Powering past timidity: How Stats Zone saw Germany 2-0 Ukraine
England have never won their opening Euros game; Germany have never not won theirs. That might explain a few things, and the Mannschaft certainly got down to business against Ukraine.
Mykhaylo Fomenko has had pelters in the Ukrainian press for his supposed defensive ways, and the early-doors plan seemed to simply be: let Germany have the ball while we stand and watch. In the first 10 minutes Germany piled up 64 passes, Ukraine scraped to 17.
So it was no surprise when the world champions took the lead on 19 minutes, although you might not have predicted the scorer. Shkrodan Mustafi wouldn’t have played if Mats Hummels had been available, but he impressed – generally – on the night and rose high to head home Toni Kroos’s questionably-awarded free kick.
Of course, that left the Germans not particularly needing to push the issue, and with Ukraine sticking doggedly to the pre-match gameplan, Kroos & Co. simply popped it round in midfield. By the half-hour they’d completed 189 passes to Ukraine’s 49.
Then, a change. From the half-hour to the half, for what turned out to be the only time in the game, Ukraine pressed Germany high and hard, and the champions looked wobbly. During the last 10 minutes of the half, Ukraine outpassed and outpaced the Germans.
Suffering from the absence of Hummels and the presence of ersatz right-back Benedikt Howedes – you may remember his comedy stylings from the World Cup, when he was acutely described by Danny Murphy as “looking like he’s towing a caravan” - Germany looked distinctly uncomfortable, with Jerome Boateng forced to clear off his line.
But Germany made it to half-time, and upon the restart Ukraine largely retreated into their shell. At one point Andriy Shevchenko – Fomenko’s assistant, widely tipped to take over within a month – prowled the technical area exhorting the team forward.
Shevchenko still looks lithe enough to bag a couple himself, but his team didn’t share his attitude and allowed Germany – and particularly Kroos - to dominate. In the first 15 minutes of the half, the champions completed another 130 passes, which is about half what Northern Ireland managed all afternoon.
While Kroos passed as he pleased, eventually reaching the ton-up for completions, the world awaited Ukraine removing the handbrake again. But it never happened: the high press was sporadic, they didn’t even bother sending the big units forward for set-pieces, and the subs were like-for-like.
Indeed it was a late German replacement, some bloke called Bastian Schweinsteiger apparently employed by Manchester United, who got on the scoresheet, finishing a lightning break from a Ukraine corner via a superb Mesut Ozil cross, putting the gloss on what had been a far from uniformly excellent performance.
So Ukraine went down without a fight, which can’t be said of their next opponents. They face fellow losers-to-nil Northern Ireland on Thursday teatime in what might be a tactically very different game, not least because it’s a virtual knockout game.
There is a time to defend and a time to attack. Successful coaches and teams manage the transition from one to the other within seconds – like Germany did for their second; judging by today’s game, Ukraine have the turning circle of an oil tanker. Watching their timidity and Germany’s defensive susceptibility, Michael O’Neill will have had his hopes renewed.