The moment that Franck Ribéry was deemed unfit to participate in Brazil, France took the first step forward in their pursuit to achieve international glory.
Having initially struggled to come to terms with the loss of Bayern Munich’s talisman, Les Bleus have finally managed to hurdle through the daunting shadow of the attacker’s absence by putting on valiant displays of unity, responsibility, and humility – characteristics diametrically opposed to those displayed by the French four summers ago in South Africa.
This progress should be a warning sign for Germany (as if edging Algeria wasn’t enough of a red flag). Die Nationalmannschaft must now learn to react to its opposition’s strengths, especially if this means curbing Paul Pogba’s influence in midfield. Despite the French media demanding more from the Juventus midfielder, Pogba’s vintage performance against Nigeria surely alludes to the beginnings of an elegant engine inside a dormant giant machine, hungry for the sunlight. Shut him down, and you restrict the supply that’s been allowing France to tick so far during the World Cup.
Furthermore, Antoine Griezmann’s advanced role in the last game initiated an influx of dynamism that thwarted Nigeria’s zonal defence as France began to concentrate their movement more narrowly up the pitch. For France, there were no more pointless crosses from the byline, as Vincent Enyeama was braced for an onslaught. A thousand miles away, David Moyes cussed under his breath.
France would go on to win 2-0 in comfortable fashion.
As Germany faces a nation seeking redemption from previous failures (i.e. the 2010 World Cup), what should Die Nationalmannschaft do to ensure that their neighbor’s celebrations are cut short? Here’s my take on how Joachim Löw should set up his team for Friday’s quarter-final clash:
Mats Hummels will recover from his illness and is expected to start alongside Per Mertesacker at centerback. Both stalwarts have struck up a great understanding between each other over the past few months, which shouldn’t change on Friday provided that Germany doesn’t push too high up. Meanwhile, Jérôme Boateng has been lauded in his role as right back, particularly for his ability to maximize his positional utility against quicker opposition. He shouldn’t deviate from his recent form when he comes up against Griezmann along the right flank.
It’s also imperative that Philipp Lahm starts at left back to relinquish Germany’s obvious weak spot currently held by Benedikt Höwedes. Because the majority of Pogba’s passes find Mathieu Debuchy on France’s right side (Pogba predominantly uses his right foot), der Kapitän boasts the versatility and experience needed to quell the Newcastle wingback from penetrating the byline. Lahm is undoubtedly the finest fullback in the world, so who in his/her right mind would play a native center back like Höwedes out wide instead?
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira should start alongside Toni Kroos; the latter’s inclusion being a no-brainer. The previous match against Algeria greatly tested the German midfield, but the arrival of Khedira led to a plethora of chances for Germany, suggesting that his partnership with Schweinsteiger is still relatively stellar. For all the defensive awareness Lahm offers in the middle, Germany’s midfield is quite flat. Khedira seems negligent in tracking back at times, but he carries a greater, more direct threat in the final third.
Schweinsteiger’s presence takes into account his flawless history of man-marking the likes of Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo, and Andrés Iniesta. If there’s one person who can contain Pogba for large periods of time, look no further than Bastian ‘Fußballgott’ Schweinsteiger.
Which brings us to our front three. With Lahm cutting inside, an out-swinger in front of him is necessary to restore width to the pitch. This dynamic means that Mesut Özil should start instead of Mario Götze or André Schurrle on the left. For all his faults, Özil provides an offensive risk for a team stubborn to retain possession. He possesses the key combinations to decrypt any defence; Özil just requires willing runners to help punch in the code. If anything, Özil earned a name for himself playing left wing alongside Diego Ribas in 2008. Switching Özil back to this spot will surely bring back fond memories for Werder Bremen fans, who were once Champions League regulars.
On the other side, Thomas Müller plays an integral role adjacently behind Miroslav Klose in dismantling the French stronghold. Klose has showcased his agility and determination throughout this World Cup, and his unparalleled propensity to open up spaces for Müller and Özil will liven up the unpredictability of Germany’s attack. He will come up against Real Madrid’s Rafaël Varane, a promising center back who hasn’t featured much last season due to injuries. Klose’s intelligent movement will surely outsmart his young, inexperienced opponent who’s succumbed to positional errors before (e.g. vs. Manchester United and vs. Borussia Dortmund in 2013).
Dealing with Laurent Koscielny, however, will prove to be an even bigger challenge for the German attackers. Müller must slot into pockets of space between Patrice Evra (we shouldn’t really bother about him) and Koscielny to pull the latter away from open play, leaving Klose with the opportunity to confront an isolated Varane. This separation relieves Klose from contending with any physical opposition, and offers greater room for exploitation. Think back to the first leg of Arsenal vs Bayern Munich, when Claudio Pizarro came on and drew Mertesacker out of the box, leaving an unmarked Müller with all the time in the world to header home a sumptuous cross from Lahm. It might just work again.
Manuel Neuer – Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Per Mertesacker, Philipp Lahm – Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger – Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil, and Miroslav Klose (4-3-3).
Regardless of whom Joachim Löw chooses, Germany vs France will provide a fascinating encounter between two European powerhouses vying for much-awaited international success, though neither is without its faults. Which team do you think will come out on top?
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