Yet so much for efficiency. Just as the machine seemed to splutter a little on the pitch for Joachim Löw’s side in their goalless draw against Poland, so the run-up to their final group match against a Northern Ireland side with one eye on history has been studded with the odd misfire.
Löw ducked the official Uefa pre-match press conference with a sore throat and his replacement, the assistant Thomas Schneider, was late because of the Paris traffic. On the pitch, despite some dazzling movement, it was Germany’s cutting edge that was absent against Poland, who saw less of the ball but had the better chances.
Ballack’s criticism led to a withering response from the midfielder Sami Khedira. “Sami has done a good interview on that,” Schneider said. “He said it’s comedy, just like the manager has said. We’ve noticed about that and read about that but we have enough leaders in the team, and have shown that in the past.”
Khedira, who replaced Ballack in the Germany team towards the end of the former Chelsea player’s international career, said the criticism was “ridiculous” and reeled off the names of Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the case for the defence. In fact, Khedira said: “Germany has never had so many leaders.”
Not that any of this is likely to matter once Germany move into the business end of this tournament. As Löw has pointed out, some of the criticism from back home has a cyclical feel. “The discussion conjures a smile from me,” he said. “In 2014 there was the discussion that we have no leading players. Then we were world champions and they were suddenly the great leading players. Now we play a 0-0 and have this discussion again. The players have great leadership.”
Germany and Poland go into their final Group C matches in a straight fight for top spot and, if both win, it will come down to goal difference, with Löw’s side better by one as things stand.
Under Löw Germany have evolved their style to a more fluid, passing pattern. However, whereas stationing his platoon of buzzing midfielders – Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller – behind Mario Götze as a false No9 worked in fits and starts against Ukraine, against Poland Müller was sent up front at half-time. Later Mario Gómez was sent into the fray as a more conventional target man.
Schneider said some “slight changes” to the starting lineup were under consideration and that Müller’s role was one of them.
Hummels, who came back into the side against Poland after missing the opening game through injury, said Löw’s approach would help them bounce back. “He has always been relaxed,” he said. “Also in difficult situations he smiles a little bit and sometimes makes a joke; he plans that in advance. That’s something he transmits. He trusts in us and gives us the feeling he works together with us.
“Even if we don’t play so good in one game, he will trust in us in the next game. He was not loud with us after the Poland game, not as loud as Mr Klopp would have been. I have never seen anyone as loud as Klopp would have been,” he added, referring to the current Liverpool manager under whom he played at Borussia Dortmund.
Anyone looking for weaknesses in Germany’s game would do well to remember that they drew 2-2 with Ghana in the group stages of the last World Cup in Brazil and were taken to the brink by Algeria in the first knockout round before going on to thrash the hosts and lift the trophy.
Hummels was alsoasked how he felt about the omnipresent “Will Grigg is on fire” chant that has followed Northern Ireland’s delirious band of followers around France and whether Germany’s defence was, indeed, terrified. “Although I like this song and these actions … it’s not quite right,” the defender said with a smile, adding he hoped to swap shirts with Grigg.
However, amid the knockabout was deadly serious intent – Germany know they need to go on the offensive on Tuesday night in an attempt to ensure that they top the group on goal difference if Poland defeat an already down and out Ukraine.
“We will try to be the best team from the first minute so they don’t start believing,” said Hummels, vowing the side would “take more risks now and again”. That could suit Northern Ireland, who after beating Ukraine 2-0 amid the hail in Lyon will try to catch Germany on the counterattack. Michael O’Neill said he had studied not only Germany’s first two matches in the tournament but the Republic of Ireland’s success in taking four points from Löw’s side in qualifying.
“We believe we can hurt Germany and we’ve proved in the past we are a great counterattacking team,” Northern Ireland’s manager said. “They’re not flawless. There are opportunities for us to try and exploit. I believe we will get opportunities in the game.”
O’Neill was briefly flummoxed by a question from a Brazilian journalist, who asked what his beleaguered national side could learn from Northern Ireland. But O’Neill, who made five changes against Ukraine but is expected to largely stick with a winning side, finally alighted upon one of the secrets of Northern Ireland’s success: “We will go to the final whistle.”
Clearly relishing the opportunity to go head to head with Löw, O’Neill added: “We don’t have an arrogance about us. We’re not blasé. We’re humble and hardworking but we have goals of our own and goals we want to achieve.”
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