Sunday June 26th, 2016

LILLE, France – After all the doubts facing Germany, if a 3-0 rout of Slovakia in the Euro 2016 round of 16 didn’t answer them all–Slovakia was too insipid for that–it at least offered a comprehensive victory and a statement that the Germany that won the World Cup is beginning to re-emerge.

Germany started fast, got an early lead and, after that, it was simply a matter of how many goals it would score. As a contest, the game was over as soon as Jerome Boateng volleyed in after eight minutes. Mario Gomez added a second just before halftime and Julian Draxler hooked in a third. It was so easy there was even the opportunity for Lukas Podolski to be brought on for a sentimental 20 minutes at the end.

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Good as Germany was, it must also be acknowledged that Slovakia was poor. This is the flip side of Jan Kozak’s preference for a counterattacking approach. If an early goal is conceded, there isn’t really anywhere to go. What had worked against Spain in qualifying and England in the last group game–and against an experimental Germany when it won 3-1 in a friendly in Augsburg in March–was rapidly undone here.

The return of a center forward, even one as habitually profligate as Mario Gomez, has helped Germany, just as it did in the World Cup when Miroslav Klose was restored to the starting lineup for the quarterfinal. There is a more obvious structure to the side while he is there, an out-ball from defense and a focal point. Gomez playing at center forward also allows Thomas Muller to move into the center, and it’s his capacity at finding space from that position, linking with Mesut Ozil and, in this game, Draxler, that gives Germany its fluency, even against teams that sit deep as Slovakia did.

Gomez’s re-selection isn’t the only echo of the World Cup. Then, as now, the problem areas were at center forward and at right back, an issue solved by pushing Philipp Lahm back to his more traditional position. Here the solution seems to be the introduction of Joshua Kimmich, the Bayern Munich 21-year-old, who won just his second cap in the game against Northern Ireland. His mobility and willingness to get forward, surging into the space left by Ozil’s habit of drifting infield, makes a huge difference, offering Germany a variety of depth in the attack, one that it lacked in the 0-0 draw against Poland.

Draxler came in on the left in place of Mario Gotze, who has had a poor tournament, and he, too, was incisive, his capacity to cut past defenders a huge advantage against a massed rearguard. Once again, over the first few games of the tournament Jogi Low appears to have worked out his most effective team.

Where England had toiled to break Slovakia down, Germany had the lead within eight minutes, which conditioned the rest of the game. After that, Slovakia couldn’t sit back as it had against England. Not that that was the only reason Germany won with such ease. It had looked dangerous even before taking the lead.

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The opener, sweet as though Boateng’s strike was, was a little freakish, a corner headed clear and lashed in first time from 25 yards with the air of a flick off the toe of Milan Skriniar. Five minutes later, Martin Skrtel, a defender who persistently grapples with his man, was at last penalized for it, but Ozil’s penalty was weak and saved by Matus Kozacik.

But that merely deferred the inevitable.

The first half was a constant procession of German attack. It wasn’t particularly exciting or dramatic, but it was relentless. Just as the intensity began to drop before halftime, Juraj Kucka drew a fine save from Manuel Neuer as he met a Peter Pekarik cross with a combination of his shoulder and the side of this head. That, though, seemed merely to remind Germany it needed a second goal. It soon arrived, with Draxler slicing through on the left and pulling a cross back for Gomez to turn in.

The second half was then a procession. A Toni Kroos corner was flicked on by Mats Hummels for Draxler, untended at the back post, to volley in. This perhaps wasn’t quite as much of a siege as the Northern Ireland game, but, still, at 3-0 and with Germany easing up in the latter stages, it felt like Slovakia had gotten away lightly.

Germany’s performance was probably the best by any side in the tournament so far. There was coherence and drive, a familiar ruthlessness, but it was only against Slovakia, and a Slovakia playing poorly at that. The quarterfinal, against either Spain or Italy in Bordeaux, will be rather tougher.

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