Football
Raphael Honigstein 6d

Halstenberg, Werner pass World Cup auditions in Germany draw at Wembley

On one side of the pitch, you had a young team, cobbled together in an experimental starting XI, struggling to make an unfamiliar system work. On the other, a young team, cobbled together in an experimental starting XI, struggling to make an unfamiliar system work.

Both sets of players showed enough attacking intent to keep the Wembley crowd reasonably entertained -- especially in the first half -- but in the end, the combined problems were far too great to produce a classic encounter. England vs. Germany finished with the scoreline the match between these two flawed sides deserved: 0-0.

In light of the vastly superior quality at Joachim Low's disposal, the goalless draw in London felt like a disappointment for the 2014 World Cup winner, but the Bundestrainer was in generous mood.

He praised Germany's fast attacking moves in the first half ("We did well, in spells") and gently warned that the transition game of the second half had lacked urgency and precision. "We will have to do better at the World Cup in that respect," the 57-year-old said.

The uneven performance could not have come as much of a surprise to him, for his somewhat capricious 3-4-3 lineup had been designed to provide a series of individual auditions rather than one coherent idea. Low was merely trying out some of his players on Friday night, not his team.

The game offered the Germany manager some useful pointers. Marcel Halstenberg, the RB Leipzig full-back, looked solid enough on his debut for the Nationalmannschaft to offer some hope that the perennial worries on the left side of defence might be eased, at last. "He was absolutely fine," Low said of the 26-year-old. "He stuck to his task well."

Halstenberg, a late bloomer who still played third-tier football in David Wagner's Borussia Dortmund B team four years ago, relished the chance to stake his claim on the vacant position. "I was surprised when I was told I would start the day before, but I'm very happy," he said.

Halstenberg didn't always look entirely comfortable as a wing-back in Low's system -- he's happier in a back four -- but all of a sudden appears well poised to get on the plane to Russia.

Leipzig's Timo Werner will surely make the cut, too. The 21-year-old missed two one-on-ones in front of debutant England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, finishing weakly. "It's more important that they go in at the World Cup," he joked, aware that a leading role in Russia is basically guaranteed.

Werner's pace remains an invaluable asset, and the same is true of Manchester City's Leroy Sane, Germany's most-improved player of the last six months, thanks to Pep Guardiola's meticulous coaching. Sane is getting closer and closer to being an automatic starter but must ensure his work-rate and attitude adhere to Low's exacting standards.

The Germany coach would have noted that the 22-year-old berated some of his teammates for poor passes and will stress the importance of togetherness before making his selection for the tournament.

At the heart of a three-man defence with Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger and Borussia Monchengladbach's Matthias Ginter, Mats Hummels was the visitors' most accomplished player, exuding authority and class at every turn and tackle. "I'm exhausted," the Bayern Munich centre-back said after the final whistle, with a smile on his face.

His colleagues were less convincing, by contrast. Both Rudiger and Ginter had a hard time finding teammates from the back. As England dropped deeper and deeper, shifting the onus on Germany's defenders to direct play, the paucity of Ginter's buildup work in particular came into focus. The 23-year-old will be fortunate to get to Russia, his versatility notwithstanding.

Julian Draxler, flitting between the two strikers and the midfielders in a fluid but perhaps ill-defined role, also did little of note to press the case for his credentials as a starter.

Ilkay Gundogan fared better. In his first start in a white shirt in 12 months, the City playmaker did a reasonable job as holding midfielder next to Mesut Ozil, who was decent if unspectacular in the deeper slot.

Gundogan admitted that controlling the space in the centre alongside the naturally more creative-minded Arsenal man was not the most straightforward of tasks ("It took some getting used to") but he cut a hugely contented figure in the mixed zone. "I'm just really, really pleased to be back," he beamed.

After suffering a serious knee injury in December, Gundogan knew that time was not on his side if he wanted to make it to his first World Cup. Friday night constituted an important, timely step in the right direction, even if Low cautioned that the 27-year-old needed more games to get back to his very best.

On Tuesday, Low continues the casting sessions in the match against France, a team he considers "slightly better than England." Once again, individual performances will matter much more than the result and the collective showing.

Before the Bundestrainer sets to work on identifying his exact team, he'll set about finding the right pieces of the puzzle first.

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