It's difficult to ascertain just how much trust one should put in historical patterns when it comes to international football. The gap between major tournaments means that things that made a team tick at one tournament could be completely lost by the time the next one starts. Italy was knocked out in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, but made it to the Euro 2012 final, and again exited from the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.
Germany has a historical pattern of its own. The Germans have often underperformed in the second group game of major tournaments since 2000. Of the nine such matches played by Germany, seven have ended in a draw or loss. The latest addition to this list was the goalless draw with Poland on Thursday. But if history could be trusted, especially from the past decade, Germany was going to respond in impressive fashion and overcome the doubts.
And to a certain extent, Joachim Löew's side achieved that. Despite the narrow 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland on Tuesday, it was a match Germany had in its grasp from the first minute. Faced with an opposition that sought only to limit the damage and qualify for the next round, the Germans had long spells with the ball and ended up with 79 per cent of possession. What mattered, though, was how they used it.
Germany sees more of the ball in most matches it plays. Yet, against Ukraine and Poland, they looked a bit ponderous and seemed to lack clarity in the final third. The inclusion of Mario Gomez on Tuesday, though, meant that he could hold the ball up and bring others into play in the final third while himself providing a goal threat.
Thomas Mueller and Mesut Özil were the prime beneficiaries of Gomez’s selection. Mueller enjoyed the fact that Gomez was pulling the centre-backs away for his teammates to run behind the defence; Özil had a target to pick out for his through balls. This was perfectly demonstrated for Germany's opening goal that had the three of them combine before Gomez slotted home. By the end of the match, Mueller had six shots on goal but failed to put any of them in the goal. Özil had the same number of chances and he was rightly awarded the man-of-the-match.
Such was the excellence of the trio's combination that even the out-of-form Mario Goetze looked more threatening than before. Goetze had started in Gomez's spot in the previous group matches and delivered underwhelming performances. His aimless running meant that Germany could not penetrate the opposition defence with angled runs behind defenders. But the inclusion of Gomez provided Löew with a solution.
Another section of the puzzle came together for the German manager on Tuesday. It came in the form of Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich who replaced Benedikt Höwedes. The latter's natural position is in the centre of defence; he had played every game of the 2014 World Cup as left-back, but was moved to the right at the start of this tournament. However, the lack of attacking thrust provided by the Schalke defender meant that Kimmich came into the team.
The young Bayern player was a constant presence in the final third on Tuesday, as he stretched the play for Germany on the right wing. Against a team that was willing to concede space in the front of defence, Kimmich created four chances while successfully dribbling past his resolute opponents on multiple occasions.
With all pieces falling into place, it was perhaps a surprise that Germany won by only a solitary goal in the end. Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern can take credit for that. His superlative goalkeeping performance denied Germany a more convincing score. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that McGovern's 52 touches on the ball were the most by a Northern Irish player (according to Whoscored).
However, it was not just McGovern who stood strong. Germany was faced with a defence that had not conceded more than once in its last 15 matches. The game grew progressively dull as Löew's players realised that the top spot was theirs with the narrow win. Hence, the incentive to test a well-drilled defence kept decreasing.
Northern Ireland's reluctance to attack, though, meant that Germany's occasionally shaky defence was not examined properly. On a few occasions that the Northern Irish players tried to counter attack, centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels were the only ones left to deal with them. However, as seen against Ukraine and Poland, Germany's attack-to-defence transition is fraught with risks and a more competent opposition could cause serious problems.
It won't be long before we find out whether that's true, since Germany lies in the tougher half of the draw. It seems likely that Löew will have to lead his charges to victory over Italy or Spain in the quarters and France/England in the semis. While Germany would see it as a necessary obstacle in its path to glory, the team is yet to acquire the look of a polished outfit.
However, if the game against Northern Ireland is a good guide, the pieces are coming together. It can be reasonably argued that none of Germany's opponents have seemed unbeatable either. This could be anybody’s tournament and if history can be trusted, the Germans are more likely than others to take charge of the competition.
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Updated Date: Jun 22, 2016 09:03:06 IST