Germany are back -- in the most rambunctious, direct way, putting four past defending champion Portugal in a 4-2 win at Euro 2020. Overcoming their own new-found insecurities, square-pegs-in-round-holes and a one-goal deficit summoned up by a lung-busting Cristiano Ronaldo effort.
It's too early to crown them even as legitimate contenders, but it's not too early to tip the hat to the much-maligned (of late) national team coach, Joachim Low, and his insistence on the Robin Gosens-Joshua Kimmich wing-back combination, an improbable tactical curveball for which Portugal had no answers.
It's also too early to rule out Portugal, either. This was a side that limped through the group stage four years ago, remember, and then went on to win it. When you consider Ronaldo's drive and the talent, however ill-assorted, coupled with the earlier result in Budapest and France being held to a draw, there is a strong sense that anything could yet happen in Group F.
Going into the match, you could have applied the old adage that there are 80 million national team coaches in Germany, and each one knows better than the guy actually getting paid to do the job: Low. Never mind the fact that Low, unlike every other Die Mannschaft coach (real or imagined) bar one (Franz Beckenbauer) has actually won a World Cup. Opinions are like bellybuttons; everybody has one.
To be fair, most had a laundry list of complaints. The World Cup Low won in Brazil back in 2014 lost its shine pretty quickly in protecting from criticism. And, frankly, most of it was valid. From Germany's humiliating first-round exit at Russia 2018, to the decision to drop and -- much -- later recall Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, to a string of poor results (and, often, poorer performances), there was plenty to criticize.
It must be said here that Low's demeanour doesn't help. He's neither folksy, nor charismatic, nor intentionally funny. He looks more like the awkward, passive-aggressive curator of a contemporary art gallery in Berlin's Auguststrasse than a football coach. But the one thing that drove Germany fans "verruckt," or crazy, was his insistence on the 3-4-2-1 system. It's a formation that is ill-suited to Low's squad, which forced Kimmich (arguably Germany's best player) to play out wide on the right and, most of all, seemed designed to accommodate one man: Gosens.
On the surface, that would be fine. Every team in every sport makes allowances for their superstar. Except few thought (note the past tense) of Gosens as a superstar. Indeed, the few that even thought of him might not even have realized he was German until a few years ago.
Born to a Dutch father and German mother in Emmerich am Rhein, a town straddling the border between the Netherlands and Germany, he failed a trial at Borussia Dortmund as a youngster. He then played for local amateur clubs and ended up completing his footballing education in Holland before landing, without much fanfare, at Atalanta in the summer of 2017. But it wasn't until the season before last, when the Italian club reached the Champions League and Gosens scored 10 goals from a left wing-back position, that he materialised on most German radars.
Low loved the idea of attacking wing-backs. Liverpool had won a historic Premier League title and a Champions League with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson bombing forward and switching play from one flank to the other. Why not Gosens and Kimmich who, incidentally, had played right-back earlier in his career?
Why not? Well, other than the aforementioned fact that it forces you to play half a dozen other guys out of position, there's also the fact that, apart from a 7-1 pasting of Latvia, Germany hadn't looked convincing in half a dozen outings in that system. But maybe that's the luxury of being a lame duck coach -- Low is leaving the job at the end of the Euros -- with a World Cup under his belt: you can do what you like.
The warning shot came early, just five minutes after Gosens materialised at the far post with a highlight reel finish that was ruled out due to Serge Gnabry being offside. Portugal, who had been pinned back, took the lead on their first foray forward, which was started and finished by -- who else? -- Ronaldo. His defensive header cleared the ball at the edge of his own six-yard box and he took off in a lung-bursting sprint that covered the length of the pitch. Meanwhile, Bernardo Silva had picked up his clearance, and found Diogo Jota with a perfectly-weighted cross-field ball on the counter. The Liverpool forward sucked in Manuel Neuer and laid it off to Ronaldo for the tap-in. The finish was simple. The way Ronaldo, at 36, powered from one end of the field to the other was a monument to his desire and professionalism. In fact, you would have been forgiven for thinking that there might have been two Ronaldos: one on defensive duty and the other sneaking into the penalty area from the sideline to finish the counter.
But then the wing-backs got to work. First, Kimmich switched the play to Gosens whose first-time cross was deflected in by and under-pressure Ruben Dias for the equalizer. Then, Gosens was involved in the build-up that led to Kimmich whipping it back for Raphael Guerreiro to also deflect into this own net. Two goals in three minutes and Germany were now 2-1 up. More than that, two own goals in three minutes (never before had one team scored two in a game at a European Championships), but two that were very much forced by Germany's dynamic duo.
At half-time, Portugal boss Fernando Santos looked for more balance in midfield, swapping Bernardo Silva for Renato Sanches. But this game wasn't being won in the middle of the park. It was happening out wide. And, after just three minutes, Kimmich, who had tucked inside, slipped it to Muller, who found Gosens wide open on the opposite side: a whipped cross, a Kai Havertz finish and it was 3-1. Ten minutes later, it was 4-1 and game over. And, yes, it was those two again: this time via a Kimmich cross and a Gosens header.
Portugal pulled one back when Ronaldo got on the end of a free kick to set up Diogo Jota. Gosens then came off to a standing ovation before Sanches rattled the woodwork. We didn't get the barnstorming finish we might have hoped for, but we did get perhaps the best match of the Euros thus far as well as the birth of a star and a World Cup-winning manager fully entitled to gloat. His wing-back experiment had yield two assists, one goal and forced two opposition own goals.
Gosens seemed to be almost metaphorically anointed at the final whistle by none other than Ronaldo. Back in April, following Atalanta's 1-0 Serie A victory over Juventus, Gosens had asked to swap shirts with the Portuguese megastar but was rebuffed. This time, Ronaldo went up to him, embraced him and whispered something in his ear, smiling. He knows quality when he sees it. And it's a safe bet Gosens will now have a steady supply of Ronaldo shirts.
This Germany side are far from perfect. The back three can get caught out, there's no true centre-forward (Gnabry strayed offside and looked more comfortable circling wide), the midfield isn't dynamic (when Portugal moved to a three in the second half, they had their rough spots) and there is a distinctly un-German lack of organization and discipline at times (witness the Portuguese opener). But Low's insistence on his wing-backs will present multiple headaches for opposing managers going forward and the rest, to some degree, can be worked on or, at least, mitigated. Of course, this is all predicated upon the Germans getting what they need in the final group game against Hungary, who shocked many in holding France to a draw.
As for Portugal, the defending champions face the reigning world champions. A draw may suffice for both nations to advance, but nobody will want to take chances. The Euros toughest group is most definitely living up to its billing.