Bastian Schweinsteiger has enjoyed some of the finest displays of his career since reinventing himself as a deep-lying midfielder. While Louis van Gaal likes to take credit for discovering the ‘new Schweinsteiger’, Joachim Löw gave him his first run-out there in 2007 and he has gradually made the position his own ever since. Schweinsteiger produced arguably his finest ever display in the World Cup final when, bloodied and bruised, he led Germany to a fourth world title. But, as Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox explains, the Germany captain has had to learn some hard lessons along the way.
Each of the last three World Cup winners are epitomised by a single outstanding midfielder.
The victorious Italian side of 2006 were based around the majestic deep-lying regista Andrea Pirlo, Spain’s 2010 win owed much to the patient tiki-taka of Xavi Hernandez, while the German class of 2014 triumphed partly thanks to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s incredible performance in the final.
Something else links that trio: each earned widespread acclaim late in their career, around the age of 30, when players in other positions are starting to decline.
Xavi’s influence only became fully recognised under Pep Guardiola’s guidance, while Pirlo was world-class throughout his twenties but starred at Euro 2012, having just led his Juventus side to an unbeaten season. Schweinsteiger needed to become a tricenarian before reaching his peak.
Like the other two, Schweinsteiger also needed a change of position to fulfil his potential. Xavi excelled once he was moved slightly higher up the pitch, while Pirlo switched from a classic number 10 role to a position in front of his own defence. However, Schweinsteiger’s switch, from an inconsistent winger to a reliable central midfielder, is much more surprising.
Xavi and Pirlo always had the right mentality for a deep midfield role. To be the side’s pivotal player, you need to be consistent, reliable and disciplined, and those two were focused, professional, football obsessives. They’re both, well, slightly boring: Xavi is famous for spending his spare time picking mushrooms, while Pirlo owns a vineyard.
Schweinsteiger, on the other hand, was something of a wildchild. Earlier in this career, there were various controversies: he was caught speeding in a sports car, was found entertaining a young lady in Bayern’s training ground jacuzzi in the early hours, and his general demeanour suggested he was enjoying the perks of being a footballer more than actually playing football.
What changed? Well, his position, of course. “Now, I’m always close to the ball,” Schweinsteiger said. “I missed that when playing wide. The switch in position was a very important stage.” But what changed to allow his position to change? His attitude. Somewhere, somehow, Schweinsteiger changed his life, and off-field discipline led to on-field discipline.
Some, only half-jokingly, attribute this to Angela Merkel. Schweinsteiger met the German chancellor at World Cup 2006 on home soil, then they encountered one another at Euro 2008, when the midfielder was suspended from the Austria match, and sat by Merkel in the stands. "She told me that I shouldn't do the same stupid things again,” he said, referring to his red card against Croatia. “When Frau Chancellor says you have to do something, you have to do it.” Oddly, it was roughly around this point that Schweinsteiger grew up.
They encountered one another repeatedly - sharing a warm embrace after the 2013 Champions League final, then a hug after the World Cup final in 2014. Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Zeit ran a series of cartoons imagining the two exchanging wistful love letters.
On the pitch, Louis van Gaal is keen to take the credit for Schweinsteiger’s positional change. “He did not fit in the position of left-winger for me,” Van Gaal remembers when discussing his arrival at Bayern in 2009. “When I arrive at a new club, I talk with every player about his position, his personality, the team, how he works with team-mates. I told Bastian: 'I think you have to play in midfield.' At that time, we played with two holding midfielders and a No.10, Thomas Müller. So Schweinsteiger played in a holding role, and found he liked the game more than ever.”
“I think the biggest change for me personally is that finally I've been allowed to play in my best position,” Schweinsteiger said that year. “I'd always had a hard time before with coaches feeling that other players – like Jens Jeremies, Niko Kovacs, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Ballack – had a better claim on that position. So, of course, I'm grateful to Van Gaal.” The most interesting word here is ‘finally’ - as if, all along, Schweinsteiger knew his best role.
Indeed, what isn’t mentioned frequently enough is that Schweinsteiger was actually given his first central midfield start by Germany boss Joachim Löw, back in 2007, for a 2-0 victory in Wales. Such was the surprise to see Schweinsteiger playing that role during pre-match training sessions, it attracted plenty of media attention.
