Mats Hummels was grumpy. He looked downwards, a dark shadow cast across his face, and when asked to talk about the recent Germany match, refused flat out.
That was right after a Germany defence with Hummels at its heart had conceded five goals against Switzerland shortly before UEFA EURO 2012. In the subsequent 2-0 win against Israel, Per Mertesacker was preferred to Hummels. What a difference a match makes, though. After he was chosen – a bit surprisingly – to start Germany’s Group B opener against Portugal and performed brilliantly in a 1-0 win, a relaxed Hummels took to the stage in the press conference the day after, smilingly answering questions.
“I only learned on Friday night that I would start, not even 24 hours before kick-off – of course, I had always hoped for that to happen,” said the 23-year-old, who has won back-to-back Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund and, to many, is Germany’s best central defender at the moment.
It was a commanding performance by Hummels, who closed down Germany’s centre, had a rate of 90% completed passes and even found the time to surge powerfully across the field a couple of times. But Hummels refused to get carried away.
“It was only one game,” he said. “As a footballer, you have bad games like against Switzerland and good games. That doesn’t mean I am certain of starting the next match.”
While he pretends not to be, most of the journalists and lots of Germany fans who had hoped for him to be in the team, will disagree. Portugal as well as Germany offered a cautious approach on their first outing in Group B and the man who recently extended his Dortmund contract until 2017 quickly explained why. “Both teams had seen [Denmark beat the Netherlands 1-0] and how difficult it is to come back from conceding. Every team at this tournament defends so very well. For both teams it had been the most important thing not to fall behind.”
That cautious approach was especially true for Hummels, who admitted that he was “clearly more nervous than I would have been in a normal Bundesliga game. Especially as you still have to make your way into the team as I have to. That is gone within a few minutes of the game, but still you try to pass it safely first.”
Hummels at times looked out of his depth against a Switzerland side who did not come close to qualifying for these finals yet was comfortable facing Portugal, a team with world-class attackers in Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. “Things are just easier now that we have played with the entire team, this is a well-oiled machine,” Hummels said, reminded everyone of the FC Bayern München players which were missing for that Switzerland match. “Also, in friendlies no one runs as much as in a game like this, where points are at stake. The entire team defended well, not only the back four.”
Next up on Wednesday in Kharkiv are the Netherlands, a team with their backs to the wall already. “I played against [FC Schalke 04’s] Klaas-Jan Huntelaar this season and did well, but not so well against [Arsenal FC’s] Robin van Persie, who scored three goals in two matches against us,” said Hummels.
“The Dutch will have to attack more than the Portuguese did. This will open more room for our attacks while at the same time putting more pressure on our defence. We will have to try to be in command while at the same time keeping a balance in defence.”