There is something wonderful about a headed goal. It’s a very specific skill that, when executed to perfection, looks and feels so satisfyingly perfect. Whether it’s a thundering header that breaks the net or a carefully, well-placed effort like Mario Gómez’s against Portugal in 2012, it’s a beautiful individual artform within the beautiful game.
Gomez’s goal was the remarkable moment in a fairly unremarkable game at Euro 2012. It was a bitty game, full of niggly fouls and lacking in any real quality. If not for a bit more composure from Portugal’s forwards, they could have walked away from this game with all three points. Instead, it was Germany, in the midst of their transition into world champions under Joachim Löw, who would be cheering in the Arena Lviv stadium when the final whistle blew.
Löw is a coach obsessed with space, as he told the Freiburg academy in 2011: “The space on the pitch has become smaller, the time to act scarce. Individual skill is therefore the most important factor in training, more important than the system.”
His counter-attacking tactics that took the world by storm two years prior had been rumbled in 2012 however, as Michael Cox details in The Mixer: “Germany’s performances at Euro 2012 were more balanced than at the 2010 World Cup, partly because opponents sat deeper and prevented them from counter-attacking.” This match was a perfect example of that.
Germany dominated the possession but the energy that was so intrinsic to their performances at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was frustratingly absent here. Portugal’s deep-lying defence forced Die Mannschaft into a slower, more methodical and possession-based approach to the game which they were not entirely comfortable playing. The space Löw wanted them to exploit simply wasn’t there.
As such, chances were few and far between, with Thomas Müller, playing in that raumdeuter role so important to Löw’s approach, and Lukas Podolski both wasted opportunities in the first half before Pepe crashed the ball against the crossbar from a Meireles’ corner on the cusp of half time.
Löw demanded Germany up the tempo in the second 45 minutes, but that didn’t mean chances came any easier. Part of that is possibly down to how this German side had too many elements that didn’t quite click together. Holger Badstuber and Jérôme Boateng both looked nervous at the centre of the German defence and were slack in possession.
Germany had arguably their most talented footballer Toni Kroos sulking on the bench, and, despite bagging three goals in the knock-out stages, Mario Gómez always struck an incongruous figure in this Germany side.
The goal, when it finally came, did have an air of inevitability about it. Portugal had been defending deep for 70-odd minutes and were visibly tiring. The defence that had stood staunchly for over an hour afforded Semi Khedira too much space and his deflected cross looped up perfectly for Gómez to leap and meet the ball expertly with his head. Pulling off his marker and heading the ball back across the goalkeeper, it was a textbook header. A timely one, too, as Miroslav Klose was being readied to replace him.
It was only then that Portugal decided to start playing football themselves. Heading into the last ten minutes of the game, they started racking up the chances. Nani’s hopeful cross crashed against the bar moments after Silvestre Varela squandered a golden opportunity from eight yards out.
Nonetheless, Paulo Bento deserves credit for what he has achieved with this Portugal side at these championships. Taking over the national side following Carlos Quieroz’s farcical end to his tenure, Bento has managed to navigate Portugal through a tricky qualifying group featuring the stalwart Scandinavians in Iceland, Norway and Denmark.
Even after losing this opening match in meek fashion, Portugal fought tooth and nail to reach the semis, reflecting all the best qualities of Bento’s managerial approach. Despite the considerable shadow thrown by Cristiano Ronaldo, Bento refused to baulk and united a disparate squad into a side the people of Portugal can be proud of.
While this particular match won’t necessarily live long in the memory, it is in many ways a classic opening group fixture, and serves as a pitstop in Germany’s evolution under Löw.
Already, there are signs that they are transitioning between styles of play, as they move away from old German efficiency into something more fluid, as Joachim Löw detailed to 11 Freunde: “I am totally convinced that one can no longer win titles by playing ugly football. In recent years, we have made huge progress in our play, and now we have a quickness and a creativity that allows us to be on par with Brazil or Spain in terms of playing style. We used to have to compensate for that with guts and willpower.”
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan