Lucky general Deschamps marches on without firepower: How Stats Zone saw France 2-0 Albania
France became the first team in the second round – by leaving it as late as possible again. On Friday they had beaten Romania through Dimitri Payet’s 89th-minute howitzer; this time they cut it even finer, with Antoine Griezmann’s 90th-minute header topped by Payet’s injury-time icing.
But for all the celebrations, France were minutes from a result that might have led to destructive introspection. As predicted, Didier Deschamps abandoned his default 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1, dropping Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba while shifting Payet into the central hole – behind Olivier Giroud and between Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial.
Trouble was, Albania had come with a well-drilled plan and a determination to thwart their hosts. By tightening the gaps between defenders, their 4-1-4-1 restricted France to long shots or crosses from headers, none of which troubled Sali Berisha’s goalnet.
The first half-hour established a clear pattern, one that has become familiar across the tournament from teams as diverse as Spain, Germany, England and Poland: plenty of possession without sufficient penetration.
That allowed Albania to grow into the game, and as the half wore on the outsiders became the better team, patiently passing around while waiting for opportunities – which started to come, with Arsenal-linked right-back Elseid Hysaj almost finding lone frontman Armando Sadiku.
Such was Albania’s late flurry that they ended up registering more first-half efforts on goal – although none of the sides’ attempts were accurate, which would remain the case until heartbreakingly late in the game.
Back to Plan A
The big question was whether Deschamps would change it at half-time. The big answer was yes: Martial made way for Pogba and 4-2-3-1 for 4-3-3, with Payet shifting to the left and Blaise Matuidi leaving the tidying to Kante.
France came out of the changing room as if Words Had Been Had, and in the first 15 minutes after the break registered 5 shots to Albania’s 2 – but again, none on target, although Bacary Sagna did hit the woodwork… for Albania.
Giroud got ever closer, hitting the post with one header, which came just after Deschamps had thrown on Griezmann for Coman – thus returning to the players and formation he’d started with last Friday.
Perhaps more importantly than shape and staff, France were pressing higher and harder. By halfway through the second period they’d already made more ball recoveries than before the break, as they harried Albania into errors and turnovers.
Still the goal wouldn’t come. Chief culprit was Giroud, who had 5 efforts - all headers - off-target (post-and-out is off-target, post-and-in is on) and was replaced on 77 minutes by local hero Andre-Pierre Gignac.
However, it wasn’t Gignac who made the breakthrough – it was fellow sub Griezmann, flicking in Adil Rami’s cross with seconds of normal time remaining. It was France’s 21st effort, and their first on target.
Albania poured forward, as you would, and in time added on to the time added on France hit them on the break – a wonderful 70-yard Pogba ball finding Payet, who cut inside and lashed past Berisha. Cue the celebrations.
So is Deschamps a wise general who can adapt to conditions, or a lucky general whose gambles pay off? Napoleon knew what he preferred, and for now the country marches on.
In the afterglow, some called Deschamps’ decision to drop two of his stars clever man-management rather than needless tinkering – not a balls-up but a ballsy move. Although that tactical faux pas might be re-mentioned next time he’s caught short, he was at least big enough to change what wasn’t working.
A bigger problem might be converting chances to goals. Like some of the other bookies’ favourites, France had plenty of ball but not much guile. Like the others, they will face tougher teams asking tougher questions.
Euro 2016 continues to be a tournament for creative midfielders and plucky defenders, marked by skilful creation but marred by inefficient conversion. You get the feeling that the team who finds a reliable striker will go a long way toward glory.