Having started to click into gear in their final group match against Northern Ireland, the Mannschaft machine looked to have got things absolutely right – overwhelming a defensively-minded Slovakia with a heady mix of skill, guile and power. With the false nine experiment now a distant memory, Jogi Löw’s side showed the form that swept them to the world title in Brazil.
On a bright afternoon in Lille in front of a crown that made it feel like a home game, any memories that were lurking in German minds from the damp 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Slovaks just three weeks earlier were quickly forgotten.
The coach will still be looking at papering the few remaining cracks before a crunch encounter with old foes Italy – more on them later – but this performance was light years away from the sketchy form the Mannschaft had shown since that glorious evening in Rio. The defence looked tighter than ever, the offensive midfield unit was purring, and the presence of a tall, orthodox number nice was not just about scoring goals but creating an ever-present sense of danger.
Germany has not acquired its widely-envied Turniermannschaft for nothing.
Facts and Stats
This was Germany’s eleventh meeting with Slovakia, and their third in competitive matches. The first two had come in qualifying for the 2008 Euros, when a convincing 4-1 win for the Mannschaft in Bratislava was followed by a slightly closer 2-1 triumph in Hamburg.
The last meeting between the two teams had come just three weeks earlier in Augsburg, with Ján Kozák’s team coming back from a goal goal to record a 3-1 victory, their first on German soil. The match had been marred by the bad weather, with the second half delayed by thirty minutes as the pitch was reduced to a waterlogged bog.
There were a number of personal records set, and one duck broken. Thomas Müller made his 75th appearance in the Nationaltrikot, Julian Draxler scored his first competitive international goal, and centre-back Jérôme Boateng scored his first goal in his sixty-third match.
Germany had spluttered in fits and starts against Ukraine, were stodgy against Poland, and started to crank things up against Northern Ireland without firing on all cylinders. In this game, everything clicked into place.
The men in white were quickly into their stride, switching through the gears before their opponents could even get a grip on the game. It was testament to Germany’s complete dominance that Slovakia’s star man Marek Hamšík hardly got a sniff for the entire first half.
After Boateng soothed any remaining jangling nerves with his twenty-something yard screamer, the Mannschaft embarked on a serene stroll towards the quarter-finals. Even a penalty failure from Mesut Özil was no big deal, and within moments the white wave was again crashing against the blue shore.
Manuel Neuer staved off any danger of a Slovak equaliser with a stunning save four minutes before the break, and just two minutes later the impressive Draxler weaved down the left and to the byline to make it easy for Mario Gómez to execute the easiest of poacher’s finishes. The goal was simple in its execution, but illustrated Germany’s clinical incisiveness.
The one-directional flow of the match suggested that it was already over by half-time, but a brief Slovak flurry at the start of the second half kept Jogi’s Jungs on their toes. Neuer had his gloves gently warmed for the second and last time in the match, but as the Slovakian threat petered out Draxler volleyed in a third to settle matters just after the hour mark.
Bastian Schweinsteiger came off the bench to replace Sami Khedira and Boateng made way for Benedikt Höwedes as Löw started to ring the changes from a position of complete comfort, and there was even an opportunity for Lukas Podolski to make his first appearance of the tournament.
With Schweinsteiger and Podolski back on the pitch and the German fans in good voice, one could feel the spirit of the summer of 2006.
Conclusions and Ratings
Every member of the team played their part. Goalkeeper Neuer had a quiet afternoon but produced a world-class save when the score was still 1-0, the back four turned out their best performance of the tournament, while the up front the chances were finally being turned into goals.
While Neuer, Gómez, Boateng and right-back Joshua Kimmich were all outstanding, the undoubted man of the match was Draxler. Recalled to the starting eleven in place of Mario Götze after two flat displays, the gifted VfL Wolfsburg playmaker was arguably the final missing piece of the puzzle. His willingness to take on opponents gave Germany the additional edge they had lacked in their previous match against Northern Ireland, and answered all of the questions asked of him.
With Thomas Müller looking sharper and Özil turning out another polished performance – blighted by an early penalty miss, but we can forgive him that – Germany launched wave after wave against their opponents that had looked solid and well organised in their three group fixtures. All three players together provided a lovely variation in approach: Müller with his management of space, Özil with his slack, defence-splitting passes, and Draxler with his jinking, dancing and bold advances to the byline.
Defensive midfield pairing Khedira and Toni Kroos also delivered their best performance as a partnership, with both players marshalling the middle of the pitch and setting a tempo for almost the entire ninety minutes. Khedira was solidly commanding as always, and Kroos once again kept things flowing with his accurate distribution. Down the flanks, Kimmich’s sojourns down the right were matched by an equally impressive display from Jonas Hector.
We could go on.
Not much to do on what was another quiet clean sheet afternoon, but when pulled out the stops when called up. Produced a stunning save to prevent an Juraj Kucka an equaliser just before half time, and even had time to do a little sweeper-keeping.
