Before Germany's 1-0 win over Northern Ireland on Tuesday, attacking midfield star Thomas Müller had been coming in for some criticism. Having failed to register a single goal or assist at Euro 2016, he wasn't living up to his own impressive international standards. However, he was much improved as Germany's group stage campaign came to a close in Paris, and it may well be thanks to his renewed partnership with former Bayern Munich teammate Mario Gómez.
One would've been forgiven for thinking that Gómez's international career was over after Fiorentina sent him packing on loan to Beşiktaş, though a thoroughly impressive domestic season saw the 30-year-old earn his place in Löw's Euro 2016 squad. Admittedly, it's partly due to a lack of alternatives -- Max Kruse is arguably the only other pure center forward that Germany could realistically have taken to the tournament. But Gómez's impressive role in the win over Northern Ireland suggested he's there on merit as much as fortune.
Gómez's power and physicality ensured he was a very useful option when Germany attempted to play over the top of the Northern Irish defence -- a strategy to which they resorted surprisingly frequently. It also meant that when fullbacks Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich pushed forward and looked to swing crosses into the area, there was a constant aerial threat in the box.
But most promising was the aforementioned combination with Müller, who laid on the assist for Gómez's goal after a fine one-two. Löw started Germany's first couple of games in France with Mario Götze as a false nine, the logic being that such a mobile center forward can drag defenders out of position and buy space for onrushing midfielders. But Gómez is very much a real nine, and paradoxically served Müller all the better.
The duo often played in very close proximity, with Gómez occupying the center backs and Müller playing in the space directly behind the striker. Lurking on the edge of the penalty area, he had several good opportunities, twice rattling the woodwork in what was undoubtedly his liveliest performance of the tournament so far. The combination that had worked so well at Bayern was firing once again, and Germany were unfortunate to not win by a bigger margin.
To be sure, it wasn't a perfect performance from Gómez, who missed a few great chances to seal a brace. No one is pretending that he's a world class center forward. As previously noted by Arsène Wenger, there is a general dearth of top quality nines in Europe, and in spite of his fine season in Turkey, Gómez remains only a good and not great player. We should also be wary of drawing conclusions from a match against a Northern Ireland team that failed to impress defensively.
But that said, his skill set could be such that it enables Joachim Löw to get the best from his best players. It may well be a case of Germany making a step back to take a couple forward. It's certainly food for thought for their coach heading into the knockout stages.