German lack of options exposed in Euro 2016 defeat to France
MARSEILLE, France (AP) Germany's failure to beat France in the semifinal of the European Championship exposes its lack of strength in depth with young players failing to bridge a generation gap after its World Cup win.
Left back Philipp Lahm, central defender Per Mertesacker and record goal-scorer Miroslav Klose all retired after Germany's 2014 World Cup win in Brazil, leading to a noticeable drop in the side's quality, evident from the very first qualifying games for Euro 2016.
A hard-fought win over Scotland was followed by defeat to Poland and then a draw at home with Ireland, which also managed to beat Joachim Loew's side in Dublin a year later. Germany's qualification campaign was a lot tougher than many expected it to be.
The retirements certainly hurt, though formerly unknown Cologne defender Jonas Hector has been a reliable replacement for Lahm, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng form a solid central partnership, and the return of Besiktas striker Mario Gomez coincided with Germany's attack finally scoring at Euro 2016.
Gomez, who missed the World Cup win due to injury-induced poor form, scored on his first start in the tournament against Northern Ireland, and then again against Slovakia.
But Gomez was the only one of Germany's regular starting forwards that looked capable of scoring, with Thomas Mueller enduring a puzzling drought, Mario Goetze dropped after the group games, and Mesut Ozil constantly running without reward.
Ozil did eventually score in the quarterfinal win over Italy, but he was one of three players to miss a spot kick in the penalty shootout (along with Mueller and Bastian Schweinsteiger). Only two Germans had missed altogether in previous penalty shootouts at a tournament. Ozil also missed a penalty in the 3-0 win over Slovakia.
With the forwards all in poor form, Germany had no replacement for Gomez when he was ruled out for the rest of the tournament after tearing a muscle in his right thigh.
Goetze was overlooked against France despite his usual role as a ''false nine.'' Andre Schuerrle wasn't trusted after failing to impress as substitute in the group stage, and veteran forward Lukas Podolski was only played with Germany already 3-0 up against Slovakia.
Mueller led the line against France with the same lack of success he had in ten previous games at a European Championship - no goals despite a number of chances. A good opportunity in the first half betrayed his lack of confidence when he shot from distance instead of racing for goal.
Loew brought Goetze on in the 67th minute and exciting Schalke forward Leroy Sane eventually came on for his tournament debut in the 79th, but by then it was too late. Germany was already two goals down to Antoine Griezmann.
Griezmann, quick, skillful and menacing throughout, epitomized the difference between the sides' attacks with his unpredictable runs, while Germany was forced to rely on crosses into the box and pot-shots at goal from distance. No German player carried the same attacking threat as the 25-year-old Griezmann.
Loew's failure to trust younger players like the 20-year-old Sane sooner in the tournament seemed to betray a lack of confidence in their ability to perform at the highest level.
Despite doubts over the fitness of Schweinsteiger ahead of the France game, Loew opted to stick with his 31-year-old captain because of his experience. Borussia Dortmund's 20-year-old midfielder Julian Weigl remained an unused substitute for the tournament.
In the end, it was Schweinsteiger who proved the villain, his handball before the break allowing Griezmann to open the scoring with a penalty. Another pillar of Loew's World Cup-winning side, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, was at fault for Griezmann's second.
Despite dominating with 65 percent possession, Germany had fewer attempts on target (6) than France (7). Goetze headed just wide of the far post in injury time. Close, but not close enough, it was indicative of Germany's lack of precision.
Germany is no longer the smooth-running free-scoring side that battered host Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup semifinal. Loew has two years to find replacements for his misfiring former heroes if he hopes to defend the title in Russia.