1. Anemic offense
Germany’s first goal today came in the form of a perfectly taken free kick by Toni Kroos that was headed into the far corner by Shkodran Mustafi for his first national goal. Otherwise, Germany’s attacking quartet of Draxler, Ozil, Muller, and Götze failed again and again to create and capitalize on opportunities. With the exception of Draxler, who attempted to create plays from the left-hand side, Germany lacked width on the attack, largely stranding Muller and Götze in no-man’s-land. When they received the ball - which happened far too seldom - Ukraine’s well-organized defense usually stifled them in the center. This became particularly apparent around the hour mark, as Toni Kroos’s and Sami Khedira’s long-range shots from well outside the Ukraine’s penalty area were indicative of Germany’s frustration and failure to break through. Götze in particular was disappointing, missing on weak shots and misplaying the ball several times. Magic happened when Bastian Schweinsteiger took the pitch, but despite the final score Germany’s offense played far beneath expectations today.
2. Germany’s defense is still a work in progress, but is perhaps improving
Is Benedikt Höwedes a solution at right-back? He put in a solid game today. On offense, in the absence of a right winger, he was virtually the only player to put the ball into play on the right-hand side, and he moreover constituted a legitimate aerial threat on set-pieces. On defense, while Höwedes made no glaring mistakes, he struggled to contain Ukraine’s left-wingers Konoplyanka and Shevchuk. Höwedes looked good, however, in comparison to his counterpart on the left, Jonas Hector. All too frequently, Hector could not prevent Yarmolenko from blowing past him or delivering dangerous crosses to his teammates in the center. Fortunately, the center held: Jerome Boateng was outstanding both in passing forward and clearing behind, most notably in an acrobatic save cleared from the goal line. Mustafi, pressed into service to cover an ailing Mats Hummels, had a great game by any measure, scoring his first goal for the national team and providing generally steady defense to compensate for Hector’s weakness. Manuel Neuer, fortunately, proved yet again that he is the world’s best, frustrating several dangerous attempts by Ukraine to equalize.
Late substitutions for the final minutes of a game are often nothing more than time-wasting tactics or symbolic gestures. Today, Bastian Schweinsteiger came into the game just before stoppage time, replacing Mario Götze. It looked to be no more than the ceremonial reintroduction of the injury-plagued captain, but circumstances conspired to transform it into one of those magical moments that elevates a game to something greater than its scoreline. Intercepting another Ukrainian attack, Mustafi sent a perfect pass upfield to Mesut Ozil, who lingered just onside long enough to receive the ball and race ahead past Ukraine’s defense. As Schweinsteiger read the play and kept pace, Ozil delivered a perfect cross to him in Ukraine’s penalty area. Schweinsteiger squared up and put the ball in the back of the net, sealing Germany’s 2-0 opening victory. The captain is back! The play had everything that was lacking in the rest of Germany’s game: fast play, the element of surprise, fluid spontaneity, and solid execution. Germany will need much more of that magic if they hope to survive later rounds against tougher opponents than Ukraine.