We all can keep commenting, analysing and criticising, but they always come good in the end. The World Cup is like a magical elixir for the German national team, and after all of the pre-match discussion and debate Jogi and his Jungs would come through and make yet another semi-final – the Nationalmannschaft’s fourth in a row, and their thirteenth in all.
The at times shambolic performance in the second round against Algeria would lead to a number of discussions about the team, the starting eleven and the tactics employed by Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw, and in yet another chapter of the unfolding drama in Brazil we would see the coach change his tactics from a slightly suspect experimental formula to what could very well be a winning one.
The game against Algeria in a cool and damp Porto Alegre would give rise to a chorus of criticism among fans and in the German press, and the coach’s response would be to turn back to tried and trusted methods for the quarter-final against – on paper at least – a far more competitive French side. Whether this was Löw’s own decision based on the realisation that his tactics weren’t working or a simple cave in to public and media pressure we will never know, but the result would be emphatic.
In a performance that harked back to days of solidity and clinical efficiency, Germany would throttle the talented French and win the game with a good old-fashioned set-piece goal. While it is undoubtedly still the coach’s dream to win a major international tournament with a heavy possession game, expansive passing moves and pretty fast-paced football, he would take the ultimate pragmatic move in changing the formation and allowing the eleven men out on the pitch to do what they do best.
And this is exactly what they did.
Facts and Stats
It would be the Nationalmannschaft’s twenty-sixth game against France, with the record being one of the few negative ones against nations they have played more than once. In the previous twenty-five matches Germany has beaten Les Bleus on only nine occasions – including the penalty shootout in Sevilla in 1982 – drawing five and losing eleven. However in competitive encounters they would have the statistical upper hand with a 2-1 record in the three matches played – all in the World Cup.
The last meeting in the World Cup between the two sides had come in Mexico in 1986, where the then West German side would triumph 2-0 in the semi-final in Guadalajara with goals from Andreas Brehme and Rudi Völler. The opening goal would come courtesy of a ghastly error by French ‘keeper Joël Bats, who would allow Brehme’s eighth-minute free-kick to squirm under his body, and the team that had beaten tournament favourites Brazil in a titanic quarter-final would be unable to overcome a solid but in the main unspectacular German side.
While this would be the fourth meeting in the World Cup between the two countries, it would be the first competitive encounter between Les Bleus and the post-1990 Nationalmannschaft.
Having not beaten the French in any format since a friendly in Berlin in the autumn of 1987, German supporters would have to wait until a visit to Paris in early 2013 to break a six-game, twenty-six year barren spell with a 2-1 victory.
On the personal front, Bastian Schweinsteiger would win his 106th international cap – moving him above former defender Jürgen Kohler into sixth place on the all-time list and just two behind fifth-placed Jürgen Klinsmann – while both Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira would make their fiftieth international appearance.
Perhaps the biggest talking points would of course concern the starting eleven for Germany – and a number of personnel changes that would suggest a serious volte-face from the coach. Captain Philipp Lahm would return to the back four at right-back alongside the fit-again Mats Hummels with Per Mertesacker being benched.
The two-man defensive midfield unit of Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger would also make their first start of the tournament, a potentially risky move that would also satisfy many of the critics. Despite having struggled with injury from before the start of the tournament both players would be deemed fit to play by the coach.
Further up the pitch Mesut Özil would return to a more familiar and comfortable role in the middle of the offensive midfield trio, while veteran Miroslav Klose would make a start in the traditional number nine role.
After just thirteen minutes Germany win a free-kick out on the left, and a perfect delivery from Kroos would be finished off by the towering Hummels. After Hummels’ goal against Portugal and Miroslav Klose’s equaliser against Ghana, it finally looked as though set pieces were being practiced on the training ground. France would create a few chances in the first half, but ‘keeper Manuel Neuer would be his usual imposing self between the sticks.
The second half would see the French huff and puff in search of the elusive equaliser, while at the other end the Nationalelf would have plenty of opportunities to finish off their at times unimaginative opponents. The biggest guilty party would be substitute André Schürrle, who would have the pace to get behind and ahead of the French defence only to blow a couple of decent chances that on another day might have been costly.
Having spent most of the second half as an observer, Neuer would produce a fine block four minutes into injury time – showing once again what an asset he is to this German team.
When the final whistle blew there would be no wild celebrations from Löw’s men, and there would be a clear sense that this had been a case of “job done”.
Conclusion and Ratings
Until the morning of the quarter-final, Jogi Löw had been adamant that his ongoing project would continue until the last game of the campaign – and that he would be keeping Lahm in midfield right to the bitter end. It had all been set up for a final showdown with the Nationaltrainer all set to stand to stand by his word and be ready to fall on his own sword should things go the wrong way, but right at the last moment he would broadside us all with his completely unexpected tactical swerve.
The changes would result in a performance from the German team that would take its cue from the great Nationalmannschaften of old, and watching things unfold in Rio would remind me of the last great competitive victory over Les Bleus in Guadalajara in 1986. On that day the French would be undone by a set piece early in the game and completely neutralised by Franz Beckenbauer’s team, and here under a very similar beating sun a team that had scored ten goals in their previous four matches would be rendered completely toothless.
