Doubts about Germany's attack persist after goalless draw vs. Poland
PARIS -- The second games in his four previous major competitions have often proved unsettling experiences for Joachim Low, and the story was no different in the French capital on Thursday, as Germany could muster only a goalless draw against a resolute Poland side. The result won't significantly harm his team's chances to top Group B, but the performance will lead to some soul-searching over the course of the next few days.
The improvement that the World Cup winners had sought after their 2-0 win in the opening game against Ukraine simply did not materialise. On the contrary: doubts about the team's attacking quality were only increased on this frustrating evening for the Nationalmannschaft.
For a while, it had looked as if all questions -- Can Mario Gotze lead the line? Can Germany find the right balance in midfield? Can they win the Euros with this team? -- would be answered in the affirmative. The World Cup winners had started with purpose at the Stade de France, pushing the Poles back with some sharp vertical passing and good movement between the lines. But then, 15 minutes into the game, Poland coach Adam Nawalka left his bench and put an end to Germany's early dominance.
The 58-year-old gestured to his midfield row of four to close the gap between them and the defence, a 20-metre deep corridor in which Germany had found some threatening positions. Once that space was lost to Low's team, however, the Nationalmannschaft had nowhere to go but exactly where Poland wanted them: to the flanks.
The Germans, wary of their opponents' counterattacking capabilities, constantly opted for the ball out wide instead of risking a loss of possession with a central pass through the eye of a needle. Germany had plenty of width, especially on the left-hand side, where left-back Jonas Hector and midfielder Julian Draxler played in close proximity to one another. But the duo's lack of pace made it the wrong kind of width: static, unproductive, a dead end 40 metres from goal, which might as well have been 400. Crosses were either cut out or sailed aimlessly over the head of Gotze.
Low wouldn't have been surprised by this deficiency; Germany's problems on the wings predate this tournament. The situation wasn't much different in the first four games in Brazil two years ago, when four centre-backs offered little by way of support for the wide midfield players, who weren't really wide midfielders, either, but playmakers and second strikers going by the names of Mesut Ozil and Gotze. History repeated itself here, in a somewhat disheartening manner for the men in white and black.
Thomas Muller had one of his worst games for the national team on the right. Nothing came off. On the opposite side of the pitch, Draxler's composure helped Germany keep possession in the final third, but as a right-footed player, he was unable to get behind Poland's experienced right-back Lukasz Piszczek. Any creative momentum had come from Ozil, the No. 10 with the freedom to drift near the box. The Arsenal man couldn't provide the pivotal moment, however. His passing was a little off, the movement not ingenious enough to outsmart the superbly organised defence around centre-backs Kamil Glik and Michal Pazdan.
Germany went into the break having not had a single shot on target. Jerome Boateng was scathing in his assessment of his teammates' endeavours after the final whistle. "We have to finish off our moves more often, we have to beat our man in attack, we have to try harder to make the run, we have to be more aggressive," lamented the Bayern Munich defender. "If we continue like that, we don't get very far." The 27-year-old was voted man of the match after a focused, if not entirely flawless performance against his club teammate Robert Lewandowski. Mats Hummels, too, had a decent game, returning from injury.
The game opened up in the second half, with both teams coming a lot closer to opening the scoring. Arkadiusz Milik should have connected better with a cross to force the ball past Manuel Neuer seconds after the restart, and the former Augsburg and Bayer Leverkusen striker missed the ball completely when a second chance came his way 20 minutes later. Germany, too, eked out mostly half-chances. Ozil came closest with a shot from the edge of the box.
In the end, both defences were winners in a game short on final-third excellence. "It's a bit of a pity. We created more clear-cut chances to score. It's a good result, but it could have been better," said Poland midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. "We won a point against the world champions. And that's a positive kick for us, it gives us confidence."
Germany's satisfaction stretched only as far as another clean sheet. "The defence on the whole did really well, we allowed Poland almost no counterattacks, because they're really good at that," Low said. "They had one big chance but apart from that Manuel Neuer didn't have a save to make."
Benedikt Howedes, too, stressed the need to prevent quick transitions from the Poles, admitting that defensive caution had "perhaps" inhibited Germany's attacking verve.
The bigger, more worrying factor was a "lack of flexibility up front," Neuer remarked. "We didn't switch sides often enough, we didn't do anything surprising to pose different kind of problems for them." Low, asked about not starting with orthodox striker Mario Gomez, explained that he wanted his team to combine on the deck, in tight spaces, but that Germany were "missing effectiveness."
Germany might well labour again in the next game against Northern Ireland, Neuer felt. "They, too, will get everybody behind the ball quickly, they will take away the spaces, we'll have to do better." But how? The Bayern keeper said he was looking forward to playing bigger, more attacking teams later on. "They will give us more room to manoeuvre," he said, but the keeper also warned that there was "no time to get going."
It was "hard to say" where exactly Germany stood after these two games, Neuer said. They're top of the table, of course, but none the wiser about their chances to win the competition.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.