Jerome Boateng powers Germany past Slovakia in Euro 2016 last 16
Three thoughts from Germany's 3-0 triumph over Slovakia, which sends the reigning world champions to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals.
1. Boateng sends Germany soaring past Slovakia
Jerome Boateng needed 63 internationals to get on the score sheet, but his debut goal for Germany could not have come at a better time. The centre-back's crisp volley after nine minutes put Joachim Low's team firmly on the path for the Euro 2016 quarterfinals. Boateng ran straight to the Germany bench to celebrate and thank team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, who had worked with his staff to treat a calf muscle injury during the week.
Germany might have won without the Bayern Munich defender -- they were dominant throughout the game and only conceded one good chance in the match when goalkeeper Manuel Neuer saved brilliantly from a Juraj Kucka header halfway through the first 45 minutes -- but they almost certainly wouldn't have played as well as they did without him.
Boateng was once again a key player for Germany's buildup against the fourth defensive team they've come up against France, spraying 50-metre diagonal passes, mostly to left-back Jonas Hector, with ease and precision. Boateng's long-range passing accuracy helped stretch the Slovakian back four, but also cut through Slovakia's first line of defence, the hard-working attacking trio of Kucka, Michael Duris and Vladimir Weiss. Time and time again, Boateng found Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller or Julian Draxler in space in front of the back four, to take half the opposition out of the game with one simple pass.
Under Pep Guardiola, who encouraged his centre-backs to act as deep playmakers at Bayern Munich, Boateng has evolved into one of world football's finest defenders. The 27-year-old didn't have much to do by way of actual defending against a Slovakia team that were simply overwhelmed by Germany's movement, but his athleticism and underrated pace underpin Germany's ability to press opponents deep in their own half and to win the ball back quickly.
In a team that functions collectively, without an out-and-out superstar, Boateng's unique skills on and off the ball have arguably made him the single-most important player as Germany head into the quarter-finals. Low wisely took Boateng off with 20 minutes to go to save him from injury or suspension for the next round.
2. Draxler stakes his claim
Draxler was a bit of a surprise inclusion ahead of Bayern's Mario Gotze for this match. The 22-year-old Draxler, a World Cup winner who got only a few minutes on the pitch in Brazil (at the end of the 7-1 semifinal against the hosts) two years ago, had been in the starting XI for Germany's two opening games in France, but failed to leave a lasting impression.
Draxler had looked a little lost in wide positions against the deep defences of Ukraine and Poland, unable to pick up pace or beat his men. In Lille, however, he was a revelation. The main reason for that was better timing. Draxler made sure to collect the ball by dropping deep, then arrived at later stages of the attack, with momentum.
The former Schalke 04 talent doesn't have too much pace, but he can get past players with his technique, which quickly became apparent on Sunday night, much to Slovakia's regret. He started the match on the right to make space for the roaming Muller behind Mario Gomez, then moved across to the left to combine wonderfully with Hector; the Koln left-back had his best game in a Germany shirt, which was probably no coincidence.
Draxler's first of two superb moments came a couple of minutes after Ozil had missed Germany's first-ever penalty at a European Championship (excluding shootouts). As Hector made the dummy run to distract Hertha BSC's Peter Pekarik on the right side of the Slovakian defence, Draxler dropped his shoulder to accelerate past Kucka and set up Gomez with a cushioned low cross.
Germany's pressure eased off in the second half, as Jan Kozak's men made some desperate attempts to get back into the contest, but Draxler was able to cap a wonderful performance with close-range volley to score Germany's third and ensure Germany's progress. Gomez and Andre Schurrle will find it extremely hard to displace the VfL Wolfsburg attacking midfielder after this superlative showing for 70 minutes.
3. Underdog Slovakia outclassed
A mere four weeks ago, Slovakia beat Germany 3-1 in a friendly at Augsburg. Napoli's Marek Hamsik and Viktoria Plzen's Michal Duris were on the score sheet that night, as Kozak's side took maximum advantage of the slack resistance offered by Low's experimental 3-5-2 formation. The result of that friendly will have encouraged them to test the World Cup's defensive structures in Lille, but Germany had so much possession from the get-go that Slovakia didn't begin to play a bit until the game was virtually lost.
Kozak's men have done as well as expected at their first Euros as an independent nation, making out of the group stage with a win against Russia and a (slightly fortunate) draw against England. They only ever had an outside chance against the ever-improving World Cup winners, but it was quickly apparent that no upset was in the cards on Sunday night.
Kozak's plan to press the space in midfield did not work at all, as Germany simply bypassed central areas by either going wide or vertical with the first ball out of defence. Not putting pressure on the centre-backs higher up the pitch was the main flaw in the Slovaks' setup, and they didn't rectify it early enough. There's no shame in going out to a Germany in this shape of form, however. Most teams at these Euros would have suffered a similar fate.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.