As Antoine Griezmann’s excellence expelled Germany from Euro 2016 and sent France into Sunday's final, the pain for Joachim Low might have been deepened by the realisation that the deadly forward, now runaway top scorer at the tournament with six goals, is the embodiment of the element Germany fatally lacked in France. Griezmann is everything that Germany are not, even if he does have a Germanic surname.
If Low's highly coached and polished team represent the triumph of the academy system, Griezmann is a player who was nearly ignored by youth football completely, suffering numerous rejections in France due to his size before his remarkable ascent to the top of the European game was kickstarted at Real Sociedad. In Marseille, whereas Germany, without a fit centre-forward, were unable to convert the numerous chances they created, Griezmann again supplied the cutting edge for France, simultaneously ending Germany’s brief reign at the top of football with a devastating performance.
World Cup winners two years ago, the fragility of true greatness was laid bare as the chance to emulate the German team of 1972 and 1974, the France team of 1998 and 2000 and the Spain team of 2008, 2010 and 2012 evaporated. With Spain in transition, Italy lacking absolute quality, Belgium being managed by Marc Wilmots and England being England, it was probably only France who could have stopped Germany. And stop them they did, thanks to Griezmann.
There was to be no international double, not after a prolonged spell of German dominance was broken when Bastian Schweinsteiger committed a handball right on the brink of half-time and Griezmann slotted home from the spot. It was the singular most important moment of the match, transforming its complexion.
France's Antoine Griezmann scores their first goal from a penalty
Image credit: Reuters
Prior to Schweinsteiger’s disastrous intervention - in his 38th major tournament game, no other player has more - Germany had responded to a lightning-fast start by France by assuming control of the match in typical fashion: playing the ball around intelligently in midfield and dominating possession, with Mesut Ozil approaching a perfect level of performance. It is what these players have been trained to do from a very young age. Ozil, indeed, was making his 25th consecutive appearance in major tournament games for Germany since the start of the 2010 World Cup, when the first fruits of the academy revolution which reinvigorated German football were identified.
But for all the brilliant young playmakers and clever tacticians - in this team alone, Ozil, Toni Kroos and Julian Draxler stand out - Germany have not produced a single world class centre-forward. It is a problem which has been diagnosed before - but as Griezmann raced to six goals for the tournament, three short of Michel Platini’s record of nine, scored in 1984, the point was made more forcefully than ever.
Low, who was adamant Germany were the better side, insisted the most important factor was the absence of Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira and Mats Hummels, plus the loss in the second half of Jerome Boateng to a muscular injury.
Germany's Bastian Schweinsteiger handles the ball and concedes a penalty
Image credit: Reuters
“We were the better team and we invested a lot,” he said. “We had good body language of power, we were good on the one on ones, we played to the front. It was unfortunate we conceded the goal - it was bad luck to concede a penalty one minute before half time. In 2010 or 2012 when we went out the sides were better than us but today we were better than the French… there were four important players we couldn’t benefit from in the end.”
It wasn’t so much the players who were missing, though, as a position. Germany started the tournament with Mario Gotze as a false nine before soon realising he was not up to the task. In came Gomez as a centre-forward and although he did score twice, against Northern Ireland in the group and Slovakia in the last-16, no one would pretend the Besiktas striker is world class. Injury ruled him out of this game and in his place Low selected Thomas Muller. It was the best option available to him, but it did not work. Muller, scorer of 10 goals in World Cups, extended his goalless streak at the Euros to 10 matches and barely had a sniff. It has been a miserable tournament for the Bayern Munich forward.
After Griezmann had scored his second, showing that predatory awareness great strikers have when pouncing on a loose ball in the box - “I was just lurking,” he said - Germany piled forward and created chance after chance; but chance after chance went unconverted. Joshua Kimmich was desperately unlucky to see a wonderful curling effort strike the bar and another headed effort clawed acrobatically away by Hugo Lloris, but when chances fell in the box they were going to defenders: as well as the right-back’s efforts, Shkodran Mustafi blazed over the bar and Benedikt Howedes headed over.
Griezmann trifft zum 2:0 gegen Deutschland
Image credit: AFP
Where was Germany’s Griezmann? The short answer is he doesn’t exist. And ultimately that cost the World Cup winners the chance to join the pantheon of greats by reaching a final against Portugal that they surely would have won.
Germany were technically superior for long spells, as Low identified. They used the ball better and created more chances. But they didn’t have a Griezmann. “France did not have any chances,” Low insisted. But they had a player who could put them away. Germany, for all their evident qualities, did not.