PARIS – The good news, perhaps, for a Germany team whose defense was suspect throughout qualifying, is that it kept its second straight clean sheet of the tournament. The bad news is that it did so in the first half by an approach that lacked much in the way of attacking threat and in the second by riding its luck and through the excellence of Jerome Boateng in a 0-0 draw with Poland. Poland probably had the better of the game, certainly had enough chances in that second half to win, but will probably be content enough with a draw that all but guarantees it a place in the last 16 of Euro 2016.
Germany can be similarly confident of a place in the knockout phase, but not without major questions as to its credentials to win the tournament. It can attack, and it can defend, but it seems incapable of working out a balance between the two modes. Its games go through spells when it seems impossible either side should ever score and spells when it seems a goal must come at one end or the other. That this finished goalless should not disguise both how menacing it looked at times, and how vulnerable.
The nature of the group stage at any tournament is that many of the games feel like the meetings of non-equals with one side doing all the attacking, the other doing all the defending. They can be engaging, particularly if, as what happened when Iceland drew with Portugal or Northern Ireland beat Ukraine, David tweaks Goliath’s nose. Or even if, as what happened as Wales lost 2-1 to England, the minnow makes it difficult for the big fish. But they rarely feel particularly relevant to who will win the competition. This did.
Poland is a good team, perhaps very good; Germany is very good, perhaps excellent. Germany is the world champion; Poland beat it in Warsaw in qualifying. Both sides won their opening games, although the relative merits of Germany’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine and Poland’s 1-0 win over Northern Ireland perhaps came to be differently construed after Northern Ireland’s 2-0 victory over Ukraine earlier in the afternoon.
Germany’s performance in that first game had been strangely patchy: initially good going forward and scratchy at the back and then, in denying Ukraine a shot between the 58th and 90th minutes, superb in possession. But this was a different sort of performance against a different sort of opponent. There seemed to be an attempt by the coach Jogi Low to be tighter at the back, but the corollary was that Germany was much less fluid going forward. And that, really, has been the story of Low’s Germany since it began to try to play a more proactive form of football after the 2010 World Cup: it has never quite managed to get the balance right between attack and defense.
There were two early German chances, Mario Gotze heading a Julian Draxler cross over after four minutes and Toni Kroos firing just wide from Thomas Muller’s cross 12 minutes later, but that was it for a first half in which Poland came to seem increasingly comfortable.
Germany’s problem seems to be that if it is to remain secure it the back, it lacks the creativity to break down sides that don’t gift it goals.
And Poland certainly didn’t do that. So solid has it been with its two banks of four that it wasn’t until the 48th minute of this game that it yielded up its first shot on target of the tournament. That was an effort from Gotze driven straight at Lukasz Fabianski, and it came straight after an even better chance for Poland as Arkadiusz Milik, seemingly caught between a header and a volley, bungled Kamil Grosicki’s cross wide from close range.
Gotze, who was replaced by Andre Schurrle after 65 minutes, has never entirely convinced in that false nine role, and he and Muller switched at the start of the second period. The result was an immediate increase in fluency from Germany–and an immediate increase in defensive laxity. Milik drove a free kick just wide and only a superb tackle from Boateng denied Robert Lewandowski in his shooting stride. Milik then missed his kick after his dummy had allowed Grosicki to run onto a Lewandowki pass.
As the second half opened up, Ozil had a first-time shot brilliantly tipped over by Fabianksi. Finally, with 19 minutes to go, Mario Gomez was introduced for Draxler and Germany had a traditional center forward on the pitch. The effect was to kill Germany’s fluency.
There’s still time to find the balance, of course, and at the World Cup it wasn’t until the quarterfinal that Germany found the way of playing that would take it to the crown. The oddity, though, is that having found the solution then, it seems to have been misplaced again at some point over the past two years.