Germany were dominant for large portions of the match, but they committed two suicidal mistakes in their penalty box which handed France a route to the Euro 2016 final.
Joachim Low was forced to make a few changes due to suspensions and injuries and once again altered his system. Thomas Muller moved upfront for the injured Mario Gomez, which allowed Julian Draxler to return to the starting XI. Emre Can slotted into midfield for Sami Khedira and Benedikt Howedes shifted to centre-back alongside Jerome Boateng.
Despite Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante being available for selection, Didier Deschamps named an unchanged lineup.
Didier Deschamps may have got his tactics wrong, but France’s clinical finishing overcame an impressive German display.
Low’s system change
Similar to the quarter-final stage, Joachim Low’s decision to alter his stem was the main talking point of the round. Here, Low turned to the 4-3-3 that was successful at the World Cup, and it appeared Can’s inclusion was with the intent to offer a physical presence in the midfield zone.
Low probably assumed Deschamps would recall Kante into midfield, but the French manager’s decision to persist with a 4-4-2 left the hosts vulnerable in central areas as neither are natural holding midfielders. Bastian Schweinsteiger dropped between the centre-backs for additional cover, which enabled the centre-backs to push into midfield and the wing-backs to position themselves in advanced positions by the touchline.
This was another example of Low’s growth as a manager, as his tactical rejig was responsible for Germany’s dominance throughout.
Deschamps didn’t instruct his men to press higher up the pitch, but he focused on limiting space in central areas to exploit. The hosts maintained their two banks of four out of possession, but the peculiar aspect to their approach was the reluctance to close down Germany’s chief passers in Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, and Boateng.
Kroos dropped deep to receive possession and was occasionally pressed by Paul Pogba, but in comparison to the Italians instructing Graziano Pelle or Eder to stick tight to the German, this was a contrasting defensive display. Boateng, on the other hand, was free to step into France’s third of the pitch to hit diagonals to the advanced full-backs, but fortunately for the hosts, neither Hector nor Joshua Kimmich translated their dangerous positions into quality chances.
Besides allowing Germany’s creative passers time and space to dictate the tempo of the match, the main issue Deschamps’ men encountered involved their ability to break on the counter. Apart from positive combinations between Antoine Griezmann and Blaise Matuidi, and the former with Patrice Evra down the left, France didn’t appear capable of testing Manuel Neuer from open play.
Although Germany’s counter-pressing played a factor, but ultimately it was down to sloppy passing in transition that halted possible counter-attacks. There were two situations that witnessed Griezmann launch an attack only to have his pass cut out by Schweinsteiger, and then playing a poor pass back to the Germans.
In many ways, France were responsible for their shortcomings in the first half. Their reluctance to press Boateng, Kroos or Schweinsteiger enabled the Germans to retain possession, and when they did so, it wasn’t cohesive and created space for the attacking midfielders to exploit between the lines. Likewise, this also meant the full-backs, pegged the wingers deeper into their half, so when Griezmann did receive opportunities to break forward, he lacked passing options, which is partially responsible for his poor decision making in transition.
Nevertheless, the biggest mystery heading into half-time was how France found themselves ahead. The Germans territorial dominance merited a goal, and they used space wisely throughout the final third.
It was evident Germany aimed to exploit space down the right to exploit Dimitri Payet’s unwillingness to protect his full-back. Germany essentially had three players operating in this zone in contrasting directions – Ozil drifted centrally, an advanced Can darted vertically or diagonally into the right channel, whereas Kimmich offered width by hugging the touchline. There were shades of the positional understanding between players on the opposite flank where Ozil passed the ball to Hector and immediately sprinted towards the touchline, with the left-back aiming to cut infield from the flank.
In truth, Low’s approach was working to fruition – the midfielders were able to play forward passes and the advanced positioning of the full-backs enabled Draxler, and specifically Ozil freedom to receive the ball between the lines. More so, Thomas Muller’s sluggish performance proved decisive. Muller was easily marked by both centre-backs in the box, and doesn’t offer an identical penalty box presence to Gomez, who has been the key component to the German attack.
Therefore, Germany struggled in the final third, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Muller has failed to excel as a lone striker for his country. Meanwhile, Germany’s attack has been predictable and lacking the quick combinations to get behind a low defensive block without Gomez.
The few chances Low’s men created stemmed from the right, and despite the clever passing and interchangeable movement, poor penalty box finishing proved costly.
With that being said, France took the lead during injury time of the first half courtesy of another German blunder. Boateng was culpable for an additional 30 minutes of extra-time following his hand-ball against Italy, and here, Schweinsteiger committed the same mistake.
It’s unusual to see experience players on elite teams make silly errors, and this was nearly identical to Boateng’s hand ball. Evra attacked a near post corner ahead of Schweinsteiger, and nodded the ball into the German’s hands, which led to Griezmann converting a penalty to put the hosts ahead.
Griezmann’s opener encouraged the French to sit deeper out of possession, while Low’s men stuck to their initial approach and probed within the final third. Germany’s best chance in the opening 15 minutes of the half witnessed Ozil drop deep to receive and the ball, and subsequently clip it over Bacary Sagna to Hector but the German defender couldn’t control the pass.
Perhaps the German’s created minimal chances in the second half due to France remaining more compact with a deeper shape, but Boateng’s departure for Shkodran Mustafi decreased their creativity from deep. Kroos still dropped deep to cycle possession throughout, but even a change to a 4-2-3-1 with Draxler and Mario Gotze upfront was unsuccessful.
Germany continued to find joy down Payet’s flank so Deschamps turned to Kante to offer protection in midfield and negate Hector’s forward runs by transitioning to a 4-3-3. Oddly, France sealed the game seconds later, as they finally pressed the German back-line in their box for their first time as a unit, and were able to see Griezmann confirm their place in the finals.
The game suddenly became stretched with Germany pushing for a goal. Although it seemed logical France would receive more chances to win the game now, Deschamps’ men still struggled to cause havoc via the counter-attack, whereas Kroos’ set-piece deliveries placed his teammates in several key areas where they failed to convert their chances.
This was arguably one of the best performances of the tournament from Low’s German side, yet they failed to win due to silly errors from their defence. Low displayed his tactical nous by altering to a 4-3-3 which witnessed the Germans dominate central areas, and prevent France from breaking on the counter attack.
Injuries played a significant role in Germany’s road to the semi-finals as Khedira’s dynamism, Hummels’ passing, and Gomez’s presence provides variety to Low’s attack. It must be said, that without a natural centre-forward, the Germans often lack penetration in the final third, which increases the belief that a false-nine system can be futile for a side that doesn’t possess runners breaking beyond the opposing defence.
Still, France’s standout performers – Lloris, Umtitti, and Sissoko – offer hope that the hosts may be capable of utilizing this system in the final, but it would be hugely surprising if Kante doesn’t return to the XI. Deschamps hasn’t been afraid to make bold decisions or change his XI, but the first half against Germany suggested that they’ll need a holding midfielder to avoid being overrun in central areas.
Sacrificing creativity for a solid defensive foundation would be the logical move in a major cup final, and after being outwitted tactically, and outplayed in every aspect, Deschamps could use this fortuitous victory as a learning tool for the final.