The European Championships feature 24 teams this year, an all-time high figure; in order to have a round-of-16 stage, the format was amended to allow four third-placed teams to progress through the group phase. There have been mixed reactions to this, and questions have been raised over the competitiveness of games being played in the first round of matches. Thursday night's fixture between Germany and Poland was clearly one such match, the first indication of mathematical calculations and probability dictating playing styles and intent.
It would be unfair to brand this a cagey affair, but the standards were far from what fans have come to expect from the Germany-Poland rivalry. The timing of the fixture, the fact that both sides had won their respective opening round matches, and Thursday's earlier match going against Ukraine — a second successive defeat means Ukraine are virtually out of Euro 2016 — all meant that the stakes were rather low for Germany and Poland.
Most attacks petered out at their climactic stages, and both sets of front-men were firing inaccurately for large parts of the evening. Lukasz Fabianski, replacing Wojciech Szczesny in goal, was unruffled except for a couple of late, scorching shots, which he gladly palmed away. The single biggest causality for every other attack being blunted throughout the night was Poland's mean defensive combination, who positioned themselves with inch-perfect precision, denying Germany's attackers the pockets of space they so desperately crave. On this night, Michal Pazdan and Lukasz Piszczek stood out, against Draxler, Gotze and Muller, who had to work harder to get balls into the box. Kamil Glik continued his role as the defensive general, as did Grzegorz Krychowiak, with characteristic halting of simmering breakthroughs in midfield.
A stark contrast to the game against Northern Ireland was the success in the attacking half, with Kamil Grosicki excelling in a wide left role. His near flawless performance — until he was booked for cutting short a Draxler run — was characterised by sharp balls in, after getting past Howedes with ease down the flank. Unfortunately though, Poland paid for their errors up top, with Arkadiusz Milik fluffing it up multiple times. Getting into point blank positions inside the six-yard box, Milik fired wide off what was the best chance of the match. On another occasion, he missed a perfect ball from Grosicki that landed at his feet. Against an improved German defence, chances were not aplenty, unlike the other evening against Northern Ireland.
Milik could yet be among the top emerging talents of this tournament, but his nervelessness within the box needs to improve drastically if he is to succeed at the highest level. The other half of the strike pair, the much celebrated Robert Lewandowski, had yet another off-day, as the German centre-backs crowded around him, giving him little space to move. It was here that dead ball situations could have changed the game in Poland's favour; but the likes of Milik and Grosicki did little to trouble Manuel Neuer even here.
While Germany passed and passed, looking for creative ideas to close out moves, Poland's play was far more open, leading to more productive chances. Both sides will, in all likelihood, make it to the next round with ease, but the glaring lack of accuracy up top could yet lead to their downfall in the days to come.