Germany Mustn't Allow 2-0 Win over Ukraine to Whitewash Defensive Issues

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2016

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 12: Shkodran Mustafi of Germany celebrates his goal with teammates during the UEFA Euro 2016 Group C match between Germany and Ukraine at Stade Pierre Mauroy on June 12, 2016 in Lille, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Germany kicked off their fifth major tournament under Joachim Low's guidance on Sunday, and the World Cup holders kept their perfect record in opening matches alive:

Germany are the first team at Euro 2016 to win with more than a one-goal advantage and arguably cemented their status among the favourites to win the tournament, but not everything was sunshine and roses. In fact, there were more issues than the scoreline would indicate, at both ends on the pitch.

Most notably, Germany's defence looked shaky for more or less the entire first half of the match against Ukraine.

Manuel Neuer had to make his first important save after just five minutes, Sevilla's Yevhen Konoplyanka testing him with a thunderous first-time hit from just outside the penalty box.

Even after Shkodran Mustafi had given them the lead in the 19th minute, the Germans didn't take control of the game, despite having seemingly all of the possession. Just seven minutes after the goal, Yevhen Khacheridi won a header near the six-yard box, forcing an impressive one-hand save out of Neuer.

The key situation of the first half, perhaps the game, came in the 35th minute, when Jerome Boateng looked set to score an awkward own goal with his thigh, only to react instantly, contorting his body in acrobatic fashion and keeping the ball out before it fully crossed the goal line:

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Three minutes later, Ukraine had the ball in the net, but Andriy Yarmolenko was rightfully ruled offside before Viktor Kovalenko converted the rebound off another Neuer save.

Three chances and an offside goal don't sound like too much trouble for Germany, but, considering the rather pedestrian quality of their opponent, it was notable how easy it was for Ukraine to get into these situations.

Konoplyanka instigated most of their attacks from his position on the left flank. "The Sevilla winger exposed [Benedikt] Howedes again and again, making him look cumbersome," Jonathan Wilson opined for Sports Illustrated.

To be fair to the Schalke 04 man, he received little help from Thomas Muller playing ahead of him, as football writer Ross Dunbar alluded to on Twitter:

Jonas Hector had some of the same problems on his left side of defence, with Wolfsburg's Julian Draxler not tracking back with enough intensity throughout his 78 minutes on the pitch, but the FC Cologne left-backthe only player without tournament experience on the pitch for Germany on the nightcoped far better with Yarmolenko than his counterpart on the right did with Konoplyanka.

Howedes, who only plays at right-back because of a distinct lack of options after Philipp Lahm's retirement from international football in 2014, will continue to have a target on his back after struggling with his defensive assignments against Ukraine. His lack of quickness and agility showed up at times on Sunday, and it wouldn't be too surprising if Low thought long and hard about giving Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich a chance at some point.

In central defence, meanwhile, Mustafi mirrored the team's performance, meaning he was better up front than in defence in the first half and improved in his core competence after the break.

A lack of fine-tuning with his team-mates was evident, unsurprisingly so, considering Mustafi was the only player not to play a single second in either of the two warm-up matches before the Euros. Late in the game, he almost scored a slapstick own goal when he attempted a simple header back to his goalkeeper only to realise Neuer had come out of his goal to pick the harmless ball up himself.

Overall, though, the 24-year-old did about as well as Low could have asked of him. He replaced Mats Hummels in more ways than one, scoring a powerful header off a Toni Kroos delivery, much like the Borussia Dortmund captain had done against Portugal and France at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

Mustafi's impressive jump for the opener.
Mustafi's impressive jump for the opener.PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Getty Images

Mustafi also made an important and acrobatic interception that set the attack in motion before substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger scored the second goal from a fabulous Mesut Ozil cross.

Hummels' return still can't come soon enough. Per Tobias Altschaffl of Sport Bild (link in German), the 27-year-old said after the game he was on schedule and might make it in time to face Poland on Thursday.

Seeing as Germany are going up against a far more potent attack in that game, with the imperious Robert Lewandowski and Ajax's Arkadiusz Milik forming one of the best striking partnerships of all 24 teams at the Euros, defensive improvement is a necessity.

That's not to say only the defence struggled at times against Ukraine, however.

Germany created quite a lot of chances and could have made the result far more comfortable numerous times throughout the second half, but neither one of Draxler, Mario Gotze or Muller had a particularly good game.

Gotze was especially cut off from his team's play, only picking up an astounding eight touches in the first half according to German broadcaster ARD. The 24-year-old earned his start with good performances against Slovakia and Hungary in the lead-up to the tournament, but looked off his game on Sunday.

Gotze was ineffective in a game plan that didn't suit his strengths.
Gotze was ineffective in a game plan that didn't suit his strengths.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

With Germany whipping in cross after cross in the first half, it's safe to say that Mario Gomez would have had better chances of being a threat to the eastern Europeans. It's difficult to tell whether it was the game plan or a reaction to Ukraine offering lots of spaces on the wing, but seemingly every attack started on either wing.

Whenever they did play vertical and through the lines, Germany were dangerous. Sami Khedira had the best chance to double the lead in the first half after a fantastic long ball from Kroos into the Juventus man's stride, but Andriy Pyatov was up to the task.

Low must have encouraged his team to go back to that formula more frequently in the second half, as Germany played with more directness through the middle into the danger zones after the break.

Only Gotze was still fairly harmless, which might open the door for Gomez to get his chance at leading the line against Poland.

Ultimately, though, it was a thoroughly deserved win for Germany. The notable improvement in the second half was encouraging, as was the magnificent performance from Kroos, who showed off his impressive passing range and command of the game, bossing the match for 90 minutes:

As far as opening matches go, a 2-0 win over a better-than-advertised Ukraine is a strong start to the Euros campaign.

However, some problems remain, "but so too does the equally familiar capacity to overcome its shortcomings," as Wilson put it.

"We still need to iron out a few issues," Low said after the game, per DFB.de. It's a good sign that the focus shifted to the issues quickly after what must have felt like a fairly comfortable win in the end:

That mentality will serve Germany well in what they hope will be a long four weeks in France.

Their first step against Ukraine wasn't immaculate, but it was plenty good enough for everyone to know thatas so often happensGermany will likely be on the spot when it counts.

Lars Pollmann is a featured columnist who also writes for YellowWallPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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