SOCHI, Russia — Age is just a number, right? We’ve been told enough times that it must be true. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say age is relative.
Julian Draxler is 23 but has already been through more than most players go through in an entire career. At 17, he was starting a Champions League semifinal. At 18, he was a key player on a side that finished third in the Bundesliga. At 19, he was making his debut for Germany. At 20, he became the youngest player to reach 100 German league appearances. At 21, he engineered a move away from Schalke, the club he had joined at 8 years of age, and was sold to Wolfsburg. At 22, he was being booed by his own supporters after, again, looking to move on to a bigger, wealthier club.
He got his wish this past January at the age of 23, transferring to Paris Saint-Germain. And as luck would have it, he saw his new team not win the league for the first time in five seasons.
Now, a few months shy of his 24th birthday, he’s the centerpiece and captain of Joachim Low’s Germany (the Confederations Cup version, of course) and looking a class apart. So much so that Low seems to have rearranged the team around him, giving him the kind of freedom players are rarely afforded in the modern game. Indeed, it’s the sort of license that no German player (at least not on a Low team) has arguably had for a very long time.
“It doesn’t matter what the lineup is, Draxler will always have a lot of freedom with me,” said Low after Germany’s 3-1 victory over Cameroon that sealed their place in the semifinal against Mexico in Sochi on Thursday. “There is a variety to what he can do on the pitch, and he can find the right position on his own.”
Against Cameroon, just as he did against Chile on Wednesday, Low employed a back three, with full-backs Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt pushing up on either flank. They offered the width while Timo Werner did the running up front as the attacking terminus. Sebastian Rudy and Emre Can protected the defence, and Kemir Demirbay was the link man.
As for Draxler?
Sometimes he drifted wide, sometimes he ghosted ahead of Werner. Sometimes he disappeared, sometimes he conjured up space between the midfield and the attack.
“And sometimes, when our lateral center-backs [Antonio Rudiger and Matias Ginter] struggled with their build-up play, he popped up near them to take off the pressure,” Low added. “He has an incredible versatility, an incredible range of possibilities. And he’s not afraid to use them. He’s always available and has a knack for changing direction. For an opponent, it’s so difficult to control.”
Draxler did this time and again against Cameroon and three incidents summed up his day.
First, there was a delightful back-heel out of nothing that allowed Demirbay to romp into the penalty box and open the scoring. Then there was a gorgeous, 30-yard pass with just enough arc on it to elude a defender and fall right into the stride of a sprinting Werner, who would ultimately put his shot wide. And finally, with Ginter being pressed, there was a moment when Draxler retreated deep with such a perfectly angled run that it drew three opponents, allowing Ginter enough time to make a tidy pass to Can.
You don’t see this sort of license much in the modern game, and it raises two interesting questions.
The first is whether this was a grand experiment by Low that we might see replicated next year. There’s obviously tons of competition in the attacking midfield/winger position — Thomas Mueller, Julian Brandt, Leon Goretzka, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry, Toni Kroos … the list goes on and on. But unless Draxler suffers a serious drop in form, he’ll be back next summer. So will Low simply deploy him wide as a cog in a well-oiled machine? Or does he rip up the German blueprint to accommodate Draxler in this free role, bearing in mind that there’s probably nobody else (unless Ozil travels back in time) with a similar skill set?
In football terms, it’s not a bad problem to have, brought about by their extraordinary abundance of depth. But you can’t help but wonder whether Low has something up his sleeve in making this team so Draxler-centric.
The other question concerns how Paris Saint-Germain (and Unai Emery, as long as he’s around) see Draxler’s future. Displays like this one suggest that maybe such role would work well for him there, too. To some degree, the side is going to be redrawn this summer, and their pursuit of Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang suggests that maybe Emery is open to playing with two strikers and a man behind.
All this talk may all be premature. Maybe Draxler is just on a hot streak. At the same time, he’s still just 23 and is just about to hit his prime, growing into the player his skill set suggests he can be. And his career, until now, has had highs and lows — some of them down to injury, some of them self-inflicted by his wanderlust.
You wonder what Draxler can become if he’s happy and in a stable environment with a manager willing to give him the keys to the team.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.