The Herald on Sunday
Free-scoring Germany reinstall their fear factor
AMEASURE of how far Germany’s stock has fallen came with the bullish words of Fernando Santos before kick off. “I’m not afraid of [them] at all,” said the Portugal head coach prior to his sides’ 4-2 defeat in Munich’s Allianz Arena. While Santos had taken care to clarify that he thought it would be a close game between the teams, the very suggestion that Germany no longer intimidate teams was a telling statement in itself.
It took just four minutes to remind him that he might have spoken a bit too freely when Germany defender Robin Gosens acrobatically volleyed home from Matthias Ginter’s swirling, goalkeeper-baiting cross. At that point
VAR intervened and judged that Serge Gnabry had lunged towards the ball from an offside position before Gosens made contact with it and Anthony Taylor raised his arm upright to signal a free-kick to Portugal.
Yet, as they snapped into tackles and throttled Portugal’s attacks at source, something was unmistakable: this was less like the Germany we have seen in recent months and more like successful teams of old. Furthermore, the move for that early disallowed goal contained a template for future success.
Not that it was immediately obvious based on what happened next. Despite that opening salvo, when Germany flew out of the blocks, dominated possession and had that early goal disallowed, it was Portugal who took the lead. When a Germany corner was cleared and eventually landed at the feet of Bernardo Silva, the Manchester City playmaker advanced over halfway, then clipped a golfshot pass through to Diogo Jota who cushioned the ball on his chest before feeding Cristiano Ronaldo. The top scorer in the history of the tournament does not miss five-yard tap-ins and he duly took his tally in this year’s competition to three – his 12th goal in a Euros and 107th overall in international matches.
If Ronaldo hitting the net was predictable, Germany falling behind was equally so. Joachim Low’s tenure as Germany head coach is due to end after these finals and much has been made about how he has mishandled preparations for Euro 2020. The accusation is that not enough young players have been blooded following the 2017 Confederations Cup triumph with what was effectively a B team. Yet everywhere you looked, there were players afield who had won World Cup medals, Champions Leagues and domestic titles.
A measure of their woes has come in three defeats – by France, Spain and North Macedonia – over the last seven games. The recent France reverse was closer than critics suggested, but North Macedonia was a shocking result and while losing to Spain was not a surprise in itself, it was the manner of the defeat that raised eyebrows: a 6-0 thrashing in November last year. It further emphasised the core problem facing each of Low’s teams since they won the World Cup in 2014: defensive frailties.
But, having been knocked to the foot of the mountain, Germany started to climb again. The main tactic revolved around ping-ponging the ball to the wing-backs Gosens and Joshua Kimmich. Their midfielders looked to the former who repeatedly galloped forward, unopposed, like a horse in wide open pastures.
Twice in the space of four minutes he was an integral figure as Germany overhauled the deficit, then nudged themselves in front. On the first occasion, in the 35th minute, he crossed for Kai Havertz but Ruben Dias stuck a left shin out to block and succeeded only in diverting the ball past his goalkeeper, Rui Patricio. Then, in the 39th minute, his deep ball to the back post was retrieved by Joshua Kimmich, again Havertz was the target but this time Raphael Guerreiro got to the ball first and, he too, could
only lash the ball past Patricio. What appeared inevitable five minutes before the interval became reality five minutes after it as Germany scored again. By this stage someone who had just arrived on planet earth from Mars might have had a decent stab at explaining how the ball came to end up in Portugal’s net.
An intricate move was given impetus when Thomas Muller surged forward and, when he slid the ball into the left-hand channel, Gosens was arriving to support the attack. His first-time cross was perfectly weighted for the in-rushing Havertz, who side-footed the ball past the exposed Patricio.
For the fourth goal, Germany worked the ball from one side of the pitch to the other in a move that included a flurry of passes as the attack intensified, Havertz fed it wide to Kimmich and he floated a cross to the back post where Gosens – who else? - powered home a header.
Quite why Santos did not alter his side’s shape to combat the obvious beggared belief but it was still no less than Germany deserved – even if Jota took some of the sheen off the margin of the win by making the score 4-2 in the 66th minute. Germany were tested again more than once with substitute Renato Sanches almost snapping a post following a ferocious drive and there was some fraught German defending after that to keep their opponents at bay.
Low’s side had come into the game needing a win to stay alive. Yet, now, following France’s draw with Hungary, Group E is wide open and the Germans suddenly look wide awake. Of course, it might prove to be a false dawn but it’s pretty safe to assume no head coach will be declaring that he is “not afraid” of them until they are definitively dead and buried.