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Below is the seventh installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.
Both Northern Ireland’s team and their fans have based themselves in Lyon in these European Championships, the eastern metropolis providing a mid-way point between Nice, where they played Poland in Group C’s opener, and Paris, where they face Germany in Tuesday’s final group game.
The Stade de Lyon was the venue for Thursday’s excellent 2-0 win over Ukraine and the 59,000-seater stadium was awash with green and white, as well as hailstones, as Northern Ireland recorded their first ever victory in a European finals.
The green and white army will now descend en masse to the Parc des Princes in buoyant mood, not only because of their team’s fantastic response to their opening defeat to Poland but because the struggles of their next opposition now present a possible scalp.
The idea of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland, having been seeded fifth for qualifying and with the second smallest pool of players to choose from at these finals, overcoming world champions Germany may be preposterous, but there will be a great deal of scrutiny now waiting to be placed on Joachim Low’s team.
Germany have stuttered through the group stages so far, producing an unconvincing display to overcome Ukraine before they fell flat against Poland in Paris. Toni Kroos has been superb in orchestrating proceedings from the heart of midfield but he, and attacking midfielder Julian Draxler, seem to be the only ones in tune with the percussion.
They had Jerome Boateng’s goal-line clearance to thank for a clean sheet against the Ukraine and a wasteful Arkadiusz Milik to thank for the shut-out against Poland. Milik squandered two clear chances after good work by Kamil Grosicki on the right, while Boateng had to jump into a late block to deny his club-mate Robert Lewandowski.
Poland managed only 4 shots to Germany’s 12 and Kroos, together with his midfield partner Sami Khedira, ensured they bossed possession, but the ease with which the movement of Grosicki, Lewandowski and Milik opened up their defence would be of far more alarming concern to Low than an observant television camera.
There are problems at full-back where Jonas Hector and Benedikt Howedes, a centre-half by trade but filling in at right-back, were given a hard night by Yehven Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko of Ukraine while against Poland they offered precious little in the way of attacking industry.
Boateng’s tendency to wander out of position is always prevalent, but Low will be encouraged by the return of Mats Hummels from injury to bring solidity and a wealth of experience alongside him.
Boateng and Hummels partnered each other in Brazil two years ago and with Khedira’s energy shielding the awesome Kroos in midfield, the amount of chances Germany are affording could begin to dry up.
Howedes is clearly uncomfortable at right-back though but with Low’s squad packed with centre-halves, Emre Can has played there sporadically for Liverpool and could be an option, it will be tough to find an alternative. In a tournament where midfields are tightly packed and full-backs are driving forwards to offer teams their width, it seems the Germans, out of synch with their usually innovative selves, aren’t privy to that trend.
The team that held a lot of the ball against Poland but failed to do anything of note with it was desperately crying out for width too, with Thomas Muller, best at attacking spaces around the box like a predatory hunter, oddly cast out to the right where he appeared isolated. So prolific in World Cups, he is yet to net in a European Championships.
On the opposite side Draxler threatened but failed to produce a significant final ball when he was asked, while Mesut Ozil, cast centrally in support of the confidence-void Mario Gotze, was typically his pop-up self, drifting in and out of a game he could have left his mark on had he possessed more conviction or willingness to become more involved.
Oddly for Germany, with largely the same team that sauntered to the World Cup title in Brazil, it all seemed rather stale, with the reformed group stage, meaning a point would have been beneficial to both them and Poland after opening wins, offering some justification.
Low has said his side are playing two tournaments this summer, one with the clutter of the group-stage and the last 16 before moving on to the business end of the championships. Some of that may correlate with their current stasis, but they will have to improve greatly if they are to replicate what nearly-all German teams throughout history have done and reach the latter stages of the tournament.
That may entail finding a solution to their forward problem with Mario Gotze so ineffective in France he may as well be tanning himself on holiday. His two years of decline under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, where he has struggled to adapt to the intense-pressing, constant-movement game the Catalan demands, since he jumped off the bench to score the winning goal against Argentina in the Maracana have left their scars and Germany are being left to patch them up.
The decision to play him as a ‘false-nine’ so far has backfired with the runs not forthcoming to give the likes of Ozil and Draxler options in the final third. Mario Gomez, as the only traditional number 9 in the squad after Miroslav Klose’s retirement, may offer a different, more direct approach, albeit one without goals, the 30 year old’s goal in the March friendly with England is his only goal for Die Mannschaft in four years.
His inclusion will undoubtedly give more options for balls from midfield and will allow Muller more space to move defenders around, while he is more likely to be a sticking-point for the ball than the likes of Leroy Sane and Andre Schurrle, who boast pace as their main strengths and are best preying on balls pumped behind defenders.
Gomez would offer an aerial threat severely lacking from Gotze’s game which Germany paid for against Poland as both Draxler and Boateng saw threatening high-balls go to waste.
“I did not start Gomez against Poland because their central defence is strong in the air so I wanted low passing” said Low, in itself a measure of how short of ideas the Germans became in Paris, “Northern Ireland are a different team. We have until Tuesday to address the situation.”
Northern Ireland and their droves of supporters will head to Paris in optimistic mood that their seminal moment awaits them, but if their opposition is to harbour aspirations to complete a historic major tournament double, the game in the south-west of the city will be as equally pivotal to them.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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