Kevin Hatchard explains why – despite a solid yet uninspiring group stage – Germany are still the team to beat at Euro 2016.
One of the fascinating things about Euro 2016 so far has been that no side has truly laid down a marker as a favourite. The Goliaths of the game have all displayed weakness in one form or another, while the Davids have been stealing the limelight.
Germany are a great example of a side that came into the tournament with a swagger, but yet to hit top gear. Against Ukraine in a 2-0 victory, Die Mannschaft survived some first-half defensive wobbles before slowly throttling the life out of their opponents after the break, with Toni Kroos’ relentless accuracy in midfield cutting off Ukraine’s oxygen supply.
Concerns persisted despite the clean sheet, especially in defence. Benedikt Höwedes looked determined but awkward at right-back; a defender with no attacking instincts. The imperious Manuel Neuer had a far busier game than he would have expected, nonchalantly turning away long-range drives and close-range headers like a B-movie monster knocking over skyscrapers.
Another clean sheet arrived against Poland, but after that goalless stalemate, the area of concern switched from the back to the front. Influential centre-back Jerome Boateng, peerless in both matches, felt the need to give the team’s forwards a public kick up the backside. Boateng bemoaned a lack of movement, and an inability to expose defenders in one-on-one situations. Indeed, it had been Poland who had created the best opportunities, with Arkadiusz Milik twice guilty of passing up gilt-edged chances.
One man who was trapped on the periphery in both games was Thomas Müller. He had been top scorer for his country at the last two World Cups, and was coming off his best ever domestic season with Bayern Munich, having been involved in 44 goals. However, he struggled to make any impact against either Poland or Ukraine, with no realistic scoring chances in either game. It appeared that the self-styled “space interpreter” has lost his phrasebook.
Müller is a bullish character who doesn’t seem to suffer much from self-doubt, and he remained upbeat, confident things would turn his way. He was right. Against Northern Ireland in the final group game, Müller was like an angry wasp, constantly darting into the penalty area to cause havoc. He twice hit the frame of the goal, was denied in a one-on-one by the superb Northern Ireland keeper Michael McGovern, and it was no surprise when a typically persistent run ended with the only goal of the game. Müller couldn’t score himself, but he teed up Mario Gomez for the winner.
Müller wasn’t the only one to impress against Northern Ireland. His Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich might just have solved Germany’s right-back problem, with a display of startling maturity for a 21-year-old playing his first tournament game at international level. He defended competently, and contributed to Germany’s build-up in attack with panache and intelligence. Pep Guardiola didn’t trust many young players at Bayern Munich, but he trusted Kimmich implicitly, and you can see why.
Germany topped their group with seven points, having scored three goals and conceded none. It wasn’t a body of work to strike fear into opponents’ hearts, but there are parallels to be drawn with the World Cup-winning campaign of 2014. Comfortable opening win? Check. Wobbly draw in the second game? Check. Efficient but unspectacular victory to win the group? Check.
Germany will now face Slovakia in Lille on Sunday, and there is a feeling in the camp that the real tournament begins then. There is plenty of room for optimism. Boateng should shake off a knock to feature on Sunday, and his centre-back partner Mats Hummels looks sharp after missing the opener. Kroos continues to control games with seemingly effortless artistry, while Sami Khedira charges around next to him.
The crafty Mesut Özil looks to be gaining momentum after a slow start, and Gomez showed that Germany have an alternate option in attack should they want a true nine instead of a false one. Perhaps most importantly, Müller’s back, with that mischievous twinkle in his eye.
There’s no clear favourite to win this tournament, but Germany haven’t failed to make the semi-finals of a World Cup or European Championship since 2004. If you ignore them, you ignore history, and you do so at your peril.
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