Benedikt Howedes is one of the mainstays of Germany’s national team. While the Schalke captain may not be the most captivating player on the pitch, Die Mannschaft coach Joachim Low regards the defender – who played at left-back for all seven of his country’s matches en route to their 2014 FIFA World Cup™ triumph – as dependable, versatile and a true team player.

The 28-year-old showed these qualities once again at this summer’s UEFA EURO 2016. Despite losing his starting place at right-back to the more attack-minded Joshua Kimmich ahead of Germany’s 1-0 group match win against Northern Ireland, he later described Low’s tactical switch as “exactly the right decision” in a widely-shared Facebook post, adding:

“Joshua played brilliantly. We were much more dangerous going forward in that game.”

As the new Bundesliga season approached, met with Howedes to discuss his role in the national team and how it feels to go into the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying campaign as defending champions. Benedikt, Germany are about to begin their first qualifying campaign as world champions. How does that feel?

Benedikt Howedes: Four years have passed [since the last World Cup qualifying campaign began]. We’re certainly at a different level to where we were back then and can’t expect to qualify automatically just because we’re now world champions.

We need to prove ourselves all over again. I think it’s okay, even though we probably deserved to qualify directly as the holders. We’ve got to rise to the challenge and if we do that I’m sure we’ll qualify.

Previously the world champions spent two years just playing friendlies. Do you think it is better to contest competitive matches instead?
It’s probably a good thing to be in a competitive frame of mind and not just playing friendlies. That way, we’re always obliged to deliver top performances to ensure we actually qualify.

The fact that we need to focus on the task ahead is already having a positive effect on the team. Although you can take friendlies seriously, it’s hardly the same as playing competitive fixtures.

While Germany are almost always among the favourites, do you find that your opponents have been even more motivated since you won the World Cup?
We’ve already noticed that our opponents tend to be particularly motivated against us – after all, they want to beat the world champions.

Sometimes, it’s a bit of a shame because they put almost everybody behind the ball and don’t play anymore.

It was a little bit different in 2010, when we tended to rely on quick counter-attacking, ourselves. Now, we can only play out using good positional play.

In another interview you spoke about “certain processes” that exist within the national team, even if you’re unable to train properly before a major tournament. Were you referring to positional play in that instance?

Exactly. We know where we need to be. Our full-backs play high up the pitch and we want to occupy the spaces in between to ensure we can implement our positional play.

That has been the case for a long time now and we’ve become well known for it, but it means that everyone should know exactly what’s required of them.

Nevertheless, this approach always needs to be slightly refreshed depending on the squad available for each competition.

Although everyone knows their roles, national team coach Joachim Low has spoken very highly of you, saying: “Howedes’s versatility is worth its weight in gold to me.” How does he let you know that he appreciates you?
He has spoken to me a lot and told me that he’s happy with my work.

I also think that I’ve done what he’s asked of me. I know that what I do doesn’t look spectacular for the media; I don’t stand out with amazing crosses or solo runs. But that hasn’t been my aim or the coach’s intention.

I’ve done the job I was asked to do, and that’s why he has told me that he’s satisfied with me in our conversations.

Does this appreciation make it a little easier to accept missing out on the starting line-up in matches such as those against Northern Ireland or Slovakia?
Obviously everyone wants to play.

After the match [against Northern Ireland] I was being totally honest when I said that it was the right decision to bring on a more attack-minded defender against such defensive opponents; we chose a different approach that made perfect sense for that tie.

What’s more, Kimmich had another fantastic game. Because I’m a team player, my focus is on our shared objectives. If that’s the better option for a match then that’s what we should do.

The team always comes before my ego, because I realised at the World Cup that you can only achieve success with a good team structure where everyone can put their individual issues aside.

Then you give it everything you’ve got when you’re needed. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough against France [in the UEFA EURO 2016 semi-final]. We tried so hard but it wasn’t enough on the day.

In light of your much-publicised Facebook post after the match against Northern Ireland, what does team spirit mean to you?
As far as I’m concerned, it means everything. Bundesliga sides like Darmstadt, Augsburg and Mainz show that a good team spirit and gameplan can be decisive in beating teams that are stronger, man for man.

If you don’t play as a unit, it makes life incredibly difficult against any side.

Germany spent many years getting close to major tournament success before finally collecting the biggest prize of all in Brazil. Do you think that triumph has given the team greater belief?
I think even the body language of the players reflects the fact that we’ve won the biggest trophy in football and that gives us a sense of superiority.

I also think other opponents now have greater respect for us. You can see that on the pitch.

What do you still need to change in Russia to defend your title?
You’ve always got to look at what’s needed and how teams set themselves up in qualifying, whether they are still playing very defensively or opting for a slightly more attacking form of defence instead.

That’s why we can’t yet say what will need adjusting, because we don’t yet know what to expect.

I think the teams awaiting us in qualifying will be quite defensive at first. We’ve got to be ready for that and perhaps execute our gameplan even better against very deep-lying opponents.