The French were flying, even if victory in the end was of the quintessential, economic Didier Deschamps blueprint.
It took 35 minutes in 2018, and just 20 minutes in 2021. Three years ago, Irving Lozano was at the end of a magnificent team goal to signpost the downfall and decline of Germany in the World Cup on a steamy afternoon at the stunning Luzhniki, the Moscow stadium teeming with sombreros and green shirts. On Tuesday, France needed lesser time to dismantle the Germans. Paul Pogba carved open the home defence with a raking cross-field pass; Lucas Hernandez connected to cross low across the face of goal and Mats Hummels diverted the ball past his own goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
The scene was very different from those 90 minutes in the Russian capital when every goal, pass and movement seemed to reaffirm both the World Cup’s primacy and football as the great shared cultural phenomenon of our times. Euro 2020 belongs to a different age, the one where a global pandemic has cast a long shadow over the very fabric of life, including the beautiful game.
In a slow-burning tournament with exhilarating highs – the Netherlands and Ukraine conjuring up a 45-minute, five goal thriller – and desperate lows – Christian Eriksen’s collapse, Germany – France was the apex game of the first round, reuniting stellar names and big reputations, both former and current world champions.
And yet, above all, Hummels’ despair was symbolic of Germany’s everlasting downturn – a withering that won’t end. At a personal level, it was a strange reversion of history from 2014 when the defender’s bullet header eliminated France from the World Cup. Collectively, Germany were again outplayed and outclassed. Did the Mannschaft never recover from those harrowing, dysfunctional weeks in Russia? Did Joachim Low’s team simply stagnate?
It’s the bizarre contradiction of this Germany team: they are not short of quality and yet there are so many fault lines: sloppy defensive play, too much space in between the lines, no leadership and no direction. All of Low’s tinkering hasn’t helped either. His post World Cup renovation came crashing down with historic defeats at the hands of both Spain and North Macedonia. Perhaps, the Germany coach was trying too hard as well against France, playing Joshua Kimmich as a right wing-back and deploying both Toni Kroos and Ilker Gundogan without the support of a defensive midfield, a strategy that famously backfired for Pep Guardiola in the Champions League final. Atrophy, then, comes in many forms.
The German psyche was fragile. Low on confidence, the hosts were not incisive. The result was angsty football, impotence and indecision across the field. Their best spells came in flashes, in the second half, but Serge Gnabry squandered a fine chance. There was to be no redemption for Hummels, despite a pinpoint last-minute tackle on the marauding Mbappe, and Germany, who were often frantic and somewhat clueless, finding little space going forward. They simply had no solutions and no plan in the final third.
The French were flying, even if victory in the end was of the quintessential, economic Didier Deschamps blueprint. N’Golo Kante was in superb form, once more dispelling the hackneyed notion that he is but a mere defensive midfielder. No, he is one of the finest thinkers in the game, allowing him to anticipate and accelerate if and when required. The diminutive Frenchman doesn’t tolerate imperfection. Accompanied by an imperious Pogba, France were authoritative. They went in supernatural mode whenever it pleased them. They dealt in warp-speed football, the game played the way it is supposed to be: with pace and precision.
In midfield, Pogba and Kante were but pieces in a fabulous jigsaw. Adrien Rabiot neutralised Kai Havertz. Further up field, the understated Antoine Griezmann was key to France’s entire system, his high work rate a platform for transitions, hold-up play and neat combinations with both Karim Benzema and Mbappe, whose searing pace was an antidote to Germany’s often ridiculously sterile probing and poking. It was almost poetic that France’s 80th minute goal was chalked off because of Mbappe’s right knee. The blistering execution, with Pogba at the heart of it, simply deserved a grander stage.
In the waning minutes of the match, Low, with spots of grey hair at last and tight shoulders, sat looking downward, reflecting on an engrossing but ultimately disappointing evening. His Germany are not tomorrow’s team, but a shadow of the superlative outfit that once stood at the vanguard of the global game.
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