Despite a relatively comfortable two-goal victory over Ukraine in their opening game of Group D on Sunday evening, Germany did not quite convince that their current crop is at the same level as the squad which won the World Cup in Brazil two summers ago.
Now, after one game that may seem a harsh criticism to level, and Löw’s men could yet come up trumps in what appears thus far a very open tournament, but it is worth remembering that Germany are not traditionally slow starters and their win over Ukraine was distinctly laboured at times, with key players playing below level. It is testament to the standard of the side of course that they ground out the result nonetheless, but in reality the game was a lot closer than the score-board suggests. Indeed, numerically at least, this was the most commanding victory of the tournament so far, and Ukraine can feel unlucky not to have picked up a point, all things considered.
So, where can the Germans improve?
Well, firstly defensively. Now, Germany were of course missing stalwart centre-back Mats Hummels due to injury, a player who has enjoyed one of his better domestic seasons at previous club Borussia Dortmund, and who has the ability to bridge the gap between defence and midfield seamlessly. However, Shkodran Mustafi is by now a reasonably seasoned international and yet looked jittery defensively at times, with a couple of errors by the Valencia defender leading to a spate of Ukraine chances before half time.
Were it not for Mustafi’s partner in defence; Jérôme Boateng, Germany would have certainly gone into the break level rather than ahead. The Bayern man cleared acrobatically off of the line after good play by Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, the latter of whom had a fair amount of joy down the left flank for vast swathes of the game, before being saved by the flag (in what was a marginal but correct decision against a Ukraine goal) moments later.
Perhaps the main cause for concern though, was the man tasked with defending against Konoplyanka. Bayern’s Boateng was excellent as ever while Mustafi’s nerves were only a small part of a reasonable performance overall (besides, Hummels should replace him when back to full fitness). Höwedes however, demonstrated once more that he is not a full-back of any standard, yet alone that of an international.
It is honestly impressive that Joachim Löw has stuck stoically with an out of position Höwedes over the past two years after a poor World Cup at left-back, and a lot of time to find a natural player over on the right after the emergence of Jonas Hector over on the left. For a while, Hoffenheim’s Sebastian Rudy was tested out on the right. He is a midfielder by trade, confirming for many that Joachim Löw genuinely has something against full-backs.
Höwedes lacks the pace to be truly effective going forward for Germany – something which the World Champions often try and utilise, and were able to eventually set up their second goal on the break with this method. The defender – who has been linked with Arsenal in the past but rejected them in order to remain with Schalke – also lacks the technical ability to be useful in the rare instances he does get into a good position going forward. Is this a huge criticism of Höwedes? No, not really, for he has proven over the years at his club side that he really is a very good centre-back, and criticism of his unsuitability to a position that he is clearly not a perfect fit for really have to go to his coach – that would be Löw.
Where do we start on Löw? In years gone by, his attire was sensational and his teams exciting, but somewhere along the way, we have found ourselves with a square-peg-round-hole manager in a grey t-shirt. There is a temptation to say that Löw really had little to do with his country’s World Cup win two years ago, and since losing a few key players, he has done very little to refute that line of argument. In fact, Germany have routinely looked shaky in recent years.
It can be argued that this is something perhaps out of Löw’s hands though, as was the performance of his attacking quartet on Sunday evening. Götze; given the nod as a starter probably more because of his key role at the Maracana two years ago rather than any form this season, was virtually invisible. Thomas Müller only showed the clumsy part of his clumsy genius, and Julian Draxler struggled to make much of an impact either despite a couple of exciting breaks.
Mesut Özil was perhaps the best of the four, but the Arsenal man’s attempts to get things going in the second half didn’t really come to anything until his last minute cross to substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger added a gloss to the score-line. Again though, this is not really saying much, as the three around him were non-existent, and had the rest of the team been awake, Özil’s playmaking attempts may well have bore more fruit.
There are a handful of positives to mention though, so let’s go for that. Toni Kroos was once again masterful from midfield, setting up Mustafi’s opener with a sumptuous free kick. This was a staple of Germany’s successful World Cup campaign and something which appears as if it’s set to continue this time around. The tactic and the Madrid midfielder himself could be crucial as the tournament progresses, and the former Bayern technician was undoubtedly man of the match. Boateng impressed with his goal-line clearance in the first half and was perhaps the best of the German defenders, while Manuel Neuer made a handful of smart saves when called upon.
The signs aren’t exactly bleak for Germany but there are a number of lessons to be learned and perhaps a few problems that need to be solved if they are going to make a huge title challenge this summer. It is time to see what Löw and his young squad are made of.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by oriehnid