Germany 1-0 France: Germany get the better of the midfield battle
Mats Hummels’ early header from a Toni Kroos free-kick was the difference in a peculiarly tame, flat contest.
Jogi Low made two significant tactical alterations to his side, moving Philipp Lahm to right-back, and bringing in Miroslav Klose upfront.
Didier Deschamps, as expected, returned to a one-striker system with Antoine Griezman replacing Olivier Giroud, and Karim Benzema shifting upfront.
Germany dominated the first half with some good midfield play, and then the second half was…almost non-existent, with France barely launching a fightback.
Germany dominate midfield
After a frantic first couple of minutes, the game quickly settled down into a calmer pattern, and the shapes of the two sides were obvious – both 4-1-4-1ish without the ball, but Germany dominating possession and therefore looking more like a 4-3-3.
France concentrated on pressing when the ball was played into Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and the two forwards, which meant Bastian Schweinsteiger was usually free, with only sporadic pressure from Karim Benzema dropping back. Schweinsteiger is a very different player up against an energetic opponent, and can become flustered and panicked with his distribution when pressed, but his freedom between the lines was a crucial part of Germany asserting their control. He still looks more comfortable than Lahm with the ball in that deep position, because he’s capable of more penetrative balls into the attacking midfielders.
Germany break through the France midfield
France’s back four has rarely been tested in this tournament because their midfield has defended well; the three central midfielders working well as a unit, and pressing once the ball is played into their zone. In reality, however, they hadn’t yet faced a team with top-level midfielders, and the lack of ball-winning ability from this trio was obvious when Germany started passing the ball well, after around 20 minutes.
Germany’s approach was to thread neat passes into players in the space between France’s defence and midfield, and various players could pop up in this zone. Mesut Ozil drifted inside from the left, with Thomas Muller doing something similar from the right. Arguably more problematic for the French midfield, though, was Sami Khedira’s tendency to shuttle forward past Blaise Matuidi into space between the lines. When Yohan Cabaye was overloaded with two players in this zone, he looked very uncomfortable, and it’s worth remembering that he’s not a natural holding player.
Two things helped Germany get into this pocket of space. The first was simply good passing from midfield, with both Toni Kroos and Schweinsteiger knocking intelligent forward balls into the feet of teammates. There were three obvious examples of them getting in behind the French midfield – Ozil nearly played a great pass to Khedira, then Schweinsteiger did play a clever ball to Khedira, and then Kroos knocked another into Ozil, within the space of a few minutes.
Each time, Germany were penetrating that French midfield line, rather than having to go around it.
The other factor was Klose. Although he had little influence on the game in his natural zone, the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre-backs, who were both very reluctant to come forward from a deep position. Even when Klose moved towards the ball on one occasion, Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho stayed back and let him wander free.
It was a surprisingly passive approach, and a very different situation compared to if Laurent Koscielny had played there. With Klose pushing them back, and penetrative balls from deep in midfield, Germany found space, although they could never quite play the final pass.
France go longer
If Germany’s approach was all about penetrating France’s midfield, their opponents had a different strategy. They went much longer, and their best moments came when they bypassed Germany’s defence and midfield simultaneously. Germany continue to play a very high line, often without pressure on the ball, and France were able to knock the ball over Germany to create easy chances.
The best example came shortly before Germany went ahead, when Sakho stepped forward from defence and played a long pass into the German right-back zone. Griezmann collected the ball in behind the defence, and very nearly squared to Benzema for a tap-in.
France repeatedly looked for this type of pass, and another example produced a second good chance, when Pogba launched a ball to Benzema, who cut inside from the left before shooting. Pogba did something similar towards the start of the second half, with a good ball to Griezmann – but he miscontrolled when he might have been through on goal with a good touch.
Germany right v France left
There was also an interesting battle down one of the flanks, where Muller drifted inside to become a second striker, and often helped Klose press the centre-backs. However, this often meant he was caught out of possession when France broke forward quickly, and sometimes Lahm was overloaded against both Griezmann, who was trying to run in behind, and Patrice Evra, who brought the ball forward from left-back.
Khedira helped out, moving towards the touchline – although sometimes this left Matuidi free to charge forward.
The other interesting factor was the role of Valbuena, who drifted inside from the right into clever pockets of space between the lines, even if France were content to bypass him when playing more directly.
Valbuena was very lively throughout, popping up on the left to play a clever chip to Benzema, then playing a dangerous pass from the right, then getting to a Griezmann cut-back for a half-chance. He wasn’t actually a key part of the French system, yet seemed the most likely to create a chance because he’s so energetic and clever with his appreciation of space.
France’s response after half-time was patient, to put it politely. In fairness, they hadn’t been completely outplayed by Germany in the first half, and created some decent chances, so it was understandable that Deschamps wanted to continue with the same approach.
However, France’s best bet was still going in behind the defence – or if not, then getting Valbuena involved. As Germany sat deeper and moved to a counter-attacking style, France found the former approach more difficult, while Valbuena’s space was restricted when Germany’s system looked more like a deep 4-1-4-1.
Germany deserve credit for helping to slow the tempo, but in reality it was more like France being unable to lift it. The second half was incredibly flat and uneventful.
Amazingly, it was Low who made the first attacking change, bringing on Andre Schurrle for Klose, with Muller going upfront – Schurrle brought more counter-attacking pace to the side, and both he and Muller had excellent opportunities to put the game to bed.
Deschamps had to ‘waste’ his first change with Koscielny replacing the injured Sakho, but even then, it was surprising he wanted until 73 minutes before making his first game-changing substitution. Loic Remy replaced Cabaye, playing from the right and making France more 4-2-3-1. Remy’s role for France is about running in behind the defence, though, and Germany were sitting too deep to make this effective.
Later, Deschamps turned to Olivier Giroud in place of Valbuena, meaning France ended the game as a 4-2-4. Giroud is a very useful Plan B, and created a half-chance for Benzema with his classic one-touch hold-up play, but Germany seemed comfortable throughout the second half and created better chances on the break.
Something of a disappointing game, decided by a header from Hummels – who, it must be said, was excellent throughout the game.
Germany were the better team, though – in a patient midfield battle they had more guile and penetration from deeper positions, and helped put continual pressure upon France.
There was nothing wrong with France’s opening approach, but putting up such little fight when 1-0 down was highly surprising – it was partly that Deschamps waited so long before changing things, and partly that the players seemed unable to lift the tempo.
Germany 1-0 France: Germany get the better of the midfield battle