Tactical decisions could be the key when Germany meet France in the quarter-finals of the World Cup on Friday. If Germany want to win, Joachim Low has to sort out his midfield.
You could see in the last-16 match against Algeria that there were a number of issues with the set-up. I was very impressed by Algeria, the way they pressed the ball and the way they moved on the counter-attack. They were physically very strong and also very quick, and Germany struggled to cope with them—but some of the problems were of their own making.
I think the balance of the team is wrong at the moment, because I don’t think Philipp Lahm should be playing in midfield. I think his positional sense is poor—time and time again in games for the national team he was further upfield than the ball, which affects the team by leaving them way too open at the back.
Perhaps he can do that for Bayern Munich—where all the players have longer to work on their positional responsibilities and know when to cover for team-mates—but not for the national side.
You also then have two centre-backs playing at the full-back positions, while one of the best full-backs in the world is playing in midfield instead. It just does not make sense. Obviously you don’t wish an injury on anyone, but you do wonder if Shkodran Mustafi getting injured in the game against Algeria was a blessing in disguise because it meant Lahm had to be moved back to full-back for the rest of the game. Germany went on to win, and I hope Lahm stays at full-back now.
If they want to have any chance against France he needs to stay there.
As the defensive midfielder, Lahm should be the security, but time and time again on the counter-attack he rarely offers any protection. Even in the games beforehand he has joining up with the play—he was often ending up on one of the wings while the team was in possession—and this is not what you want from your holding midfielder. You want Bastian Schweinsteiger or Toni Kroos in those positions.
That’s the key issue, that the midfield unit looks unbalanced. It’s partly because Lahm wanted to play there, and the manager gave him the power to do that, but Low now needs to change that.
The problem for Low is that there are still doubts over whether both Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are fit enough to play the full 90 (or 120) minutes. It is obviously a big risk to start one player who you do not know can go the distance, let alone two.
Now if Low doesn’t think that one of them can go the distance, then he has to play Kroos in a deeper role and one of the other two alongside him in central midfield, with Mario Goetze—or even bring in Julian Draxler—further forward alongside Mesut Ozil, Andre Schurrle and Thomas Mueller.
But he needs to sort out the midfield balance, because with Lahm it is not working.
Further forward, I thought Schurrle did well in changing the game against Algeria. It might also be time to give Draxler a chance to impress. Goetze struggled against Algeria, and he has not really fired in this World Cup after an underwhelming first season at Bayern Munich. I thought the recent criticism of Mesut Ozil was harsh, though—I think it has got to the point where if he does not do something absolutely amazing in a game he is criticised.
Yes he was not fantastic in the game against Algeria, but over the course of the tournament, I think he has been one of Germany’s better players. He can be a big asset against France.
I think you can make the case that France have been the most impressive side of the tournament so far, although they have also had their moments of being disappointing. They struggled to get into the game against Nigeria, but they eventually came out on top, which is a good sign; you need to find a way to win games even when you are not at your best, and France did just that.
Obviously there was a big difference when Olivier Giroud came off, so I think Didier Deschamps has to play Karim Benzema alone through the middle against Germany with Antoine Griezmann coming in from the left. Benzema and Giroud clearly did not work as well as a partnership against Nigeria as they did against the Swiss, and their partnership is probably not ideally suited for the Germany back line.
Benzema, though, is one of their best players, and along with Griezmann he could exploit the slight lack of pace in the German back line. Germany will be hoping that they have Mats Hummels back after illness in order to deal with him.
With Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye so effective for France, the midfield battle will be key, so the question for Germany becomes, how do you combat that?
I think Low has got to move Lahm back to right-back from the start, and then depending on fitness, play Kroos and Schweinsteiger in the middle, with Schurrle, Ozil and Goetze behind Mueller.
If Khedira and Schweinsteiger are both in the condition to finish the game, then perhaps you can push Kroos forward and drop Goetze to the bench, but that looks doubtful at this point.
Injuries have hampered Low’s options—especially the ones picked up before the tournament started—but he now has to make the most of what he has. It has not been easy, but Germany are still in the World Cup. And as long as they are in it, they have got a chance to win it.