Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fair is Fair

Germany did what everyone expected they would on Friday, beating an inferior Greek side 4-2, in the process showing why they are one of the favorites to win the tournament. However, the Germans did miss many chances early in the match and even allowed an equalizer to Greece ten minutes into the second half before truly taking over and putting the game out of reach. Though I think that Germany was more impressive than the Portugal side that I partially criticized in my last post, I also realize that there were holes in this performance just like there was in that of the Portuguese. Therefore, while I still believe that Germany is definitely the superior team, I would like to break down Germany a little more than just saying "they're good" and look at where they need improvement as well. After all, Portugal advanced without allowing a goal and were also the dominant team in their match. Perhaps things are closer than I would like to initially admit.

The Good

They scored. More than anything, I was critical of Portugal for dominating a less-skilled opponent but only managing one goal, a goal that did not come until the 79th minute. Germany did not have that problem as they scored first in the 39th on a piece of brilliance by Philipp Lahm, then three times in the second half within fifteen minutes, seemingly insulted by Greece's equalizer. Lahm, Sami Khedira, and Marco Reus all had exceptional individual efforts while Miroslav Klose made the most of an inch-perfect cross from Mesut Ozil to head in what seems like his 873rd goal in a German shirt. More than that, Germany's possession game was all-encompassing, not only holding the ball for 66% of the match but also creating dangerous chances all over the field, constantly pressuring the Greek defense and, unlike Spain, making aggressive runs at goal. The shots(on goal) numbers of 24(14) vs 9(5) bear this out and to be honest, Greece was lucky to make it out of the first half only down one.

Aside from the dominant possession and shots stats, Germany passed the eye test again and again. Ozil was brilliant in this match, making smart runs all over the defensive third and playing a part in every goal. Khedira's late runs into the area often caught Greek defenders off guard and his goal was a perfect example of surprising a defender that didn't expect him to be where he was, much like Cristiano Ronaldo's goal against the Czech Republic. Even Manuel Neuer looked good when called upon (which was rare), clearing away one good ball over the top and getting a good piece of the ball on the goal when most other keepers would have been left floundering.

What was particularly striking about Germany was the realization that, like Spain, they have an embarrassment of riches all over the field. Manager Joachim Low left Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski, and Mario Gomez on the bench and instead gave starts to Klose, Reus, and Andre Schurrle. Only Schurrle could be judged to have had a sub-par game due to his inaccurate passing and Low now has the choice of which players to utilize in his attack against the winner of England vs Italy, a decision that, while difficult, is hardly worthy of pity or sympathy. With even the wave of substitutes contributing and scoring goals, what exactly could Germany have done wrong?

The Bad

To start, they could have finished better. That sounds borderline crazy to say about a team that put in four goals, but they could have scored all four of their goals in the first half and never had their momentary scare later in the match. Reus missed golden opportunities early, Schurrle whipped several shots wide of the post, and even the impressive Ozil bungled a chance or two. These were the type of opportunities that you would see go wanting and exclaim "surely that must have been a goal!" Lahm's strike in the 39th minute was impressive, but it also papered over an ugly truth: Greece almost entered the second half of this game with a 0-0 draw, the exact result that they would want from the first 45 minutes. Too often the German attackers let Greek defenders off the hook and as we saw from Greece's counter in the 55th, you keep teams in a match at your own peril.

Speaking of the counter, I'm sure Portuguese fans will be all too happy to point out that their team did not allow the Czechs to possess the ball hardly at all in the second half, let alone give up a goal on a well put together counterattack. To Germany's credit, it really was a good counter. The ball forward for Dimitris Salpingidis was perfectly weighted and the cross that found the foot of Georgios Samaras was a thing of beauty. No matter how well executed it was, however, Germany allowed it to happen. They let Greece stay in the game with only a one goal lead and then let in an equalizer to put pressure on their backs once again. As it turned out, the Greeks' goal only served to wake the Germans up and they put in three quick goals afterward. But against England or Italy, they may not be able to make those mistakes. Both of their potential opponents in the semifinals are better defensively than Greece, better on the attack, and just better all around. That 1-1 scoreline may last much longer than the Germans would want and once you get into overtime or penalties, anything can happen.

One last note: Bastian Schweinsteiger has to be better. I personally think he's one of the best ten or so players in the world right now, but he was poor in this match. He turned the ball over numerous times, couldn't get into the flow of the attack, and never looked like the lynchpin he was in previous matches like the victory over Holland. My first instinct was the perhaps he was suffering from a lack of pressure due to Greece sitting so deep, but he used that time and space to rip the Dutch open again and again, so it seems that he just had a poor day. That may be fine for a game like this where Germany was always on the attack and always likely to win, but when the sides are more equal, he will need to be an important player once again.

No matter how impressive this win seemed for Germany, they can still be better. Perhaps they were only playing at 90% due to the quality of their opponent (quick note: I keep saying the Germans were superior to the Greek team and while I believe that's true, that's not meant as disrespect to Greece; they did great work to get out of Group A and it looked for a while like they might stay in this match, but the German team was just too talented), but they also need to prove they can tap that last 10% when it is needed. I still believe them to be a more complete team than Portugal, but now that both teams are into the semifinals, that comparison won't matter unless both teams win their next game. If that happens, well, we can revisit just who is the better squad.

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