In a parallel universe, Germany played France on Thursday night in a Euro semifinal at Marseille. Everything is the same in that world except one thing – Mario Gomez is fit. He is in prime physical condition and leads the attack for Joachim Loew’s side. He pins the French defenders back and creates space for his teammates to exploit. Germany puts 28 crosses in. He wins one of the aerial duels to score. Germany holds out with ease and enters the final.
Of course, Joachim Loew wants to live in that world now. For his side did not have Mario Gomez and it did not win the match. Instead, Germany conceded two very cheap goals to give the match away. Loew’s post-match thoughts are worth a gander.
“In 2010 and 2012 when we went out, the sides were better than us. Today that was not the case. If we would have scored, we would have dominated this match to a large extent… everyone was shocked (at going behind).”
Shocked is probably the right word. Until the first goal, it looked like Germany had once again raised its level to match the occasion. The ball seemed to belong to the Germans as they went about making pretty patterns on the pitch. A Rembrandt was on display at one point, we were reliably told. But one could fetishise the pass and possession-based football for only so long. Germany needed a player who could formalise the end product.
Thomas Muller was given that duty for the semi final – the same Thomas Muller who is usually a safe bet for a goal every game. However, this whole tournament has felt like a cosmic conspiracy to spoil his goal scoring record. Muller did no better than Mario Goetze in earlier games. His movement seemed like the result of an over-thought process as he failed to be a reference point for the rest of the side.
Germany had changed its formation to adapt to the French threat that lay in front. Loew returned to a four-man defence but it was his decisions in midfield that caused some surprise. Instead of opting to choose between Bastian Schweinsteiger and Emre Can, he played them both in a lop-sided 4-2-3-1. The result was that Can was shunted out to the right but it was Joshua Kimmich’s duty to stretch the play on that wing. Can slotted inside, where he was more at home. However, it seemed like he was constantly debating whether to wholeheartedly join the offence or protect the side against possible counter attacks.
The choice was made difficult by the fact that the centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes pushed up really high. This eventually ensured that Can played too close to Mesut Ozil and did not really engage in screening the defence. This was particularly obvious moments before the first goal when Olivier Giroud stole a march on Boateng to sneak through. Although the Arsenal striker could not exploit the chance, it was the near-perfect example of how Germany remained susceptible on the counter.
The goals, however, came from individual errors and no tactical stratagem could make an allowance for them. Schweinsteiger was guilty of leaping into an aerial duel with his hands hanging like an ill-controlled periscope. While he had little time to withdraw his hand before the ball arrived on it, the penalty call was justified for his reckless manner of dealing with the cross. The whole defence, though, should take collective responsibility for the second goal as France took advantage of a particularly lax piece of defending.
Yet, Germany fought on. Even in the final stages of the match, one could not escape the feeling that if the Germans got one goal they could score another quickly enough. Perhaps, the paranoia was fed by the French defence that, at times, looked on the brink. The memory of the 1982 World Cup semifinal could not be too far away either when Germany came back from a 1-3 deficit in extra-time and won the match on penalties. But without the presence of an in-form goal scorer, the Germans failed to set the French nerves aflutter.
And so it ended. Loew thinks the better team lost on Thursday but it was also a team that found goal-scoring unduly tough when Gomez was not in the side. It would have been a risible idea to suggest at the start of the tournament that he would become one of Germany’s key players. But the lack of a quality striker ensured that Gomez was the only one worthy of bearing the weight.
Indeed, it might seem a bit simplistic to analyse the result by focusing on one footballer alone. But in a team filled with great midfield talents, Gomez was the one who kept the puzzle together.
Now that the jigsaw has fallen apart, Germany’s campaign might be termed a failure. However, the high standards Loew has maintained over the past decade demand consideration. Under him, Die Mannschaft has reached one Euro final and two semifinals. Not to forget, the World Cup win two years ago and the semis appearance in 2010. Therefore, it would be fair to say Loew’s side achieved its minimum target. A target that most sides would draw pride from. A target that could have been exceeded if only Germany had a player to hit it on Saturday.