Niclas Fullkrug jumps Kai Havertz in Germany pecking order to save their World Cup

No one thinks Niclas Fullkrug is a wunderkind. No wonder. When he celebrated his 29th birthday, it was as 2. Bundesliga player. His last three seasons in the German top flight had produced two, four and six goals respectively. He had managed one prolific season in the Bundesliga. He could have resembled a German Danny Graham. He has never played in the Champions League and probably never will. Now he is a World Cup scorer, against the potential World Cup winners.

Kai Havertz was supposed to be the wunderkind. Indeed, he was the wunderkind. He made his Germany debut as a teenager, scoring 17 Bundesliga goals in a season before he turned 20. Real Madrid wanted him before he was 21. Chelsea got him for the kind of fee – some £71million – in a depressed market that marked him out as a generational talent. Before his 22nd birthday, he had scored the winner in a Champions League final.

Now Jamal Musiala is the wunderkind. Age dictates no one can hold on to the title for long and, at 23, Havertz may be too long in the tooth. But perhaps it was symbolic when the 19-year-old embarked on a solo run against Japan that threatened to yield the goal of the tournament. He went past four players: three Japanese, one Havertz.

There was a further indication of the shift in various pecking orders as Germany faced Spain in the marquee tie of the group stages. Havertz had reflected that he had not done his “bloody duty” by adding a second goal to put Germany out of sight against Japan. Unlike Fullkrug, he rarely scores enough goals. He can be wasteful. He was dropped against Spain.

A goal down, with a leveller required, Flick considered changes. This time, he did not make the mistake of removing Musiala, and the teenager was fundamental to Germany’s late surge. Having overlooked Havertz once, he did again, leaving him unused. He summoned Fullkrug, the man who began 2022 in the second flight and ended it in the World Cup, whose international debut came just 11 days earlier. It was a vote of no confidence in the supposed superstar, an endorsement for the previously unheralded Fullkrug, the man who was only shunted up the pecking order when Timo Werner was injured.

It was justified. Fullkrug’s finish was emphatic: maybe Unai Simon should have saved but it was the forceful hit of a natural centre-forward. He had the directness to take the ball off Musiala and head straight for goal. Beat Costa Rica and, if Spain overcome Japan, he may prove the man who saved Germany’s World Cup. “He showed us his determination,” Flick said. “He showed us how to smash goals. He gives a lot to this team, not only goals, and he is also a very good boy. He has his heart in the right place and we are very happy to have him.”

It was the first goal an actual striker had scored for Germany in the World Cup since Miroslav Klose netted in the 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the 2014 semi-final. Then, as now, Germany’s initial preference seemed to be to field a false nine, but they looked better with a focal point, even if he was ungainly, unfashionable and rarely tipped for greatness at a young age. Klose ended up with 71 goals for Germany, 16 in World Cups: none of that is to imply Fullkrug will do anything remotely similar – after debuting within three months of his 30th birthday, it is too late – but there is a German tradition of physical forwards springing to prominence in major tournaments: think Klose in 2002 or Oliver Bierhoff in 1996. Neither had much aesthetic appeal but elegance can be overrated.

Meanwhile, Havertz had been played the more modish role as the false nine against Japan. Not for the first time, his problem was profligacy. Much like Mario Gotze, he feels the prodigy who scored a defining, winning goal, yet has not realised his potential. Time remains on his side, but inconsistency remains a constant companion. A step forward is followed by one back. He was excellent at Euro 2020: he may spend more of the 2022 World Cup on the bench, even as Germany are without Werner, Marco Reus and Florian Wirtz.

He isn’t the golden boy any more: not when Musiala assumes that mantle in the Germany side, when every pass from Pedri and Gavi enhances their chances of sharing the award for the best young player in Qatar. They bring style as well as the tantalising prospect of promise. Fullkrug belongs in the breed of footballing pragmatists; his merit lies in goals, not style. Real Madrid never wanted to sign him. But when Flick needed a goal, the anti-Havertz obliged and the ageing target man with the throwback career showed why he was preferred to the man who was supposed to be the future of German football.