France and Germany go head to head on Friday in their first World Cup meeting since 1982: an astonishing stat considering how many times the two nations have reached the later stages of the competition since.
One unusual but intriguing similarity between the two current sides is the playing style of their goalkeepers. Germany’s Manuel Neuer and France’s Hugo Lloris have been dubbed by pundits as “sweeper-keepers”. Positioned some way from their goal lines during open play when the ball is in the opposition half, Neuer and Lloris are well prepared to dash from their penalty areas to deal with any through ball that may leave their central defenders stranded should a quick counter-attack break.
On paper at least it appears a hugely risky strategy, and Neuer seemingly looks seconds away from a clanger every time he charges outside his area to confront an oncoming forward, but there’s a reason he and Lloris so often successfully avert the danger – they read the game superbly well, which is of course what outfield sweepers have always traditionally done.
True, Neuer initially misjudged a through ball for Algeria’s lightning quick Islam Slimani early on in Monday’s pulsating second-round encounter, but he recovered within a split-second to slide the ball clear of danger.
We have yet to see much of Lloris’s gung-ho goalkeeping style in Brazil, but the Frenchman had a hugely impressive season for Tottenham Hotspur and television pundits, so usually conservative in their evaluation of goalkeepers, were full of praise for Lloris’s concentration levels and his ability, time and time again, to cover any defensive lapses, regardless of his positioning.
The likes of Lloris and Neuer epitomise the perception that a goalkeeper should be the modern-day sweeper anyway, allowing the rest of the team to be more progressive in their style of play, but these are the two keepers who display it so overtly. That said, somewhat bizarrely – especially in a World Cup as pulsating as this one – we’ve seen several teams, the Netherlands and Costa Rica being two, returning to play with a conventional back three during an era where a traditional sweeper system had seemingly become defunct.
One wonders whether manager Joachim Low has ever considered this option for Germany, with Philipp Lahm, so often the player mopping up stray balls in midfield, sitting behind Per Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng to compensate for the duo’s lack of pace. Neuer, of course, would be appalled at such a suggestion.
Nevertheless, as effective as the charismatic goalkeeper is, and has been in Brazil, his team needs to sit a little deeper against France as Didier Deschamps’ side are not likely to be as wasteful in crucial areas as Ghana and Algeria were when breaking into the final third; just look at France’s third goal against Switzerland, which originated from a Swiss corner.
Other than Colombia, France have arguably been the most consistently impressive team in the competition so far, and are genuine contenders for the trophy. The French media would have laughed themselves silly at such a statement had it been made immediately following the 2-0 defeat in Ukraine in the first leg of the play-offs to reach Brazil less than a year ago, but it just goes to show how quickly football can evolve.
Deschamps has moulded together a well-balanced French team with no clearly visible weaknesses – although some might argue they haven’t been truly tested yet, and that is highly likely on Friday. Karim Benzema is playing some of the best football of his career in the tournament, while Paul Pogba has met many of his observers’ high expectations in midfield.
France go into the game as slight favourites, although Germany, as vulnerable as they have looked defensively, still pack a killer punch at the other end. Thomas Muller has looked as hungry as ever and the prolific Miroslav Klose didn’t even get a minute on the pitch against Algeria. One thing is for sure, however: no striker on either side will have a clear run on goal if Neuer and Loris have their way.