With little over a minute to go before full time, Ukraine had a corner. It trailed Germany by a goal and, as a final desperate throw of dice, the players pushed forward to seek parity. The move, however, broke down instantly and within seconds Andre Schurrle had released Mesut Özil on the left. The Arsenal playmaker looked up and composed himself before delivering a sumptuous ball that Bastian Schweinsteiger placed home with finesse.
It was a sight that gladdened the heart. For this is how Özil and his German teammates had provided us a glimpse of their huge potential. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Germany had provided an excellent demonstration of counterattacking football. The apogee of that campaign was the quarterfinal blitzing of Argentina. The long-running stereotype of mechanical and efficient Germany was dramatically reversed.
As Germany went about accomplishing three points against Ukraine with a 2-0 win at Lille on Sunday night, one wondered whether that verve had been somewhat eschewed. After the match, Ukrainian manager Mykhaylo Fomenko summed his view up neatly. “A machine is a machine,” he said.
The way Germany have reacquired their consistency on the international stage, one may be tempted to invoke that age-old stereotype again. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, this German machine is closer in spirit to the River Plate side of the 1940s famously known as ‘La Maquina’. The term literally means ‘The Machine’ in Spanish. That River team was known for its constant exchange of passes and a quick movement characterised by instinctual swapping of positions. The Argentinean club side was also called the ‘Knights of Anguish’ for its long-drawn attractive passing football that did not seek instant gratification that goals provide.
To say the current German side does the same would be to overstate the case but there are similarities to be found between the two. Even though Germany sat on its 1-0 lead for a long time on Sunday, the football it played remained engaging. In part, Germany was forced to withdraw itself a bit from a full-blown offensive approach after Ukraine exposed some of its weaknesses in the first half.
This was not too dissimilar from what happened two years ago when Germany met Portugal in its opening game of the World Cup in Brazil. The first 15 minutes were incredible as both sides left themselves staggeringly open. However, once its problems were there to be seen, Germany responded with a hint of conservatism to limit Portugal’s threat. Eventually, Joachim Leow’s side ran out 4-0 winners.
Germany’s slightly reckless approach to attack invited veritable threats from Ukraine in Lille as well. The midfield pushed up a bit too much sometimes; the lack of defensive support for left-back Jonas Hector only complicated matters. Julian Draxler was guilty of not tracking back to support his partner on the wing and the laxity could have been punished by Ukraine’s talented wide players, Yehven Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. In fact, Manuel Neuer had to come to rescue as early as the fifth minute when he parried Konoplyanka’s powerful shot. It was not the only time when his services were required on the night.
However, Ukraine took a while before it could offer a constant threat to the Germans. A fortunate goal in the 19th minute had given the world champions the lead when Toni Kroos’ fantastic free-kick was headed home by a free Shkodran Mustafi. The element of luck came from the incorrect decision by referee Martin Atkinson to award the free-kick as Yaroslav Rakitskiy had fairly won the ball off Thomas Müller.
However, not for the first time under Leow, Germany’s intensity dropped after taking the lead. This allowed Ukraine to compete on a more equal footing and the Germans went into the break feeling the pressure. Leow, though, responded by pulling things back and Germany established their control once again. The second half passed relatively incident-free until Schweinsteiger’s first goal for his country in five years.
One of the major reasons for Germany’s largely controlled display was the metronomic presence of Toni Kroos. He completed 104 passes on the night, created five chances and more or less ran the show. It helped that Ukraine did not think of pressing him hard. Kroos found space whenever he liked and initiated multiple moves from the midfield.
Kroos’ iron grip on the proceeding, though, was not lost on the centre-backs Mustafi and Jerome Boateng. They aggressively pushed the ball forward to find spaces in the centre of the pitch. Mustafi in particular had an impressive game, although his display was blemished for a bit towards the end when his poor header almost led to a comical equaliser. The Valencia defender was an alert presence at the back otherwise, finishing with most interceptions (seven) and successful aerial duels (five).
Mustafi’s display would have assured Leow that his team can cope with Mats Hummels’ injury-forced absence that may go beyond the group stages. The three points also kept Germany’s long-running record of never losing its first match at the Euro alive. The Germans are now unbeaten in twelve opening matches in this tournament’s history.
More records can be set if Germany can improve upon the mature display it produced against Ukraine. Although a few issues came to light, the way Leow’s side responded in the second half would have assured him some lessons have been learnt. Goals, however, may continue to be hard to come by.
When Germany thrashed Argentina 4-0 in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal, it finished with 39 percent possession. On Sunday, the figure was an impressive 68. Of course, Germany’s playing style has undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The use of Mario Götze as a false nine, though, presents problems in converting chances into goals as he’s not a natural finisher. This may mean that Mario Gomez gets an opportunity in the coming games. Perhaps that’s what Leow needs to do to ensure Germany do not become the ‘Knights of Anguish’.
(All statistics mentioned above were taken from FourFourTwo Stats Zone)
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2016 09:05 AM