France could exploit Joachim Low’s risky strategy
Germany are in the Maracana on Friday afternoon, with a chance to reach their second straight World Cup semi-final, hoping that Didier Deschamps’ France side will not exploit their known weaknesses.
It is the tie of the round, for the right to take on Brazil or Colombia in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday night in the first semi-final. It is two of Europe’s finest, the surprising French team versus the known German team, football nations with four World Cup titles – and five runners-up spots – between them.
Before the World Cup began, Germany were thought to represent Europe’s greatest hope of winning the continent’s first-ever World Cup on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. With British bookmakers, only Argentina and Brazil were shorter odds on 12 June.
Since then, Germany have won Group G, the hardest in the competition, shredding Portugal 4-0 along the way, remaining unbeaten before overcoming a tenacious Algeria side in the last 16. They have scored nine goals and played some of the attacking football that was expected of them.
And yet there remains a persistent fragility about Germany, a worry that they are beatable, and that some of their problems are entirely of Joachim Löw’s own design.
This Germany side play a remarkably assertive, proactive, front-foot brand of football, certainly compared to what they produced four years ago. The back four play high up the pitch, even with Per Mertesacker, not exactly quick on the turn, at centre-back.
Against Algeria, the full-backs Benedikt Howedes and Shkodran Mustafi pushed far up beyond the centre-backs, leaving them exposed on the break. Germany needed extra time to beat Algeria 2-1 but even then they were indebted to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who repeatedly had to charge off his line to sweep up the large vacant area behind his centre-backs, narrowly beating Islam Slimani and Sofiane Feghouli to the ball.
It worked well enough, as Neuer safely neutralised any danger between him and his defence. But it is a risky strategy, relying on Neuer’s perfect timing and judgement. Had Algeria shown just marginally more quality in their passes or runs on the break, they surely would have scored.
Ghana scored twice against Germany in their group game and could have scored more, taking advantage of Germany’s defensive fragilities, using their pacey front line to break in behind. With some more ruthless finishing they could have beaten them.
France, of course, are a better team than Algeria or Ghana and are more likely to take advantage. As they showed in their thrilling 5-2 destruction of Switzerland in their second match, they are an excellent counter-attacking side. Karim Benzema, who should return to his preferred central role today, is in the form of his life, and has the pace to burst in behind.
Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are both excellent runners in midfield, dangerous in the final third, and capable of making Germany pay for their lack of a natural holding midfielder. Löw has copied Pep Guardiola’s example and used Philipp Lahm in front of his back four, because there is no one else to do that job, but even then there is precious little protection for the centre-backs.
Toni Kroos is not especially enamoured with defensive work, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is – like Steven Gerrard – slightly too enthusiastic for his own good when it comes to shutting off counter-attacks. The threat of French midfield runners storming past them is very real.
Germany did not always play this way. Their two great performances in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, beating England 4-1 in the last 16 and Argentina 4-0 in the quarter-finals were achieved playing counter-attacking football, sitting back and hitting two unbalanced teams on the break. They tried to do that against Spain in their semi-final but could not escape the relentless pressure applied by a team at the top of their game.
Germany have a brilliant front three, with ammunition supplied by Kroos, and could certainly out-play France this afternoon. If Mats Hummels is fit to return to centre-back, then Germany will be more secure, allowing Jerome Boateng to move back to full-back.
But the warning signs have been clear. Lesser sides than France have rattled Germany already. Both teams know where this game might be won and lost.
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