Another strong display from the youngster, who put in another decent shift at right-back. He looks to have locked down the position with Benedikt Höwedes happy to sit on the bench. Sent in the cross to Mario Gómez that resulted in the early penalty.
What more can you say about big Boa? Already the cornerstone of a rapidly improved German back four, the FC Bayern centre-back got off the mark for the Mannschaft with his early strike. Solid at the back, dangerous moving forward and capable of matching even Toni Kroos with his passing accuracy, Boateng has been one Germany’s class acts at this tournament. Made way for Benedikt Höwedes with just under twenty minutes remaining.
Solid as ever in defence, despite not having much to do. Was always dangerous when venturing forward, and provided the crucial assist for Julian Draxler’s match-clinching volley.
Had been quiet in early games before putting his head above the parapet against Northern Ireland, and pushed himself further to deliver a decent performance. Not much to do at the back, but worked the left overlap well with Draxler.
Dominant as always without being spectacular, but that works fine for us. Deadly accurate with his distribution, controlling the tempo and flow of the game like a conductor of an orchestra.
Controlled the middle third of the pitch with Toni Kroos, with his usual mix of intelligence, strength and and energy. Mopped when he was needed at the back, and a dangerous addition to the attack when going forward. Was replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger after seventy-six minutes.
Still unable to break his Euros scoring duck, but offered plenty of options and movement on the right flank. It might have been an idea to let him take the early penalty – based on the theory that one goal will open the floodgates.
The man of the match, both for me and the official judges. More than made the most of recall to the side, replacing his earlier timidity with a desire to take on and beat his man. Draxler was a constant thorn in the side of the Slovak defence, and was richly rewarded for his stunning display. His weaving run to the byline set up the second goal for Mario Gómez, before he swept in Germany’s third with a skillful volley. Made way for Bastian Lukas Podolski with just under twenty minutes left on the clock.
Missed an early penalty that would have put the Mannschaft two up after twelve minutes, but this should take nothing away from what was another great display full of skill and craft. Özil’s defence-slicing passes were a constant source of worry for the Slovaks, and once again it is clear that his game is upped a level by the presence of a proper number nine in front of him.
Another game, and another goal for the big striker. Gómez’s presence creates a different dynamic in the box that gives those moving around him more fluidity and freedom, with the added bonus that he is a natural goalscorer. Was right on the money again, finishing off Draxler’s smart move with an easy finish from close range.
Had a comfortable twenty minutes on the pitch after replacing Boateng, and could have sleepwalked his way through it.
Replaced Draxler to chalk up his first showing at Euro 2016, and made the most of his quarter of an hour or so on the pitch. Offered a more direct contrast to Draxler’s nimble footwork, sending in a couple of decent crosses as he kept the pressure up on the Slovak defence.
The third appearance off the bench for the skipper in replacing Khedira, and perhaps the easiest. Slotted in seamlessly as the match drew to a close.
Neuer (2) – Kimmich (2), Boateng (1), Hummels (2), Hector (3) – Khedira (3), Kroos (2) – Özil (3), Müller (3), Draxler (1) – Gomez (2)
Neuer (2) – Kimmich (3), Boateng (2), Hummels (2), Hector (3.5) – Khedira (3), Kroos (3) – Özil (3), Müller (3), Draxler (1.5) – Gomez (2)
Neuer (2) – Kimmich (2), Boateng (1), Hummels (2), Hector (2) – Khedira (3), Kroos (3) – Özil (2), Müller (3), Draxler (1) – Gomez (2). Substitutes (until 75 minutes): Höwedes (3), Podolski (3)
Next up, Italy
The day after Germany booked their place in the last eight, the knew who their opponents in Bordeaux would be. In a repeat of the 2012 final, Spain faced off with Italy – but this time the Italians would finish on top, carving out a well-deserved 2-0 win. Spain have become Germany’s bête noire in recent years, but the big bugbear has always been Italy. Somehow, every Germany fan knew that they would turn up somewhere along the line.
Of course, we all know the recent stories. That heartbreaking semi-final against Italy in Dortmund in 2006, then, six years later in Warsaw, the derailment in Warsaw – a game that Germany would have won were it not for a combination of the coach’s strange team selection and Italian striker Mario Balotelli having a rare, exceptional evening.
Italy are once again playing like, well, Italy. Like the Mannschaft, they are a tournament team. Having beaten a highly-ranked Belgian side and edged past Sweden to win their group, they then slumped to a defeat at the hands of a far from fantastic Republic of Ireland before wearing down the reigning champions with a display of tenacity and tactical nous.
It is unlikely, barring injury, that the Nationaltrainer will change his starting eleven this time around. Germany have the form and the team to beat their bogey and finally remove the weight of the azure blue monkey, but the biggest weight will be that of history.