As Bastian Schweinsteiger rejoiced alongside his teammates at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio di Janeiro on July 13, 2014, he had put in arguably his best ever performance. While Philipp Lahm held the captaincy on that night, Schweinsteiger was the true leader out on the pitch for the German juggernaut. On that night in Rio, Schweinsteiger put in a tremendous performance, as he pressed, tackled, and marked so well that even Lionel Messi could not influence the game. For over 90 minutes of the match, Schweinsteiger was on a yellow card, yet he battled bravely to lead the Germans to victory. Without either Christoph Kramer or Sami Khedira, both of whom were injured, Schweinsteiger had to play deep alongside Toni Kroos. Schweinsteiger had more of a responsibility to win the ball back and he did so brilliantly. Sergio Aguero’s elbow meant Schweinsteiger suffered a cut just below his eye, yet he battled on. Schweinsteiger’s physical nature alongside his ball-playing ability (he completed the most passes of anyone on the pitch) showed a complete performance. Simply put, Schweinsteiger had put in the perfect match as a holding midfielder. He was complete, as he tackled as well as he controlled the game for Germany. We’ve seen players like Xavi and Andrea Pirlo control games, but neither put in such a complete performance both defensively and offensively in a game bigger than any other.
To think that Schweinsteiger would put in this type of performance just five years before this night would have been wishful thinking. Back in 2009, Schweinsteiger was a good, but inconsistent inverted left winger. He had shown glimpses of fantastic quality, such as his two goals in the 2006 World Cup’s Third Place Playoff match. Germany manager Joachim Löw gave Schweinsteiger his debut in a deeper midfield role in 2007, but it was Louis Van Gaal who truly established him in the deep-lying position. When Van Gaal took over as Bayern München manager ahead of the 2009-2010 season, he saw Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben as his preferred wingers, with both playing inverted wide roles in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ivica Olic, Miroslav Klose, and Mario Gomez were the three strikers, while Thomas Muller was Van Gaal’s preferred Number 10 position. Where did this leave Schweinsteiger? Louis van Gaal envisioned Schweinsteiger playing deeper, where he could see more of the ball and having more of an influence on games. After a poor start to the season for Bayern, Schweinsteiger excelled in his new role alongside Mark van Bommel, who broke up play as the more defensive-minded of the two players. By the end of the season, Bayern had won a domestic double and had lost to Inter in the Champions League final.
The 2010 World Cup showcased both sides of the “new” Schweinsteiger. In a new look German side featuring players like Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller, and Mesut Ozil, there was more responsibility placed upon Schweinsteiger to lead his team. Germany played well, especially against Argentina in the 4-0 victory in the World Cup quarter final. The next two matches would prove to be lessons for Schweinsteiger. In the semi-final against Spain, the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta completely out-passed and out-pressed Germany. While the passing was expected, the pressing showed Schweinsteiger still had some learning to do in his deep role. Whenever he got on the ball, he lacked time to pick out his passes and struggled. In the third place playoff, Schweinsteiger was once again pressed, and this time he lost possession of the ball to Diego Perez, which allowed Edinson Cavani to score an equalizer. Schweinsteiger’s next two seasons at club level for Bayern München lacked trophies. The 2010-2011 season saw Van Gaal’s side suffer lots of injuries and they barely scraped a Champions League spot. The following season saw Bayern München complete the “unwanted treble”, as they finished second in the Bundesliga, Deutscher Pokal, and the Champions League. Across these two seasons, Schweinsteiger’s name continued to rise among the top midfielders in Europe. There were still some doubts over Schweinsteiger’s big game prowess, as he lost out on all honors in the 2011-2012 season and missed the penalty which allowed Chelsea to win the Champions League. For Germany, Schweinsteiger was part of the team which lost in the Euro 2008 final, the 2010 World Cup semi-final, and the Euro 2012 semi-final. Schweinsteiger learned lessons from some games, such as against Dortmund in 2011. In this match, Schweinsteiger was instructed to play in a very deep role, almost as the third center-back or a sweeper. The performance saw Schweinsteiger struggle playing so deep.
The 2012-2013 season changed these doubts some may have had and Schweinsteiger had his greatest season. As Bayern marched to the treble, Schweinsteiger excelled alongside Javi Martinez, who played as the more defensive of the two. By the end of this season, Schweinsteiger had established himself as the most complete deep-lying midfielder in Europe. The 7-0 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final showed Schweinsteiger managing to help keep Bayern in control, despite Barca having more possession of the ball. Xavi and Iniesta, who had dominated against Germany in the 2010 World Cup, were now being dominated. The last two seasons at club level have seen Schweinsteiger struggle with injuries, but he has still played a role as a leader at Bayern. All the experiences Schweinsteiger gained lead up to the 2014 World Cup, where Germany were one of the favorites. The start of the tournament saw Schweinsteiger injured, but it was his return that saw Germany start to play well in the tournament. His performance in the final showed everything he had learned in the past. He had struggled at times in the past without a more defensive midfielder alongside him. In the final, he played around 90 minutes alongside Toni Kroos, who is far from a great tackler and unlike Schweinsteiger, has often excelled playing further forward. The performance showed what Schweinsteiger could do at his best, putting all the misery he had reeled in with Germany behind him. As he embarks on a new journey at Manchester United, he will have the experience gained from losses and performances in the past, as he has adapted and improved his game across his career.