Joachim Low and Germany Find a Way to Win Ugly Against France

Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2014

Germany's Philipp Lahm, center, smiles at the end of  the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Germany and France at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 4, 2014. Germany won the match 1-0.  . (AP Photo/David Vincent)
David Vincent/Associated Press

The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote: "The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long." Joachim Low knows all too well the importance of finesse, having seen his Germany team shine brilliantly again and again only to see their flame flicker and die.

What wins major international football tournaments like the World Cup is not a couple of brilliant performances, but pragmatism and consistency. That much was made quite clear in Germany's 1-0 win over France in Friday's quarterfinal.

Germany were the more aggressive and ambitious side in the opening minutes. They opened the scoring after just 13 minutes, but not from a beautiful, well-worked passing sequence. It was instead a header from a free-kick. Mats Hummels' goal itself was unspectacular but came from a perfectly weighted cross and a perfectly executed header.

In yesteryear, Low may have pressed Germany on to aim for two or three goals. And the tactic may have worked.

It also may have left the team open and resulted in a slugfest that Die Mannschaft, without an in-form, natural center forward, could well have lost against Karim Benzema and France. Hummels' goal was all the Germans needed; they slowed down the pace of the game and played with discipline to hold the result as it was. The impetus was on France to score, after all.

Germany waited patiently and, on the whole, had the better opportunities to score a second: Most notably, Andre Schurrle had two gilt-edged opportunities late in the match.

France, so brilliant in their opening four matches of the tournament, had little in response. There were a couple of decent opportunities, but Hummels and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer stepped up to deny Les Bleus an equalizer. For the most part, though, the German team came together brilliantly as a unit to deny France much of a look at goal.

There can be many parallels drawn between the approach of France in 2014 and Low's Germany in 2010. The Germans were explosive in South Africa, handily beating Australia in the group stage and England and Argentina in the first two knockout rounds. They scored enough goals in any two of those matches to win the World Cup.

Hummels' early goal was all Germany needed to advance.
Hummels' early goal was all Germany needed to advance.Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press

Germany's flame flickered in the semifinal, however, as Spain contained them and played a patient but effective, conservative game. As the match neared its end, Carles Puyol headed in a corner that put the Iberians through to the final.

La Furia Roja went on to be crowned world champions having scored just eight goals, winning all but one of their matches by a single goal and winning all their knockout matches by a 1-0 margin. Germany doubled their goal tally for the tournament but only placed third.

In 2014, France were only outscored by the Netherlands and Colombia in the group stage and were one of just two teams to win their round-of-16 match by a multigoal margin. All the traditional favorites had their moments of uncertainty except for the French, who looked composed, balanced and fit. Until they met Germany, that is.

Low's approach to the World Cup has not exactly been a pretty one, but it's been pragmatic above all other things and devastatingly effective. Conditions in Brazil have been brutal, with the heat and humidity making the typical all-out, aggressive and proactive German approach ineffective.

Instead, Low has divided games into different tactical segments. In the group stage, he would often play conservatively to wear down opponents before bringing on tactical substitutes who were more capable as scorers.

That was his plan against Ghana, with striker Miroslav Klose coming on for playmaker Mario Goetze in the final quarter of the game. The same was his plan against the United States, in which Goetze and Klose replaced playmaker Mesut Ozil and holding midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Low's outlook heading into the opener against Portugal may have been the same, although Germany going three goals and one man ahead in the first half changed everything. The Portugal match remains Germany's one "comfortable" win at the World Cup, the rest less spectacular but equally effective in getting the Germans to their place in the semifinal.

A desire to win dominantly cost Germany in 2010 and again at Euro 2012, in which they let the occasion get the better of them as they lost to an entirely beatable but more mentally prepared and ultimately more effective Italy side.

Low's men are now showing a new side, a pragmatic one that wants to win by any means necessary. Though compromised by injury and a general lack of fitness, their mature performance on Friday showed they just might have what it takes to win their fourth World Cup.


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