One of the best things about covering German football in the past seven years, more or less ever since the 2005 Confederations Cup, was that you no longer had to defend, or at least explain, dour, uninspired and on occasion even cynical football. And, yes, enjoy the games.
But that was not the case on Saturday evening. "Not played well but won, that is important," the German television commentator yelled when the final whistle came, a line you heard often, very often, in the 1980s and 1990s, but which was supposed to have been blacklisted since the Klinsmann revolution and the birth of the new Germany.
Yet there was hardly any other way to summarise the Portugal game. It was not won by a delicate Mesut Ozil through-ball, not even a daring Thomas Muller dash down the wing. Just like in the old days, it was a deflected cross and a header from the centre forward, while the crossbar twice came to the rescue at the other end, not to mention a Manuel Neuer save and a Holger Badstuber block in the final minutes. No, it was not pretty.
That's despite the fact national coach Joachim Low fielded more or less the people's choice XI, something he rarely does. The team that started the game was exactly the side which the readers of Kicker magazine had voted for in April. That said, over the course of the last month the fans changed their collective mind, moving Philipp Lahm over to the right and put Dortmund's Marcel Schmelzer at left-back.
But ten out of eleven is an unusual tally for Low, who - like all good coaches - usually trusts the players he feels most comfortable with, instead of those who seem to be in form. He must have thought long and hard about Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose, the men he prefers in the roles eventually filled by Mats Hummels and Mario Gomez, but then felt it was too much of a risk, considering both lack match practice and have fitness doubts.
The same goes for Bastian Schweinsteiger, of course. But out of that trio he is obviously the man Low considers so central to his plans (as, incidentally, Bayern's coach Jupp Heynckes does) that he is a certain starter barring injury or suspension. Having two or even three players of questionable fitness was not a gamble Low was prepared to take in the opening game of a big tournament.
The national coach was rewarded as Gomez scored the only goal of the game and Hummels had a mighty fine game, both defensively and offensively. However, Hummels, particularly in the first half, highlighted Germany's creative problems. At his club, he often builds from the back, spraying nonchalant passes with the outside of his foot as if auditioning for a Franz Beckenbauer biopic.
Low is not too fond of these forays deep into the opponent's half, perhaps because Germany's wide men in midfield are not as likely to provide cover. But there was so little movement and so little inspiration against Portugal that you can't fault Hummels, apparently the most confident player in the team to take the ball and move it forward.
The question, of course, is why there was so surprisingly little movement, creativity and inspiration? Then again, was it really surprising? The answer is probably a resounding "yes" if you look at the past two years. But it can easily become a "no, not really" when you look at the past four months. Germany have been unconvincing since beating rivals Netherlands in November.
It seems that the game against France in late February, which was unexpectedly lost 2-1, planted some doubts in the minds of the coaching staff and perhaps also the players. It was the first time that a big-name opponent tried to beat Germany with their own counter-attacking game - sitting back, then suddenly pressing far up the pitch and switching from defence to attack quickly.
Ever since that match, Low sounded a tad more cautious when talking about Germany's chances at the European Championship and also began to stress the need to change style, from a counter-attacking game, to a Barcelona-like game based on ball possession and passing. More and more teams, Low said, would simply refuse to take the game to Germany and his team had to be prepared for it.
The signs are that the players are not yet comfortable with this change and are often found wanting against a well-manned, smart defence. But perhaps winning a game that had ‘draw’ written all over it with a simple, straightforward move will give the team the confidence that they have more than one way of breaking down a defence and will thus ease the insecurity.
Because there is a worrying element of inhibition about the team we haven't really seen in the past two years, 2010 and 2011.
In the post-match interview, Low used the unusual term - in connection with football - aufsassig to describe his team's performance in the face of a disciplined Portuguese defence.
You can take that word to mean ‘defiant’, which is not inappropriate, as it became obvious early on that this was a day for hard work rather than artistry and the team was obviously willing to switch to plan B, getting stuck in and waiting for an opening. But aufsassig is normally understood to carry connotations of "rebelliousness", and that was too rare a virtue against Portugal, emerging only when Hummels moved forward or when Sami Khedira popped up in unlikely places.
All of which makes the next game even more interesting. After two years in which the Germans played like the Dutch and the Dutch played like the Germans, both seem to have reverted to type.© ESPN