“Of course, this is all new for me, because I normally play on the left, but it's going to be a challenge and I am looking forward to it,” Schweinsteiger told the press beforehand, and inevitably Germany’s manager was also quizzed about the decision.
"He will play an important central role, in light of the players we have lost [through injury]” said Löw. "He will lead our attack, play a guiding role and control things. He is one of the most experienced players in our team and I have spoken to him about what I expect.” He lined up in a midfield quartet featuring Marcell Jansen, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Roberto Hilbert - hardly World Cup-winning quality.
Miroslav Klose grabbed both goals, but Schweinsteiger attracted most praise. He created a good early chance for Kevin Kuranyi, and later hit the crossbar with a fine curling effort. The BBC’s match report confirms he “pulled the strings all evening”, the Daily Mirror describes him as “running amok”, RTE’s analysis simply describes him as “excellent.” This, not when Van Gaal took over at Bayern, was a new beginning for Schweinsteiger.
It hasn’t been plain sailing. Something strange about Schweinsteiger is that, for an elite midfielder, he’s endured lots of bad games. The crucial thing, however, is that he’s learned lessons throughout.
The first example was the 1-0 World Cup semi-final defeat. Spain’s passing was excellent, but so was their pressing - it denied Schweinsteiger time on the ball, and he lacked the dynamism to cope. He was outclassed by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, his first proper schooling on that stage. “Spain had more ball possession, they have very good fit players,” he said afterwards. “But we must be better, too often we were chasing the ball.”
The lesson? Learn to cope with pressing, and learn to press.
In a 3-1 defeat to eventual title winners Dortmund, Schweinsteiger was instructed by Van Gaal to play extremely deep, almost as a spare centre-back. He had a nightmare: caught underneath a cross early on, allowing Robert Lewandowski to shoot narrowly over, then dispossessed in comical fashion when pressed by Kevin Grosskreutz, miscuing a pass to such an extent that the ball hit his standing leg. Dortmund took the lead. Towards the end of the first half, when defending a long free-kick, Schweinsteiger managed to thump a clearance into his own teammate, then partly atoned by blocking the resulting shot with his face. It was a hugely clumsy performance.
The lesson? Schweinsteiger is a great midfielder, but won’t be the new Lothar Matthäus.
2013, Borussia Mönchengladbach
In Pep Guardiola’s first game at Bayern, a 3-1 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schweinsteiger was the weak link. He wasn’t 100% fit, but when fielded in the sole holding position in Guardiola’s 4-3-3, he struggled. When the opposition won possession, they countered past him easily, and Schweinsteiger didn’t make a single tackle or interception in the game.
The lesson? Schweinsteiger needed to improve his ball-winning.
2014, Real Madrid
In a 1-0 defeat in Madrid, Guardiola deployed Schweinsteiger at the top of his midfield trio. But Schweinsteiger struggled, being turned inside-out by Luka Modric, and was uncomfortable receiving the ball in tight positions.
The lesson? Schweinsteiger needs to play deeper and see more of the pitch.
By the time of World Cup 2014, however, Schweinsteiger had improved. Manuel Neuer described him as “a strategist – you really feel his presence,” while Löw was positive about his “good organisation, good situations, good runs.” Compliments were always about his intelligence, his leadership. Philipp Lahm was the captain, but Löw had termed Schweinsteiger the team’s “emotional leader”.
His final performance, against Argentina, was outstanding. Schweinsteiger pressed, he tackled, he marked Lionel Messi so effectively that Argentina’s skipper had to venture out wide to collect possession. Schweinsteiger was on a harsh booking for over 90 minutes, yet battled bravely in the deep role, while completing more passes than anyone else. He was the victim of tough tackling, fouled six times and ending the game with a nasty cut below his eye, courtesy of Sergio Agüero's elbow.
Again: this was once an inconsistent, wayward winger - now, he was a World Cup-winning holding midfielder, a strategist, a controller, a scrapper, the best performer in football’s biggest match.
It was the complete holding midfield display, and owes everything to the failures he’d suffered in previous big matches. He’d realised his weaknesses, adapted and improved. Next time you hear a pundit use the word ‘experience’ and wonder precisely how that concept is of value, remember Schweinsteiger.