Tactical Tribulations in the Semi-Final: Previewing France vs. Germany
While Germany have significant tinkering to do ahead of the semis, France look to have found their momentum. The French have a woeful record against Die Mannschaft, however.
Germany had never beaten Italy in a competitive game. They still haven't: a win on penalties is technically a draw. But, last Saturday in Bordeaux, Germany at least got past Italy for the first time to reach the semi-final of Euro 2016. It was a success that came at huge cost, however. Germany will face France – a repeat of the game which was attacked on the night of the massacres in Paris last November – without the suspended Mats Hummels and the injured Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira. Bastian Schweinsteiger is a major doubt.
Hummels can be replaced relatively straightforwardly by Benedikt Howedes, with Julian Draxler coming back in on the flank. That's assuming Jogi Low returns to a back four after using a back three to match Italy's shape in the quarter-final, of course. Khedira's positional sense, passing and capacity to fill space are less easily replicated, particularly if Schweinsteiger, a less mobile figure anyway, is indisposed. But the real problem is Gomez.
The revamped German academy system has produced dozens of high-class players but, as yet, no central strikers. Low has tried to play with a false nine, using Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller in the role, but without great success. At the World Cup, he ended up turning to the 35-year old Miroslav Klose to provide a focal point up front. For this tournament he was effectively forced to look to Gomez, a striker who was widely written off as too profligate after Euro 2012, but who finished as top-scorer in Turkey last season as his club, Besiktas, won the league.
Gotze began the tournament but was replaced after two disappointing games by Gomez, who got the goal – just – in the 1-0 win over Northern Ireland. Gomez was also the spearhead of a much improved attacking performance, bringing Muller, who took on a deep-lying central role, into play. He scored and won a penalty in the emphatic 3-0 victory over Slovakia in the last 16, and it was his clever pass that released Jonas Hector to lay on Mesut Ozil's goal against France. He will be missed for what he brings, but also for what he does to the shape of the side – and the fact he was recalled from obscurity suggests how few other options there are. Gotze or Muller – or perhaps Andre Schurrle – could be used as a central forward, or Low could give a first tournament start to Leroy Sane, who is a very different sort of forward to Gomez.
Low had seemed to have pulled off the same trick as at the World Cup, overcoming an indifferent start to the tournament by restoring an old-fashioned striker and finding somebody to operate as an attacking right-back. Joshua Kimmich is not – or at least not yet – the player Philipp Lahm was, but the spark he has provided since being brought in to dominate the right flank is unmistakeable. Having found one solution, though, Low is now left searching for another.
For France, meanwhile, it feels as though everything is dropping into place. Having sputtered through their first four games, good second halves undoing the damage of poor first halves, they finally burst into life in their quarter-final, although any conclusions drawn from their 5-2 win over Iceland have to be accompanied by the caveat that their opponents looked physically and emotionally spent in the first half. In some ways, Iceland's second-half fight-back, when France's intensity dropped with the game won, raised as many questions about France's defence as the first half had drawn plaudits for their attack. It was a reminder that this France side leaked two goals in each of its first three games of the year – against the Netherlands, Russia and Cameroon.
N'Golo Kante will be available again, and his return to midfield may restore some stability, although if he does return it may mean a change of shape. Didier Deschamps has flipped between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 all tournament. In the 4-2-3-1, Antoine Griezmann can play just off Olivier Giroud and so is better placed to capitalise on his knock-downs, but in the 4-3-3 he would move out to the right in place of Moussa Sissoko (or Kinglsey Coman, were he fully fit). A 4-3-3 would provide a centre of Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi which would almost certainly guarantee control of midfield.
History perhaps plays a part here. Although the run is nothing like as long as Italy's unbeaten streak against Germany in tournament football, France have not beaten the Germans in a competitive game since 1958 – and even that was a third-place play-off. It's true that the run of failure encompasses only three games, but one was the World Cup quarter-final two years ago and two were World Cup semi-finals, one of them the notorious game in Seville in 1982. That night, Toni Schumacher, the West Germany goalkeeper, shattered the jaw of Patrick Battiston and then France threw away a 3-1 lead in extra-time to lose in the World Cup's first penalty shoot-out.
In the circumstances, caution on Deschamps's part is perhaps only natural. Although there is an argument for attacking a much-changed Germany side from the off, trying to catch them before they've fully settled into their new roles, there is also a case for giving them nothing, looking to stifle them in midfield and keeping the option of moving to 4-2-3-1, and more fluidity later in the game.