Germany back in the old routine
Sometimes the old-fashioned way really is the best way. Hollywood loves that sort of thing. A bunch of semi-retired criminals getting together for one last score. Or the creaking old-timers reuniting and calmly, competently, teaching the young guns a thing or two.
Jogi Low turned to his past to answer the questions in his present. Faced with pace on the counter and the muscle in the midfield of Les Bleus, he turned back the clock in so many ways and not just because seven of his starting 11 were the same as those who faced Spain when the 2010 World Cup dream came to an end.
The key was moving Philipp Lahm to right-back, a shift with cascading implications throughout the German side. You can easily identify four of them, all of which played a part in the victory.
It meant the back four now had width going forward and agility defensively. It meant Jerome Boateng could slot inside alongside Mats Hummels, at the expense of Per Mertesacker. It meant Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira could renew their partnership in the middle of the park.
And it meant that a more natural centre-forward was needed, which is why Low turned to 36-year-old Miroslav Klose up front, shelving the "false nine" business.
All of this together resulted in a Germany that looked more like Low's early work. Gone was the "death by possession" ethos, the philosophy he tried to transplant from Pep Guardiola's Bayern to suit his team's Bavarian spine. Instead, you had brawn and work rate in the middle, directness in possession and a team that seemed just as comfortable without the ball as it is with it.
"I've always said we were able to change formation and style; it's one of our strengths," he said. "Against Algeria we played one way, now we wanted to make a change."
True, it's something he always "said." But managers say lots of things. Not all have the humility to change. Fewer still get it so right when they do.
With Lahm's legs and intelligence in the back four -- he was also the guy looking across the defensive line and making sure the offside trap held -- the high line that was torn to shreds by Algeria didn't look so haphazard. Manuel Neuer had to play sweeper only occasionally. Low even described it as an offensive weapon. ("It's a luxury to have a keeper who is so comfortable on the ball, it means that a defender under pressure can play it back and you still retain control because Neuer won't just clear it up the pitch, he'll find a pass.")
Boateng and Hummels simply complement each other much better than Hummels and Mertesacker. If it's about putting your key players in roles where they are more comfortable, this one makes sense every day of the week. At Borussia Dortmund, Hummels is used to playing with a quick, athletic partner (Neven Subotic until his injury, Sokratis Papastathopoulos after). But when he's paired with the Arsenal centre-back, Hummels finds himself as the more agile of the two, and it's not something he's always comfortable with. (Mertesacker, to his credit, took the exclusion well. Low said that when he informed him he would be sitting out, the big man said: "Coach, if it helps the team, I'm happy with it.")
Schweinsteiger and Khedira had turned into an either/or dilemma. Shifting Lahm meant both could play, like they had done so many times together in the past. They too are obvious complements, particularly when a side doesn't obsess over possession. They were also more suited to the physical battle with France's tough guys -- Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi -- than the more lightweight Lahm.
"France are very dense in midfield," Low said, using a term that may sound unusual in English but neatly captures France's central brawn. "With Cabaye and Pogba, they are so strong, it becomes very tough to go through the center, so my idea was to have Lahm attack from the right."
Lahm, as ever, got more touches than any other German player, though -- obviously -- he wasn't able to influence the game personally the way he's done for the past year in midfield. But it forced France to adjust: Patrice Evra sat more than he usually does, Matuidi and Pogba found themselves drawn to Lahm's side.
France coach Didier Deschamps said he wasn't surprised at Lahm's move. "It's his natural position, he plays there most of the time," he said, which actually isn't true at all. "But wherever he is, he's going to be one of the most influential players."
Klose, who -- ridiculous as it sounds -- scored his first World Cup goal way back in 2002, obviously lacks the stamina or pace he once had. But few players in the world, even today, are as adept at finding space and making the kind of intelligent runs that unsettle defenders. His movement allowed Germany to play more directly and made the game simpler for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos.
The changes made Germany more battle-ready, better equipped to deal with the French threat and the war of attrition this game became. The early goal, of course, made things considerably simpler. Less than 15 minutes into it, Hummels' masterpiece of power, timing and penalty-box savoir-faire allowed him to best Raphael Varane and beat Hugo Lloris.
It was the first time France went behind in this World Cup. Instead of an instant reaction, it took them time to regroup: "We were too timid in the first half" Deschamps admitted. This was in part because of Germany's press in midfield. Off the ball, the front men retreated, the back four pushed up and there were maybe 20 paces between the deepest German defender and Klose at the other end. This meant congested spaces and plenty of big bodies to play through, making things tougher for Les Bleus.
France realized they had to go over the top, spring the high line and try to find Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema with little chips and dinks. But what worked so well for Algeria failed here, in part because of Boateng's central presence and Lahm's leadership of the back line. The one time they did manage it, with just over half an hour gone, Neuer produced a brilliant save from Mathieu Valbuena's shot after a perfectly timed run and cross from Griezmann.
France have never managed to come back and avoid defeat when down at half-time in a World Cup game. They wouldn't manage it on Friday either. The best they could do was a Varane header, swatted away by Neuer, and Benzema's last-minute diagonal. In the meantime, Germany, who had brought on the fleet-footed Andre Schurrle, had at least three outstanding chances.
"Yeah, they could have scored a second; we became vulnerable to their counter because we had to chase the game," Deschamps conceded.
The question now is whether Friday was a Plan B and Low will restore Lahm to his deep-lying playmaker role, or whether the DeutschTikiTaka is a project to be shelved (at least temporarily). It worked against the French in a game that became a tactical battle and was blessed with an early German goal. It may not encounter the same success against a different opponent. And with Schweinsteiger and Khedira dogged by fitness issues -- and Klose not getting any younger and unlikely to give you more than an hour on the pitch -- you wonder how viable (let alone desirable) it is.
For all of Lahm's influence in the possession system as a playmaker, there's another Lahm -- let's call him right-back Lahm -- sitting in a little metal box that says "BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY." That's what Low did. The question now is whether he puts him back in his little box and goes with the other one.