Success and failure at the top level is, as always, a fine balance. Four years ago, France had rather too much ‘personality’. It was the sort of self-determination that yielded an impromptu strike, Franck Ribéry gatecrashing a television interview with his coach and which eventually prompted that infamous image of fitness coach Robert Duverne hurling his stopwatch into the bushes at the squad’s training ground in Knysna, at the end of his tether with his star charges.
This time, Didier Deschamps’ men were a little too far to the other end of the scale. There was no huge gulf between them and Germany at the Maracanã, but France might reflect – and regret – that they were just a little bit too polite. What should have been a crescendo of second-half pressure never became so. It was more of a gentle tap on Germany’s door than a concentrated hammering against it.
The stats might tell you that France had more shots, more efforts on target and made more dribbles, but it rarely felt like Germany weren’t in control of matters. Karim Benzema’s effort in the game’s dying moments, France’s clearest chance, was indicative; it was on target, it made Manuel Neuer save one-handed, but it wasn’t a moment of intense discomfort for Germany.
Jögi Low’s men deserve plenty of credit, of course, for their own role in the unfolding of events, taming a side that looked perhaps the tournament’s most fluent when they were hammering Switzerland in the group stages. The much-heralded redeployment of Philipp Lahm to right-back lent Germany a defensive solidity that hasn’t always been evident in the competition so far. That Antoine Griezmann, who made such an impact as substitute against Nigeria, ended up being forced to drift into the centre and onto the right to look for openings, underlined Lahm’s prowess.
Lahm, as is so often the case for his club, was symbolic of his team’s strength in another way. His mastery of Griezmann – perhaps an international newbie but no novice, having struck 16 La Liga goals for Real Sociedad this season – personified the gulf in maturity between the two sides. “They’re a team that has more experience than us,” Deschamps lamented to beIN Sports after the final whistle.
What was more surprising about Löw’s defensive reshuffle was that the central defensive partnership of Jerome Baoteng and match winner Mats Hummels gave them real security. It was the first time that the pair had lined up together in the centre in this World Cup, and it worked very well indeed. The coach’s choice to drop Per Mertesacker had been a surprise, but was entirely justified. Little got past them. The calm also brought more out of Benedikt Höwedes, the supposed weak link in the side, who enjoyed his strongest display to date.
It was in stark contrast to Deschamps’ decision to include Mamadou Sakho ahead of Laurent Koscielny. The Liverpool man – along with his teammate Olivier Giroud, perhaps fortunate to have escaped suspension early in the competition for over-keen elbows – looked nervous and scatty, in a reprise of the sort of form that saw Carlo Ancelotti lose faith with him at Paris Saint-Germain. His lack of control in possession undermined France’s attempts to assert any authority in the match.
It wasn’t just Sakho, though, who lacked the requisite poise. Raphaël Varane, suggested as perhaps the best centre-back on the planet in Friday morning’s L’Equipe, lacked command on Hummels’ goal and beyond. Thought by many to be the key to the match, Paul Pogba never really took it by the scruff of the neck. Like Blaise Matuidi, there was willing but not the habitual accuracy that we have come to expect. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger both offered strong ripostes to concerns over their fitness, putting in sterling shifts alongside Toni Kroos.
Schweinsteiger also stuck close to Mathieu Valbuena, reminding us of his ability to spoil with his doggedness as well as his capacity to dictate. The closeness of this attention was a big compliment to the Marseille man who, like most of his teammates, flickered without really catching fire.
Perhaps for this World Cup, that’s good enough for France. Captain Hugo Lloris spoke of a “positive” tournament after the match, and that was the top priority here ahead of hosting Euro 2016 – to get through it with out any fall-outs and without showing the country up. The obsession with projecting the right image, nationally and internationally, in the wake of the events of 2010, has become paramount. Maybe in previous tournaments, France would have accepted that Samir Nasri’s talent made him worth persevering with. Not here, not now. Griezmann’s tears at the whistle (he too has had his scrapes with authority, of course, but has been considerably more contrite) are what the nation wants to see. They want a team that cares.
Where the extra fire will come from to supplement that undoubted talent remains to be seen. What Germany must show from here, meanwhile, is nerve. There was plentiful resolve in their performance in Rio de Janeiro, a masterclass in attrition that complements their normal style well.
They’ve been here before, though. There are now in a fifth successive major championship semi-final. We know they can do that. Can they go that extra step, though? Löw proved with his line-up against France that he is prepared to take tough decisions to get the job done, and the players responded. The vested substitute Mertesacker’s beaming face at full-time spoke eloquently of collective unity. They will need all of that staying power when they meet the host nation in Belo Horizonte, but Germany could be clicking at just the right time.
Andy Brassell (On Twitter: @andybrassell)
- Sports & Recreation
- Didier Deschamps