For some international managers naming their World Cup squads this summer, 23 players just isn’t enough; their talent pools are so deep. France boss Didier Deschamps, for example, has left out Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, not so long ago billed as the future of football in his homeland, and Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette; Spain left out Alvaro Morata after a mixed season at Chelsea, as well as his clubmate Cesc Fabregas. Germany’s Joachim Löw, though, has made arguably the most surprising omission ahead of his side’s defence of the title in Russia. Manchester City winger Leroy Sané may have helped them win the Premier League last season and been voted the PFA Young Player of the Year, but he will be watching the tournament on television.
Alongside Bayer Leverkusen pair Bernd Leno and Jonathan Tah and Freiburg striker Nils Petersen, Sané has been left out of the final squad; another Leverkusen, Julian Brandt, was preferred to him after it was cut from 27. It is hard to understand what more he could have done to force his way in; a starting berth seemed likely, but a place on the plane was all but certain. The 22-year-old scored 14 goals in all competitions for City last season, including ten in the league, as well as registering the second most assists in Europe, 15, behind Kevin de Bruyne.
Pep Guardiola’s impact on his development over the last couple of years has been immense and obvious; the raw talent he showcased in the Bundesliga with Schalke has helped him grow into a decisive, consistent and effective modern-day winger, confident with both feet, able to glide inside and out and give his side a new dimension. With just 12 caps in three years, it is clear he has not quite found the same level internationally; even so, it is astonishing that Löw has opted not to take up the option he provides, and from his point of view, it is desperately sad that he has missed out on the opportunity to explode onto the biggest of stages.
The level of quality at Germany’s disposal makes dropping big names unavoidable, but leaving Sané out could have repercussions beyond the summer. Löw’s men may be the early favourites to retain their crown, but the spine of the side that won it in 2014, beating Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals and Argentina in the final, is ageing. They need to think about the future soon; Manuel Neuer, who has been out for a year with a foot injury, is 32, Mats Hummels is 29, just like Mesüt Özil and Mario Gomez, the former Bayern Munich striker back in the squad after a spell in the international wilderness, is 32. Spain faced up to the end of an era after failing to get out of the groups four years ago, but the lack of immediate replacements for the likes of Xavi Hernandez and David Villa forced through a period of transition. The fact that Mario Götze, who scored the winner in the final as a 22-year-old, is nowhere near the squad this time around, shows young players’ development and form is far from guaranteed. Sané is on the road to superstardom under Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium; performing as a member of the squad, rather than the star man, alongside more experienced players in Russia, seemed like the next logical step to getting him ready to take centre stage himself in the future, but without the experience, questions will remain over his readiness.
Leno’s absence is understandable because the standard of goalkeepers at Löw’s disposal is impeccable. Neuer has been the best in the world, when fit, for a long time; he may have lost that unofficial title to David de Gea over the past year, but once his recovery was confirmed, there was no way he’d be missing out. Marc André ter-Stegen, Barcelona’s number one, will be his understudy, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Kevin Trapp set to be third choice. Hummels and Jerome Boateng have been the bedrock of Bayern Munich’s success; clubmate Nikas Süle and Antonio Rüdiger complete the set of central defenders, so it is easy to see why Tah didn’t make it, and Petersen doesn’t have much of a track record at this level. Brandt has talent and skill, Marco Reus has the experience and is proof that missing out on a World Cup place is not the end after injury cost him in Brazil; looking at the squad, though, there now seems like it is missing something, the spark that Sané would have provided. It is clear, having included Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gündogan, that Löw is planning to dominate the ball in Russia, particularly in the Group Stage against weaker sides like Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. But most teams will sit deep and attempt to frustrate them, so having somebody of Sané’s ilk, a player who has spent the season working to combat that exact issue under Guardiola at City, would have brought something necessary to the team.
Germany are without doubt a strong side with or without Sané, and they could be successful either way. They have the perfect balance of strength and solidity in defence and creativity in midfield but, on paper, they are lacking pace and dynamism in attack. Leroy Sané would have provided that, and while they will miss him this summer, the impact of his exclusion could be felt long after the tournament itself.