Shaky at the back before UEFA EURO 2016 began, Germany are now the only side yet to concede on French soil; Steffen Potter shines a light on their miserly rearguard.
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In the build-up to UEFA EURO 2016, many Germany fans were worried about the team's defence.
They had good reason. Not only was Mats Hummels still out with a calf injury when the tournament started, his expected replacement Antonio Rüdiger tore cruciate ligaments in the first training session on French soil.
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Even worse, Germany's rearguard had looked shaky during their last warm-up games, the alarm bells ringing especially loud after a surprise 3-1 home loss to Slovakia – the side Joachim Löw's men would dispatch 3-0 to reach the quarter-finals. How things have changed.
Four matches into these finals, Manuel Neuer has yet to ship a goal. Indeed, just once before have Germany managed to go their first four games without conceding in a major championship, at the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Sepp Maier wore the gloves then, and the former Bayern custodian hopes his tally can be eclipsed: "I want Manuel to beat my record; he's the best keeper of his generation."
Crucially, Löw has proved shrewd in his decision-making. For the Group C opener against Ukraine, he opted for Shkodran Mustafi in central defence and the Valencia defender headed in the first goal. Löw subsequently replaced Mustafi with Hummels against Poland, and though many felt he was being reintroduced too soon, the ex-Dortmund man has been solid ever since.
The Hummels-Jérôme Boateng axis in the middle has elicited plenty of praise, and also augurs well for Bayern following Hummels's summer switch. "They have done very well defensively and also when we've been in possession," commented Löw. "They've basically won every challenge when the ball has come forward."
Yet it is not solely the back four and Neuer that deserve mention. Germany have been following the Spanish approach to the art of defending: the idea that the opposition cannot score if they don't have the ball. Jealously guarding it and harrying teams whenever they lose it, the Mannschaft now boast the tournament's highest average possession figure (64%).
Their tenacity at the back has also earned comparisons with quarter-final rivals Italy, "a compliment" according to Hummels – though he has been keen to underline the differences. "Italy still defend rather deep and their defence is usually associated with the 'Catenaccio' style. We are defending with a very high line and try to keep the opposition far away from our goal with early counter-pressing."
Much of that work falls on the midfielders and forwards, and Löw has repeatedly highlighted their efforts, especially when his side have failed to sparkle in attack. Hummels concurred: "Part of our great defence is down to individual quality. But I always stress how important it is for the entire team to be stable defensively. If the midfield allow the opposition too much space and they come running at you, you as a defender are going to have a problem."
Nevertheless, Löw has been at pains to put Germany's record into respective. "With all due respect," the 56-year-old stated, "our opposition so far was not the benchmark. We attack early and force the opponent to play it long. That will not always be possible from now on. Now a different kind of quality awaits us." Spain might well agree.