The Group of Death has become synonymous with the European Championships in recent decades. The whole process of grouping National Teams (seeded and unseeded) has seen a number of big Nations pitted against one another after being grouped together. The result, of course, is early Christmas for football fans who get to watch matches that in their own right deserve to be late knockout encounters.
This time we have a treat. Defending Champions Portugal are grouped with World Champions France, perennial favourites Germany and a nation undergoing a revival of sorts, Hungary. These encounters tend to be closely fought. The tighter the competition, the less given away by the sides fighting for supremacy. The result is a low points tally with an even lesser goal difference. The third place team usually goes home but this time the best third place is still in with a shout at the knockout round and a chance to gain revenge.
Teams do have to play one another but the timing of the matches can factor in too (as was Croatia's case in Euro 2012 when their final match was against defending Champions Spain...they could not hang on and were knocked out despite playing well). Many a times, teams need favours from rivals to go through to the knockout stage (Netherlands were in a similar situation in Euro 2004 when they needed the talented Czech Republic to beat Germany, which they did). But it all comes down to one thing only, win your matches and you will go through. It is as simple as that.
France have been doing well post World cup. Their win ratio has been steadily on the rise. The same group of players have continued their good form for their National side and unlike many of their club sides, they look very comfortable under Deschamps tactics. While they have the standout talent in Mbappe, they also have seasoned performers in shape of Giroud and the return of Benzema after a long hiatus shows that spirits around the camp are high. With the inform player in Europe N'Golo Kante fit to start, there is every chance the World Champions will be the team to watch in this tournament.
So are the French destined for success? Will they win the European Championship following their World Cup triumph? Didier Deschamps has tried his best to play down the hype surrounding his side. Whether it is answering to the mind games of Mourinho or giving out press conferences in general, Deschamps has asked fans and media to stay calm. This, of course, is the Group of Death and anything can happen.
How Deschamps uses Kante and Pogba will go a long way to determining the success of France's campaign. Quite frankly he got away with it in 2018 by using a ugly double pivot with both Kante and Pogba marshalling the midfield. Neither player was well suited to the role and both had to take turns holding midfield and moving box to box. It looked workmanlike and barely functional but it somehow did enough bearing in mind the rest of the team was stacked to secure the title.
This time round the French nation is more demanding. Winning in of itself will not be enough. They want to win in style... for the team to match up to their predecessor's of the late 90's and early noughties. Therefore Deschamps will seek to bring in a third midfielder in the hope that it unleashes Kante as a box to box destroyer and allows Pogba to focus on his attacking duties. This figure maybe Rabiot or it may be Tollisso.. and their task will be to provide Kante with both defensive support in the pivot area as well as assist him in the progression of the ball from the defensive third.
Another important piece of Deschamps puzzle is the deeper lying forward. The starting position is usually the number #10 but the manager prefers the player move vertically in support of the striker. Playmaking duties are generally not required nor asked. Mattheu Valbuena was the star of his previous generation. this time it is Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman has had a mixed season with Barcelona.
Part of the problem is that he is played out of position (thanks to a certain Argentine). But no such problems here in the national side. Greizmann likes to play off the striker but loves to make late surges into the penalty area. That quality means the Frenchman will have an added dimension of being involved in build up play as well as being in the right position to finish the move.
France's strong point has been their defence. Deschamps is a pragmatic coach. He primary concern will be not to concede goals and France will be lining up with their usual defenders who have been performing well at club level. Kimpembe has been doing very well at PSG with added experiences of reaching the Champions League final and Semi-final in the past couple of seasons.
Alongside him is Raphael Varane who seems to dropped his standards but has nevertheless made 41 appearances this season. Whether he still has the hunger for the fight will be an important issue for Deschamps to keep an eye on. Flanking this pair will be Pavard and Lucas Hernandez who fill the right and left back roles respectively. Both favour defence over attack, but do not underestimate their ability to join in and make an impact further forward. All in all, France look very difficult to break down.
Everybody associated with German football would agree that Joachim Low has been a major contributor in revolutionizing Die Mannschaft. Their style and approach to matches has evolved. Gone are the days when German sides played cautious tight roped games where they stifled opposition and took advantage of their mistakes.
The German sides of modern football take the game to their opponents and make sure they score first and more with or without answers. And while the revolution at club level was led by Ralph Ragnick, Joachim Low did his part with the National side. His contributions were crowned with a well deserved World cup in Brazil 2014. Unsurprisingly Joachim Low has the honour of being the longest serving National team coach.
Yet recent years have been tough on the German. After having reached finals, semi finals in the past four tournaments, Germany have underperformed in the last World Cup. And lately things have shown only slight improvement. Many players that represented the core foundation have retired including Lahm, Ozil, Khedira, Schweinsteiger and many more have all retired. And thus starts a new cycle.
