two vastly superior clubs in Hoffenheim and Bayern. It would be hard to argue his contribution made any real difference to the destination of the title. His decision to take the easy option, serving as Lewandowski's back-up as Bayern cruised to a sixth straight title, ultimately appears to have cost him.
Löw's third back-up striking option, Mario Gomez, also appears to have bumped Wagner down the pecking order. His eight goals in 14 Stuttgart appearances since his January move from Wolfsburg lifted the club from relegation candidates to European hopefuls. Löw considers Gomez a like-for-like alternative to Wagner, and the 32-year old may be the only back-up striking option to keep his place when the squad is trimmed to 23 on June 4.
One thing Petersen offers above all others, however, is his ability to score 'Jokertöre' - goals from the bench. The 29-year old is the Bundesliga's all-time top-scoring substitute, with 20. It's a talent which could prove invaulable in the latter stages of the tournament.
"This was not a decision against Sandro," explained Löw at the post-announcement press conference. "He proved his class with us. Such decisions are always made in terms of the team and I expect a lot from Petersen. He is a very, very good 'joker'."
Wagner's attitude is also questionable. He's publicly stated several times this season that he will go to the World Cup, even branding the idea of him not going "insane". This, too, appears to have counted against him. Löw likes his squad members to be team players who prioritze the collective above all else. Petersen's calm leadership at Freiburg this season has certainly shown that, and Löw should have no reservations about his character.
Germany's coach knows that if his side are go all the way again this summer, it won't be without their fair share of close shaves and tense encounters. A striker with Nils Petersen's leadership qualities, goal-scoring prowess and ability to make a quick impact could make all the difference.