European heavyweights France and Germany both won through to the 2014 FIFA World Cup quarter-final on Monday evening after the duo saw off African pair Nigeria and Algeria, respectively.
Neither France nor Germany exactly swept their opposition aside despite both being heavy favourites, though Didier Deschamps' men were more convincing and clearly came out stronger as the game went on, while Germany were taken to extra time—and almost beyond—by Algeria.
It means a last-eight meeting for the two victors, one which France should be looking at with relish after the World Cup so far has revealed a pattern of their strengths matching up to Germany's main weakness.
France Front Three
The big strength of France so far has been in their numbers and movement in attack and in their ability to be clinical when it matters.
Both pre-World Cup and during the tournament itself, they have rotated the front line to figure three from four: Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena as certain starters, with Olivier Giroud or Antoine Griezmann coming in as tactics and fitness dictates.
The smart money should be on Griezmann coming back into the XI against Germany; not only did he perform better than Giroud in the round of 16, but he also possesses the movement, pace and running in behind the defence that will really trouble the opponents.
Add into the mix the running from deep from Paul Pogba, the overloading down the left channel in particular with Blaise Matuidi's surges forward, and France have an extremely potent attacking balance that, so far at least, hasn't compromised defensive solidity.
The Griezmann-Valbuena-Benzema triumvirate has so far contributed four goals and 28 key passes for France in four matches (as per WhoScored.com). France boss Deschamps acknowledged, via BBC Sport, that the introduction of the Real Sociedad man acted as a catalyst for victory:
We had a very strong last half an hour with more dynamism and more speed. We had space to create chances and we could have scored quite a few times. I tried to create some more speed by bringing on Griezmann and we tried to exploit the space with short passes and it worked.
Germany's Defensive Ails
Against Algeria, Germany's problems at the back were shown several times over.
Direct passes from deep or crosses from range exploited tremendous gaps behind the back four that Germany failed to recover from, continually needing goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to sweep up. While relying on Neuer's abilities is no bad thing, a faster forward than Islam Slimani might well have made him pay for rushes out of his penalty area.
Perhaps more troubling was the lack of protection afforded to the defence by the shielding midfielders; even after those first few passes split the back line, there was no great urgency to press from Germany's double pivot, no screening player in front of the defence to pick up second balls and little in the way of seeing the full-backs—or extra centre-backs as Jogi Low has favoured—stopping crosses coming in.
Griezmann and Valbuena will destroy the #GER full-backs, if they can even win this match.— Jerrad Peters (@jerradpeters) June 30, 2014
The greater movement and linkup play of the French attack could present a serious problem for Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng.
Man Mountain Manuel
Back to Manuel Neuer, then, and the one man who could really upset France's party.
The German goalkeeper is a great reader of the game, is imposing in one-on-one situations and has great distribution.
Those first two points are assets that could stop France finding clear chances on goal, even if Griezmann's pace or Benzema's one-touch linkup play finds room behind the back four, but the last is a weapon for Germany of which the French midfielders must beware.
Happy to commit players forward in the knowledge that Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi have both the physicality and work ethic to get back in position, France could easily be caught out by one swift throw or accurate long pass from Neuer, who does not hang about with his distribution.
It's not going to be a case of France attack versus Neuer for the whole game, but it certainly could be the biggest battle that sees who progresses to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
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