A cycle that in years to come will revive Die Mannschaft. A cycle that will have us witness Low stepping down from his coveted position as a conqueror and Hansi Flick taking over the reigns. A move that will only seems perfect as Flick was Low's second in command before taking over Bayern Munchen. It is a fitting end as Low himself took over after being Assistant manager to Jurgen Klinsmann. Can the Germans do it this time around? A wounded animal, can Die Mannschaft win this tournament and hand Joachim Low a fitting farewell? In the Group of Death, they will have to do it the hard way.
There is little doubt that this German side is better than the side that underperformed at Russia 2018. They have a better squad. The players are in better form at club level and the tactical set up looks more assured. That is if you could figure out the tactics. The wide variety of players means Low has a range of systems he can explore. And he has. From 3 at the back to 3 upfront, Germany have played a number of formations. Some have worked. Some have not. And that is where the problem lies. Nobody knows what system will be played. It can be taken as a positive. But heavy defeats to direct rivals such as Spain have not helped and the pressure is on Joachim Low and his charges.
Which ever system is considered, there are evidences to the formation of a new core. The midfield mainstays will be key if Die Mannschaft are to progress. Kimmich and Kroos will be competing for midfield supremacy and the role of the Regista. Rumours indicate that Kimmich will initially take on a wing back role in order to give the elder statesman his shot at running the midfield. Depending on injury woes, the other spots will be taken up by the likes of Gundogan and/or Goretzka.
Low has a wealth of options in attack. Does he stick with the experienced Muller? or go with the in form and the future in Kai Havertz? Many seem to think he will find a way to play both and utilise one pace merchant alongside them in Gnabry. Werner can feel hard done by if he is not selected as he has been instrumental in Chelsea's resurgence and tactically he is a better fit in a 3-4-3.
Another Chelsea connection is Rudiger. The defender has shown good form in the second half of the season and his combination with Matt Hummels will be crucial. But Hummels, Ginter and Sule have been suspect in defense. Robin Koch, although impressive, has recovered from his knee operation but he might be just too young to start. Klostermann and Gosens will play right and left back respectively.
In many ways, both the nations can be compared for their achievements and progress/build up towards the stardom. Both have had a similar path towards success. Both nations were finalists in their European Cup campaigns. And having come up as runners up they eventually won the following World cup. Both coaches have successfully brought change in the national team approaches and have overseen a consistent level of success at the top as a result.
But there are differences too. Didier Deschamps is essentially pragmatic. His teams have a cautious mindset which culminates in their approach to matches. They are the most dangerous when absorbing pressure and on the counter when players like Mbappe and Greizmann are able to attack the free space in behind. Joachim Low, on the other hand, is a philosophical man who has a specific ideology about how football should be played. The pioneers of football revolution in Germany, Low has always believed in the need for players to be able to "play the game" in addition to fulfilling their own roles and duties. Joachim Low's Germany have always been great entertainers with the positive end result.
The criticism of a low trophy count comes up in every conversation but barring Russia 2018, Die Mannshaft have reached the semi finals of all the previous tournaments they have participated under Low. Their consistency in top level tournaments is frighteningly evident. With Low stepping down after the Euros, there is a chance they might do it again, against all odds.
In Brazil 2014, Germany were clearly the better side beating the French by a single goal while dominating the 90 minutes. Their encounter in Euro 2016, at France's home turf resulted in the home side beating the favorites by 2 goals. There will not be a repeat of penalties of 1982 as this is a group stage match but we should expect fire works nonetheless.
France: Hugo Lloris, Kimpembe, Varane, L. Hernandez, Pavard, Pogba, Kante, Griezmann, K. Mbappe, Tolisso, Benzema
Germany: M. Neuer, M. Hummels, Rudiger, M. Ginter, Gosens, Kimmich, Kroos, Gundogan, Havertz, Gnabry, Muller
There is a possibility that Low might deploy 3 in the middle of the park to gain more midfield control. Kimmich, Kroos and Gundogan will have a crucial role to play. They will need to display a solid defensive radar with a potent attacking threat in support of the front line. For Deschamps, the approach is simple, stifle the opposition and play on the counter. France will not be keeping too much in terms of possession but they will be using their most potent weapon: Counter attack. Mbappe will be looking to break as quickly as possible and with Ginter, Hummels and Sule in shaky form, he might score a goal or two.
There is a possibility that Low may play 3 at the back with one wing back (Gosens) in support of the midfield. A defensive shift would allow the team to form a 4-3-3 and an attacking shift may look more like a 3-4-3. Kimmich will be pushed towards the right side and may be needed to double up protection against the wing threat from Mbappe. This approach should give the Germans a solid compact outlook with a balance in both the attack and defence.
The first goal might well be crucial here and may dictate the rest of the match (but not the outcome) but we can expect both teams to stay loyal to their systems and be patient in their approach play. We have witnessed Kante vs Gundogan in the Champions League and English Premier League, we will be seeing more. Low might introduce Sane late on to stretch the game and we should expect an aggressive approach from Germany's front line. Keep an eye on Gnabry.
A cautious approach from both sides might result in a goal scoring draw. 1-1