France had not beaten Germany in a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup. They finally fixed that in the Euro 2016 semi-finals in Marseille, but with a scoreline that looks ridiculously deceptive. France won 2-0, but the truth is that Germany shot themselves in the foot.
Movement but no direction
Through large portions of the match, Germany played in the sort of manner expected of them – fluid passing and plenty of movement, but with one small caveat: a team may be on the move for much of the 90 minutes, but that does not necessarily mean they are well directed.
The French belied the truism for most of the match. The right side of Germany’s extraordinary goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s goal was regularly occupied by the French for the first 10 minutes of the match, with the Germans having to take a reactionary stance. Germany were immediately on the back foot and they henceforth sought direction. How well can you act, though, if you have to react to someone else’s movement?
The best teams counter-attack when they are cowed down. Counter-attacking is often looked down upon since, after all, it is a counter to the main thread of the narrative, that of two teams going at one another hammer and tongs. The idea of both teams attacking is not seen in reality, no matter how much appealing it is in theory. The “us against them” narrative thread – that of forces clashing for supremacy where only one can emerge triumphant – is usually the only narrative that revolves in your head. The rest is noise.
So, by this paradigm, it was the Germans who were in the ascendancy. Narratives are supposed to have a cause and effect flow to them in the conventional scheme of things. Outliers can often act as a blot and the French were not even close to doing that.
What was remarkable about Germany’s performance in this match was that they were playing at that level in spite of the injuries to key personnel Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez. The suspension of Mats Hummels had not helped either. A last-ditch tackle by Germany’s Benedikt Höwedes was picked up as a “wow” moment mainly because such moments were few and far between.
The twist against the run of play
And yet, there was to be a twist in the tale. It took place at the tail-end of the first half to fulfil its dramatic potential. Bastian Schweinsteiger did a Jerome Boateng and handled the ball, needlessly. Germany trailed for the first time in the tournament, once again courtesy a penalty they needn't have conceded.
The penalty decisively changed matters as the second half ticked on. Die Mannschaft lost much of their fluidity as the play became much more open and everything was for grabs. But before they could put a foot back into the match, it was their much-vaunted defensive compactness that came back to fail them. Antoine Griezmann scuffed in his second of the night and Germany had conceded a goal from open play for the first time in the tournament.
It was a decisive shift, but it should not have come as a surprise, especially for Germany. In case Joachim Löw had forgotten, this was not the first time Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann was making a German side pay for their errors. Ask Bayern Munich, who were on the wrong end of a decisive strike from the Frenchman for Atletico, which made all the difference in this year’s Champions League semi-final.
Two individual errors might have prematurely ended Germany’s tournament, but they were running on empty towards the end. Boateng’s inability to finish the semi-final really summed up matters. It had been a great run, but the world champions have not played like world champions for a while.
World-beaters no more?
So, what’s the verdict on Germany, then, as the players go back home, trying to desperately get Griezmann out of their heads? To start with, their return of seven goals in six matches is hardly great. Defensive compactness was never going to have a long shelf life with regard to the German style of play.
Despite the good work in the midfield, the killer final touch deserted them. Despite the lack of confidence in their injured striker Mario Gomez, Germany missed him badly – something no one would probably have expected before the tournament.
On the bright side, though, the Italy voodoo in tournaments is done away with. The future looks decent for the Germans. The next big focus will shift to the 2018 World Cup where they will hope for fewer injury concerns. This Euro 2016 campaign was certainly better than their anti-climatic exit in 2012. The world champions are bruised now as they exit France. But with less than two years to go for Russia 2018, it would be unwise to write them off.