Last week, I went out with some friends following Germany’s memorable (if for all the wrong reasons) penalty-shootout victory over Italy. A buddy of mine had been loudly touting the Azzurri‘s imperious all-time tournament record against Germany all day, and was now enjoying a bit of humble pie with our craft brews. During this conversation, he asked me a question that I thought perfectly summed up not just the drama of the quarterfinal, but Germany’s performance over the last couple years as a whole.
“Serious question…” he started. “…if I told you before the game that Germany would have 3 shooters miss, but still win the shootout, would you have believed me?”
“Of course not” I answered without hesitation.
On the face of it, the against all odds victory against Italy could be seen, as my friend’s question would seem to suggest, as a one-off. Both sides were hardly their best in the shootout. Neuer and Buffon even guessed the right way for almost every shot they faced, and most that beat them did so only by inches. But the more I thought about my friend’s hypothetical, the more I realized it applied to the trajectory of this German team since the start of the 2014 World Cup.
Two summers ago in Brazil, Germany struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. Löw bounced back and forth between a false nine in Müller and a true centre-forward in Klose, experimented with Lahm in midfield before moving him back to his rightful position (on the right), and consistently played center back Höwedes at the fullback position. Results were mixed until he settled on the side that started Germany’s last 3 matches in the tournament–Klose up top, Lahm at right back, etc.
In the lead-up to Euro 2016, the same line-up headaches resurfaced. Klose and Lahm retired, leaving gaping holes in the starting XI for the first time in years. Löw filled Klose’s leftover void by playing a variety of players including Müller, Götze, and Schürrle at striker. Likewise, he’s been attempting to fill Lahm’s position at right-back since Brazil, and has rotated everyone from Sebastian Rudy to Erik Durm, he went all the way round the bench till finally settling somewhat on Benedikt Höwedes, yet again. The result of such personnel and system tinkering was a somewhat less than consistent string of performances.
At this summer’s competition, the results have followed the same pattern. Germany struggled to create scoring opportunities in the early group stage matches, largely due to playing Götze out of position up top. But Gomez came in for the third group game and made an immediate impact, an impact he carried through the round of 16 match and into the marquee match-up against Italy. The big man was integral as part of the experimental 3-5-2 Löw opted for against Conte’s men, and helped set up the Germans’ only goal in open play during that game.
The recurring theme in all these examples? Löw chopping and changing constantly before stumbling on a winning formula. The knockout round victories over Slovakia and Italy were manufactured through tactical adjustments. A true center forward to focus their attack helped them breeze past Slovakia 3-0. A change in the system and willingness to trust two young players who both wound up taking clinical penalties (Kimmich and Hector), guided them past Italy. Löw’s system and personnel in each match were gambles born out of previous inconsistencies, and they worked.
Now, with France in the semi-finals, Löw faces another test of his personnel and judgment. The hosts boast an impressive attacking unit spearheaded by the trio of Giroud, Griezmann, and Payet, along with an incredibly athletic midfield including Pogba, Kante, and Matuidi among others. Containing such an attack-oriented side necessitates two things. First, the midfield battle needs to be won. No easy feat, especially with Schweinsteiger and Khedira not 100% fit after the Italy game. Second, the opposition forwards need to be contained. Germany’s defence has been solid throughout the tournament, having only been breached once, but they also haven’t faced an attack quite as dangerous as what France have on offer. Italy’s main threat at goal, Pellè, was not particularly mobile or clever in his movement. The Italians relied largely on long balls played into his feet, which proved easy for Hummels and Boateng to defend.
France won’t play like Italy did, however, and that might pose a problem for Löw’s defense. Against Iceland, who were admittedly poor on the day, most of the damage was done by runners off of Giroud picking up his knockdowns and getting in behind. Giroud was rarely expected to secure possession, hold it, and then turn to face goal; rather, he was the lightning rod off of which other attackers sparked to life. Flick-ons, knock-downs, and dummies are much tougher for a defense to predict and prevent than a slow forward receiving a ball to feet with his back to goal (and then turning). Germany’s defence will be tested, particularly out of position centre-back Höwedes, who could have the unfortunate task of marking either Griezmann or Payet all night.
If Löw was looking for advantages his side has over France, the hosts’ leaky defense might have been one a few days ago. But without the presence of Gomez, a striker in the mold of Giroud who brings others into play, will his side have the presence to break down the French backline?
Götze, Draxler, Özil, and Müller are crafty players, but they aren’t natural forwards. Their strength lies in dribbling and quick passes, which tend to funnel the play into central areas where it is easily defended. Physical battles are likely to be won by French defenders, and it’s possible that a false nine/single striker formation will make things far too easy on them.
Faced with such realities, what’s Löw to do for this game? The answer lies in his approach to the Italy match. Low took a tactical risk in changing to a 3-5-2 formation to counter the Italian’s own tactical shrewdness. It worked perfectly, with Löw’s superior technical midfielders dominating possession and dictating the pace of the game. Against France, who play what looks like a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 depending on Griezmann and Payet’s positioning, he might do well to try the same. Overloading the midfield with a fifth man, and the wing-backs, Kimmich and Hector, can help press the ball while providing designated markers for the runs of Payet and Griezmann. This frees up the 3 centre-backs, likely Höwedes, Boateng, and Mustafi, to marshal Giroud. In an attacking sense, having two up top would be more of a worry for the French backline than Götze or Müller by themselves, and help stretch the defence to open up room for quick combination play.
So for Löw, the solution to France is the same as the one that helped his side triumph over Italy. He must resist the urge to tinker yet again following some personnel losses (Hummels for sure, possibly Schweini and Khedira) and stick with the system that helped his side control that quarterfinal. If he does, it’s difficult to see Les Bleus getting enough of the ball to run as rampant as they did against Iceland, and Löw’s men will have a great chance of progressing to yet another major tournament final.