World Cup favourites France and Germany look to set marker of success
France and Germany meet on Tuesday in an international friendly, with both teams favourites to win the World Cup next year. Ahead of the game, Julien Laurens and Raphael Honigstein got to talking ...
Julien gets the debate going:
Raf, I was thinking of you the other day when someone asked me about the France vs. Germany semifinal at Euro 2016.
We were both there in Marseille and it was a special evening. The noise inside the Stade Velodrome was incredible and France played in a clinical way to win 2-0 and do to you what you usually do to us! Then that same person said that France vs. Germany would be the final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As things come in threes (after the 2014 World Cup), I would definitely fancy a rematch on the biggest stage in football.
Quarterfinal in 2014; semis in 2016; final in 2018? For me, France and Germany are the two favourites for the trophy. We both have the biggest squad depth in the world. In fact, each manager has three potentially very strong XIs at their disposal.
When I see the players Didier Deschamps can pick from, it is pretty unbelievable. In all positions, he has world-class or promising young players. So much so that he can even afford to leave talent like Karim Benzema at home... and don't get me started on that!
Since Deschamps took over in 2012, Les Bleus have been progressing. The head coach built on the 2014 run, and the good things that went with it, and though there was a lot of pressure on him and the players playing the Euros on home soil, they coped well and almost delivered.
France have struggled to overcome the disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final to Portugal but every player would have learnt from it to come back stronger in 2018. This generation, the Paul Pogba-Antoine Griezmann-Raphael Varane one, is ready to rock the world. I bet it is the same for the Germans, no?
It's funny you should mention the 2014 quarterfinal in Brazil. I talked about it in great detail with Per Mertesacker the other day, and he stressed over and over again that Germany only really won because they scored first. The heat in the Maracana that day -- it was the hottest day in Rio of the entire World Cup -- was so unbearable that both sides were completely spent 30 minutes before the end.
In Marseille, the weather was less of a factor but the dynamics of the game were similar. Germany chased the game after Bastian Schweinsteiger's silly handball and the penalty just before half-time but never quite recovered. I was impressed by France that night but their performance in the final vs. Portugal was on the embarrassing side.
It's that defeat, at the hands of an unspectacular team, sans the moth-eaten Cristiano Ronaldo, that will be France's biggest problem in Russia, psychologically. If you can't win a tournament at home against a vastly inferior side, can you really win a World Cup where you'll be up against a better Germany, Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina, a rejuvenated Brazil, brilliant Belgium, etc?
As you know, I also harbour some doubts about Deschamps. He looks to me like a coach with a rare talent for making the whole smaller than the sum of its parts. I trust Joachim Low, by contrast, to come up a winning combination once more.
The Bundestrainer is no longer under pressure from critics and has a zen-like belief in his own decision-making process. It'll more difficult than ever for him to pick his central midfield, where Emre Can, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Goretzka, Sebastian Rudy, Sami Khedira, Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil are all in contention for a maximum of three places, but I'm hopeful that he'll get it right.
On paper, Germany have a wonderful blend of experienced veterans and very exciting young talents. With Low in charge, you just know they'll play as a team, irrespective of formation or personnel. The same can't be said with similar conviction of Deschamps, can it?
Ha, you know what to say to get me started! Deschamps!!!
I remember when Laurent Blanc was France head coach between 2010-2012, it was a mess tactically. Deschamps took over and from the players to the media, everybody praised the change. Finally, there was some tactical work done at training and the players knew what to do.
Deschamps got a lot of things right up to the 2014 World Cup. He shaped the team nicely, they were disciplined and organised plus he changed systems at times with positive effect. And then he lost his way a bit. The two years of friendly matches prior to Euro 2016 at home were difficult and he got things wrong at times, like the embarrassing 1-0 defeat in Albania.
During the Euros, he almost totally messed it up in the round of 16 against Ireland by starting an experimental midfield trio with Blaise Matuidi on the right and Pogba on the left in front of N'Golo Kante! Then he changed everything at half-time to switch to a 4-4-2 formation, with Kingsley Coman coming on for Kante, and France progressed with two goals from Griezmann.
Wins over Iceland and Germany (sorry) were more impressive, but in the final Deschamps showed his limits. On that night in the Stade de France, with his team massive favourites against a Portugal side without the injured Ronaldo for most of the game, he could not find a way to make the French win. He couldn't inspire his players -- even when Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post in the 92nd minute and France were on top with three more minutes to go, with extra-time looming, he was gesturing to his men to calm down.
It came back to haunt him as France lost the title thanks to a strike from Eder, but Deschamps will have to deliver next time. The pressure will not be as high as in 2016 because it's not at home, but many people see Les Bleus as favourites.
The problem is that Deschamps is a conservative manager, more cautious than adventurous and more defensive than attacking. Having a solid defensive unit is usually not enough anymore to win a major international title, so Deschamps' style could again be an issue in Russia.
That is a real shame when you think about the incredible attacking talent that France have going into this World Cup. Just consider: Griezmann, Coman, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Nabil Fekir, Florian Thauvin and even Dimitri Payet, Ben Yedder, Kevin Gameiro, Moussa Dembele or Jean-Kevin Augustin. They won't be all going to the World Cup but it is pretty scary to see this abundance of talent in one team.
Deschamps is spoilt for choice and in terms of offence, Germany don't seem to have the same depth, do they?
I wasn't trying to wind you up, honest. (Well, maybe a little bit.) But even as a German, I'd say it's a shame to see such a talented group of players being managed so uninspiringly.
As for our perceived lack of striking options up front, things have actually improved quite markedly. At the 2014 World Cup, we had Thomas Muller, Miroslav Klose and Gotze; 2016 we had Muller and Gomez; next summer, we'll have Muller, Sandro Wagner and Timo Werner (maybe Gotze and maybe Gomez). We haven't had this variety up front for a couple of decades.
Muller will do his thing, probably on the right. In the middle, Wagner offers a physical presence and point of reference in the box whenever Germany will be up against deep defences, which they will be in most games.
Werner, by contrast, offers pace for direct balls over the top and counterattacks. The RB Leipzig man could be the missing piece of the puzzle: a "playing" striker who can drop deep or go long, and play off the shoulder of the last defender. He's only 22 and still developing at this level, but Low has high hopes for him, especially in tandem with Leroy Sane, who'll start on the left as things stand. There is also Marco Reus, Julian Brandt and Julian Draxler for the wide position.
I'll admit that Les Bleus have a superb squad but that won't curb my enthusiasm for the Nationalmannschaft. As you'll see on Tuesday night in Cologne, things look pretty promising for the world champions.