Germany’s grand, elegantly captivating project found its outer limits at the Stade Vélodrome.
The world champions will not roll their triumph in Brazil into back-to-back major tournaments as Spain and France both have. But there was still something utterly gripping in their 2-0 defeat here on a night of peculiarly absorbing frustration for Joachim Löw’s team, all elaborate stitching but undone in the end by France’s more incisive bursts.
Lacking a Mario Gómes-shaped presence, for Germany this was a case of mesmeric high craft without edge or penetration. As the ball was shuttled between those white shirts, as Löw continued to stalk his technical area, trapped within his own train of thought, there was even a kind of dramatic irony in the spectacle of this ascetic team, so intent on refinement, suffering from an absence of sharp edges when it mattered most. In Marseille Germany had 10,000 spoons when all they needed was a knife.
They were still a joy to watch at times, albeit a slightly painful, chafing kind of joy. How do you desperately chase a game when you’re so used to grandly hunting it down? As the seconds ticked away Germany delicately embroidered with greater urgency. How they missed a straight up, no-frills striker. To an older generation their inability to produce those ragged, ugly, deeply West German kind of players who could rabbit-punch a game away in the clinches has been notable. Oh for a Rudi Völler-style striker here, able to niggle and burp and snatch a victory out of the air.
Instead Germany were too well-behaved, world champions with guile and grace and method but no fangs.They were cut down by Antoine Griezmann’s two goals and exposed at the decisive moment by Paul Pogba, who took the game away with an isolated piece of brilliance and a lesson in cutting edge, teasing the German defence and teeing up Griezmann to prod in his second.
All the more galling was the fact the German midfield had dominated Pogba for long periods, the hottest talent in world football but a callow figure for much of this game. Cutting edge versus attritional craft: the contrast was fascinating, and centred throughout around a player who in the buildup had been linked with a £100m move to Manchester United (unless specifically stated otherwise it is probably safe to assume Pogba is at any given moment being linked with a massive-money move of some kind).
Pogba versus Toni Kroos was a contrast of basic method. Kroos remains the master of the modern German style, a little stern and meticulous in his relentless distribution, but able to dictate the gravity of any match. Pogba acts more explosively. He also has a range of passing, but his urge is more to unlock and burst through than to wear down. They would make a wonderful combination at club level.
As the teams lined up on a sticky, still evening in Marseille there was a notion in the air that France needed to attack, to assert the sheer power of that midfield. It was gripping stuff in a frenzied, fast-forward first 20 minutes. Steadily the German midfield took the ball away in their patient, precise way, all clean lines and thoughtful shifts across the pitch. If France seemed intent on bursting towards goal in more obviously cork-popping fashion, Germany were all surgical stealth. And for a while their midfield dominated, with Kroos a spidery little king at the centre.
Frankly Pogba was absolutely nowhere in this period of the game, the ball kept from him with an insistent, chiding sideways motion. And yet for all their guile Germany didn’t score. They had chances, or half chances, but no hard edge to match their mastery of the ball.
Germany were punished on half-time. Schweinsteiger handled the ball with his arm raised at a corner. It seemed both fair enough and also a little harsh at the same time. Griezmann buried the penalty, due reward for the most direct and incisive attacker on the pitch. His second took him out in front in the Golden Boot stakes with six goals from only 12 shots on target. It was also a fine moment for Pogba, who kept coming, and who was on hand to help kill off a team that had waylaid its own deadly touch.
After which the ball was still urgently shuttled from man to man, Germany’s best chance coming in stoppage time as Joshua Kimmich drew a (stupendous) save from Hugo Lloris with header. There is a painting in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris by Albert Gleizes called Les Jouers De Football, a depiction of a game of football as seen through the flat mathematical prism of cubism, shapes flattened out, nature diced into an orderly, mesmerising grid. Probably Löw would like it.
It should be said Germany’s defeat here had its own beauty, a system that makes a priority of fluidity, possession and the relentless production of ball-playing midfielders seeming to reach the end of itself over 90 gripping minutes.
And so farewell not just to Germany but to the idea for now of a German mini-era, the full set of laurels. France will march on from Marseille to Paris for their day of glory. They are a team who do have real edge, with a beautifully schooled attacking menace in Griezmann and in Pogba genuine if still callow grace and power. It will take something extraordinary to stop them now.
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