Germany kick off Euros with performance that displays enthusiasm for hosts

Sports

MUNICH, Germany — You couldn’t have asked for a better start to settle the nerves. And, yes, these were genuine nerves, despite the somewhat blasé, let’s-just-enjoy-it-vibe they were giving off back in March.

When you’re Europe’s historical footballing superpower — with the four World Cups and the three European Championships — and you’ve gone to three major tournaments without making the Elite Eight, the screws turn, no matter how much you will them away. Especially when you’re hosting the party and the uppity neighbours whom you routinely humiliated in the past (France and England) are coming to visit wishing you nothing but schadenfreude.

The gaudy win over Scotland however, is a bit like the double shot of Glenfiddich to calm yourself down before a scary, but necessary, task. It’s a temporary boost, but the tough bit it still ahead. And the last thing you need is overconfidence. The doubts and questions that existed going into the tournament are still there. It’s not Germany‘s fault, of course. It’s the fact that, on the night, Scotland were so darn poor, at 11 vs. 11, let alone when they went down to 10 men in the first half after Ryan Porteous went all Mortal Kombat on Ílkay Gündogan.

The quartet of young (Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz) and old (Gündoğan and Toni Kroos) behind Kai Havertz had unpicked Scotland’s deep 5-4-1 in the first twenty minutes. Joshua Kimmich — picked out beautifully by a trademark Kroos’ diagonal pass so ballistically perfect the soon-to-be former Real Madrid man ended up on his backside — squared a cross to Wirtz at the top of the Scottish defense who sent a low, side-foot strike off the keeper’s hands, on to the post and into the net, like some 1970s pool shark hustling tourists.

And then a beauty of a move, featuring threaded needle passes from Kroos and Gündoğan, an intelligent Havertz cutback and a Musiala blast into the roof of the net effectively killed the game.

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The only German misstep in that first half came from Robert Andrich, who looks like he belongs on the undercard of an indie wrestling show and sometimes plays like it, too. There is no reason to get booked when you’re two-nil up, let alone against a markedly inferior opponent, let alone for a foul in the opposition half, let alone to stop Scott McTominay. Havertz converted the penalty awarded for the Porteous red card tackle (that’s right, he didn’t just nearly surgically sever Gündoğan’s ankle, he did it in the penalty area) and Germany went to the break at three-nil.

There wasn’t too much to learn from the second half, because Scotland coach Steve Clarke — presumably in some sort of attempt to game the goal-difference tie-breaker for third-place teams — took off his center-forward Ché Adams, and sent on a centre-back, Grant Hanley, to take Porteous’ place. The 5-4-1 thus became a 5-4-0 which helps explain the many goose eggs in Scotland’s scoreline: zero attempts on target, zero attempts, zero corners, zero offsides, and 0.00 Expected Goals (xG).

Most normal teams don’t play that way and Germany boss Julian Nagelsmann knows this, which is why you imagine he took events in the second half with a pinch of salt. Substitutes Niclas Füllkrug and Emre Can both scored, with the freakiest of freak own goals by Antonio Rüdiger sandwiched in between. But, really, the game was long over. And, arguably, it wasn’t even football as we know it after the break. Don’t believe me? Kroos completed 101 of 102 passes, setting a new completion record (99%).

“He [Kroos] is very important, just like everyone else,” Nagelsmann said post-match. “He’s very experienced and calm. He is part of the group, but that experience is what makes him different. With his record, some would have problems being accepted, but he is not arrogant, he is very important for the team and a pole of calmness.”

Now, passing percentage numbers are generally bogus as a stat, but if the big blond 34-year-old who you know is the only real passing threat in front of the back four goes 101 for 102 and isn’t passing around traffic cones but real, live professional footballers, then something must be awry. Kroos is great, but he can only do that when there’s something seriously wrong with the opposition. And so the questions remain. Given the limitations on the ball of everyone in Germany’s back six other than Kroos and Kimmich, can this set-up work if better opponents start pressing the life out of Germany? We don’t know.

Musiala and Wirtz excel at creating space for themselves, but can they do it against opponents who are quicker and better at stopping them one-on-one when they dribble inside? We don’t know. Can this midfield actually shield the defense and recover the ball if the first line of pressing is broken by opponents who can actually keep the ball in the opposition’s half and transition without overhitting passes like Scotland did? We don’t know. Can Kimmich defend one-on-one effectively against real wingers and not Andrew Robertson having to cover the entire flank on his own? We don’t know.

Can Rudiger and Jonathan Tah shut down center-forwards who might be a tier or two above Adams (who once went 32 games without scoring in the Premier League)? We don’t know. Did he make the right choice in picking Manuel Neuer over Marc-André ter Stegen? We don’t know, since he didn’t face a single shot: he could have put a different Manuel, say, Manuel Miranda, in goal and it wouldn’t have mattered.

These are all known unknowns for Nagelsmann, which is why he’s pumping the brakes. He didn’t expect to see Scotland like this, nobody did. But that’s ok. Because while he might not have gotten significant data points on whether his scheme can actually work, he has plenty of “known knowns” when it comes to individuals. Wirtz has taken his Bayer Leverkusen form with him to the Euros, while Musiala has left Bayern’s nightmare campaign behind.

That Kroos-to-Kimmich diagonal looks to be a weapon even against better opponents. Gündoğan looks sharp and ready to lead and his subs seemed to delight in putting their (metaphorical) foot on the neck of a prone opponent. More broadly, Germany fans — both those at the Allianz Arena and the tens of millions watching on screens around the country — are ready to dream and love their Mannschaft again.

It’s going to get (a lot) tougher than this. The doubts haven’t been swept away. But the butterflies are gone. And that’s important.

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