A confident start and Hummels’ early strike would settle things down, and while France would fashion a couple of half-decent chances Neuer would never really be threatened. While not making many of his usual forward forays from right-back Lahm would bring a sense of stability to the back four, and the more solid-looking central defensive partnership of Hummels and Jérôme Boateng would garner far more confidence. Even Benedikt Höwedes, seen by many as the Viererkette’s weak link, would turn out his best performance of the tournament so far.
Khedira and Schweinsteiger would not have spectacular outings and both men would collect silly – but thankfully superfluous – yellow cards, but the most encouraging thing would be their both completing the ninety minutes despite the testing conditions. With tougher tasks ahead and their fitness and form guaranteed to improve on the training ground, the presence of the defensive midfield duo could be the final piece in the puzzle.
Up front it would be more of a mixed bag. While Klose would have a relatively quiet game his presence would draw the opposition defenders away from Thomas Müller, and while his replacement Schürrle would add his usual dose of pace in the latter stages of the second half, his profligate finishing would just add to the concerns about the team’s ongoing problem in not making the most of their opportunities in front of goal. Perhaps the most disappointing performance however would be that of Özil, who in spite of being back in a familiar central position would continue in his struggle to make any real impression on the tournament.
After criticising Löw for his apparent intransigence, I will now take my hat off to him for making what was clearly the right decision. I know some football purists would have wanted to see him persist with the 4-3-3 with Lahm in midfield and run the risk of annihilation, but the stakes would be just too high for that. Ultimately, what matters is winning. Does it mean that this current bunch of players are incapable of adapting to the new more dynamic system ? Maybe, maybe not. However to win the World Cup right now it is clear what road the coach must now travel if the team is to fulfil its dream of winning a fourth world title.
Having rediscovered their solidity, the opportunity is there for the taking in the semi-final against a weakened Brazil team that will be missing its man of the tournament Neymar and influential captain Thiago Silva.
A satisfyingly solid performance from the German number one, who would have a relatively quiet ninety minutes. Would make two notable saves including an almost nonchalant block to keep out Karim Benzema in stoppage time, but didn’t have to produce any spectacular sweeper-keeper moments.
Not the most memorable ninety minutes for the captain following his return to the right-back position, but his simply being there would see an altogether more stable back four. Plenty of solidity, but nothing spectacular.
With the return of Lahm to right-back the FC Bayern man would return to the centre of defence to form a new partnership with Mats Hummels. Not for the first time in this tournament, Boateng would deliver another solid and professional display and play a big part in blunting the opposition attack.
Returning to the starting lineup after missing the Algeria game through illness, the Dortmund man would once again show what an asset he is to this German team. Would score the winning goal at one end, and produce a flawless defensive display at the other as he threw himself about with enthusiasm. Man of the match by a country mile.
A relatively quiet game for the Schalke 04 skipper, and while he wasn’t massively tested by an at times impotent French attack would more than play his part in winning the majority of his one-on-ones. With the defence playing slightly deeper and as part of a more solid-looking Viererkette he would look far more comfortable.
Starting for the first time in the tournament alongside Sami Khedira, Schweinsteiger would be solid if not massively spectacular. Looked slightly tired at times, but would manage to see out the ninety minutes and do all that was asked of him. Blotted his copybook with a silly yellow card late in the second half.
Like Schweinsteiger, Khedira would perform all of this tasks with his usual application and professionalism, but would be not his usual dynamic self through the middle of the field. He too would see out the match, and would also end up in the referee’s note book for a cynical challenge.
Floated in and out of the game in a more advanced midfield role, and would have a pretty quiet afternoon. On the plus side, he would provide the invaluable assist for Hummels’ winning goal. Replaced by Christoph Kramer in stoppage time right at the end.
Despite starting in a more familiar central role, Özil would go walkabout for a lot of the match. Would produce the usual spark of brilliance going forward, but this would be the exception rather than the rule in what would be yet another ordinary display. Replaced by Mario Götze seven minutes from time.
Assuming a role on the right side of midfield there would be far fewer goalscoring opportunities for Der Raumdeuter, but this would also allow him a little more licence to roam. His unpredictable floating and ghosting down the wing would cause problems for the French defence for the entire ninety minutes.
A rare start would see Klose looking for that record-setting goal, but apart from one decent shout for a penalty midway through the first half would have a fairly quiet game. However, his mere presence on the field would draw opposition defenders, allowing those behind him more flexibility. Replaced by André Schürrle after sixty-nine minutes.
Came on for Klose with just over twenty minutes remaining, and could very easily have added two more goals to his World Cup tally. Would show plenty of enthusiasm and pace, but would fall short when it came to the final shot on goal.
Replaced Özil with seven minutes remaining, and would not have a chance to make any real impact.
Replaced Kroos in stoppage time, and didn’t even get a touch of the ball.
Neuer (1), Lahm (2), Boateng (2), Hummels (1), Höwedes (3), Schweinsteiger (3), Khedira (3), Müller (3), Özil (5), Kroos (3), Klose (4). Substitutes (until 75 mins): Schürrle (4).
Neuer (1), Lahm (3.5), Boateng (3), Hummels (1), Höwedes (3), Schweinsteiger (3), Khedira (3), Müller (3.5), Özil (5), Kroos (3.5), Klose (4).
Neuer (1.5), Lahm (3), Boateng (2.5), Hummels (1), Höwedes (3), Schweinsteiger (3), Khedira (3), Müller (3), Özil (5), Kroos (3), Klose (4). Substitutes: Schürrle (4).