RIO DE JANEIRO -- Germany is back in the World Cup semifinals for a fourth consecutive time after defeating France 1-0 at the Maracana on Friday. Mats Hummels' header off a Toni Kroos set piece was the difference, and Manuel Neuer's goalkeeping denied Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema from scoring on great chances to keep Germany's hope at a fourth World Cup title alive.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Germany's Return to Basics
After all the experiments with a false No. 9 and with Philipp Lahm in midfield, Germany manager Joachim Low did what his critics had been urging him to do throughout the tournament and moved the world's best right back to right back, restoring the Bastian Schweinsteiger-Sami Khedira partnership in midfield.
Neither, perhaps, is fully fit, and Low had seemed distrustful of playing the two together, but with them in tandem, Germany began to resemble the old Germany - not the one of four years ago, but the machine of the 1980s. Given how much focus there had been in the build-up to France and Germany's meetings in the semifinals of 1982 and 1986, there was something very familiar about this narrative: gone was the beautiful but flawed openness that has characterized German football under Low, replaced by French control (at halftime, although Germany's midfield circulation meant it had had 55 percent possession, France had had seven chances to two) and frustration.
It seemed as though France had expected Germany to play a high line again and had been primed to try to play into space behind its back four, and was then unable to adjust to it sitting deep. Too often France attempted chips over the Germany back line that were only ever likely to run out of play or through to Neuer, ever assiduous in sweeping up behind his defense. It was telling as to the change in German approach that Neuer, having effectively played as a libero against Algeria, barely ventured from his box.
Solidity replaced fluidity and the principle attacking weapon became set plays, from one of which Germany took the lead after 12 minutes, with Kroos' superb delivery being headed in via the crossbar by Hummels. That said, perhaps Germany has never entirely abandoned the old ways: this was its 15th headed World Cup goal since 2002, more than twice as many as anybody else.
Lahm Struggles to Readjust
Surprisingly, Lahm seemed to struggle to readjust to his role. After all the talk about his surprisingly ineffectiveness in midfield in his tournament, always a little hard to explain given how well he operated there for Bayern Munich, it may simply be that he is a little out of form - something that can happen to anybody, even the player described by Pep Guardiola as the most intelligent with whom he has ever worked.
France repeatedly exploited the channel between Lahm and Jerome Boateng. Mathieu Valbuena's drifts in from the flank perpetually threatened to undo Germany, and it was from his cross in just that channel that Karim Benzema volleyed wide after seven minutes. It was from that flank three minutes before the break that Patrice Evra delivered a perfect cross for Benzema, whose header at goal was blocked by Hummels, and from that flank that the center forward cut infield to shoot at goal a couple of minutes later. Blaise Matuidi made inroads down that flank in the second half.
In part, Lahm was made uncomfortable by the excellence of Antoine Griezmann, who has been one of the finds of the tournament for France, yet probably wouldn't have made the squad had Franck Ribery not been injured and Samir Nasri not been left out for, essentially, being disliked by other players. There is something ineffably neat about Griezmann, a precision about him that means that his hair remains rigidly parted even in the heat of the battle, that he has he air of an ambitious provincial dentist.
Germany Reverts to the False No. 9
The problem for Germany returning to the 4-2-3-1 of old is that Miroslav Klose, the only true center forward in the squad, is 36 and can't last much more than an hour, certainly not in the heat of Rio in the early afternoon. He was withdrawn for Andre Schurrle after 69 minutes, with Thomas Muller moving from the right to become a false No. 9.
That coincided with France's best spell of the game, at least territorially, but that was probably as much to do with the increased urgency of seeking an equalizer as the change of shape.
What it allowed was a fluid 4-2-4-0 in which Germany could rapidly get nine outfielders behind the ball, while still leaving an outlet forward to facilitate the counter. France forced a couple of corners but was never able really to assert itself, and the best chance of the final 20 minutes went Germany's way, Muller taking an air shot at Mesut Ozil's cross before Schurrle's effort was kicked to safety by Hugo Lloris.