Germany is off and running at Euro 2016 with a win, but this was a strange performance, very good in parts but slapdash in others. Essentially this confirmed every impression of the word champion over the past three or four years. When it plays well, it is capable of football of great fluency, but it leaves the lingering sense that it can be beaten. Then again, when a Ukrainian surge might have come in the second half, Germany held the ball, frustrated its opponent and denied it a shot between the 65th and 85th minutes.
Shkrodan Mustafi headed Germany into a 19th-minute lead and, although it would be misleading to say Ukraine ever really looked like winning the game, it would also be inaccurate to say Germany was in control–at least until it decided to close the game down with possession as Ukraine ran out of ideas and energy in the second half. Bastian Schweinsteiger banged in a Mesut Ozil cross to seal the 2-0 win in injury time in Lille.
The doubts about Germany derive from its unstereotypical laxity in qualifying. Since Jogi Low replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as national team manager after the 2006 World Cup, Germany has lost just three of 52 qualifiers, but two of them have come in the past two years. Germany dropped eight points in reaching Euro 2016, two more than in the previous three qualifying campaigns combined.
As Germany lost friendlies to England and Slovakia, it has become common to describe it as a Turniermannschaft–a tournament team. The assumption has been that when it came to it, Germany would snap into gear. And it is true that Germany’s record in tournaments under Low is exceptional: finalist, semifinalist, semifinalist, winner. But maybe with this group of players that is pretty much to be expected.
It may not be entirely fair, but one image has come to encapsulate Germany’s complacency. In the qualifier away to Ireland, Ozil missed a simple chance and, rather than reacting with anger or disappointment or even an apology, he laughed. It’s not the worst crime, admittedly, but it does perhaps suggest that after the World Cup win there is a lack of pressure, perhaps a lack of focus.
Spain, it may be noted, also had a slackening after its World Cup win in 2010, conceding four in friendlies against Argentina and Portugal, but it snapped into gear before Euro 2012, qualifying with a perfect record.
Perhaps the difference is that Spain was simply a better team.
Germany, for all the praise rightly heaped on its academy system and the reboot that has produced so many fine creative midfielders, even at the World Cup was short of one high-class fullback and a center forward, as bravely as center back Benedikt Howedes performed at right back and 35-year-old Miroslav Klose toiled up front.
Back in a tournament environment, it didn’t take long for the breakthrough to come. Almost as soon as Germany mounted a serious attack, it scored. Thomas Muller went down easily to win a free kick wide on the right. Kroos’s delivery was quick and accurate and Mustafi powered his header into the top corner.
With previous Germany sides, that would have been that, but the defensive woes that have plagued Germany recently were apparent again. Yevhen Konoplyanka had a first-time shot from the edge of the box pushed wide by Manuel Neuer early on and the keeper made a fine reflex save midway through the half to keep out a Yevhen Khacheridi header.
There was a chance for Sami Khedira, running onto a long ball from Kroos, who had an excellent first half, but this was a ragged display from Germany. Jerome Boateng almost turned into his own net as Konoplyanka mishit an Andriy Yarmolenko ball across goal, instead reacting athletically to keep it out.
Viktor Kovalenko was then narrowly offside as he bundled in after Neuer had blocked another Konoplyanka shot. The Sevilla winger exposed Howedes again and again, making him look cumbersome, a reminder of Germany’s lack of options in that department.
With Klose now retired, the deficiency at center forward was also clear, Mario Gotze operating as a largely ineffective false nine. After 2010, Germany’s problem has been reconciling its move to proactivity with the reactive strengths it had shown previously. Low’s side broke with devastating effect in 2010 and, to an extent, at Euro 2012 and the last World Cup, but here there was a notable lack of pace to its counters. Gotze, who has been out of favor, looked out of shape. Only at the very last, as Ukraine committed men forward, did the break come, with the substitute Schweinsteiger bursting 70 yards to slam in Ozil’s ball at the back post.
So for Germany, the familiar problems of center forward and fullback remain. But so too does the equally familiar capacity to overcome its shortcomings.