Au revoir, France. At least, as Didier Deschamps contemplates the biggest failure of his international career since France imploded when they ought to have qualified for the 1994 World Cup, the leader of their greatest generation may console himself with the thought that the current crop illustrated how hard it is do what they accomplished.
Only three teams – West Germany in the 1970s, a Deschamps-skippered France at the turn of the millennium and Spain a decade ago – have been world and European champions simultaneously. The harsh interpretation may be that the group Deschamps oversees now had the gifts to join them but not the manager. It says something about the ascendancy of the club game, both in terms of standard and ideas, that doubts can surround World Cup-winning managers but Deschamps was outwitted and outmanoeuvred by Vladimir Petkovic on Monday. Switzerland had a system that suited their players. France had a similar shape for 45 minutes, but theirs was a disastrous back three, an incoherent change of formation that highlighted Deschamps’ inability to cope with the loss of his two left-backs, Lucas Hernandez and Lucas Digne.
Misfortune highlighted mistakes, however. Clement Lenglet was terrible until taken off; Deschamps has an unrivalled assortment of talents, but omitting Dayot Upamecano from his squad deprived him of a back-up centre-back who might have fared better.
But part of France’s formula has been deceptively simple, based around having lots of very good players. It has often worked. They can look less than the sum of their parts. When they keep clean sheets, sometimes they grind their way through, as in the Euro 2016 group or the 2018 quarter- and semi-finals. Sometimes, they offer a reminder that they could be exhilarating more often: the 4-3 win against Argentina and then the 4-2 against Croatia in the 2018 knockout stages, the burst of three high-class goals in 18 minutes against Switzerland. In between those spells, France threatened to become the most underwhelming great side in history. They still topped the Group of Death and took a 3-1 lead in Bucharest. Then they lost their efficiency in a chaotic few minutes.
Maybe Deschamps provides a paradox. The player infamously disparaged by Eric Cantona as a “water-carrier” has accumulated champagne footballers. And yet, while France underperformed, some performed. Bringing back Karim Benzema was not the panic move some thought; he scored four goals, some with hints of brilliance. Paul Pogba is a paradox in himself, a footballer who often delivers more for Deschamps than his club managers and who showed a passing range that few midfielders in the world can rival; in Pogba-esque fashion, his finest tournament was France’s least successful since 2010 and he erred for Switzerland’s third goal. Antoine Griezmann subsumed himself to the cause. Only a goalless Kylian Mbappe really underachieved as an individual; his tournament ended with no goals, a missed penalty and an apology. This time, though, having lots of very good players was not enough; not without a strategy and a mentality.
Deschamps never resolved issues about France’s formation, and not merely around the configuration of the front three. Perhaps France’s incoherence underlined the importance in 2018 of Blaise Matuidi, who could knit a team together, cover for Pogba, support N’Golo Kante and semi-man the left flank, all within the same game. Maybe victory then led to complacency. Certainly, their attitude was inadequate against Switzerland. In theory, France’s strength in depth gives them enviable options yet, amid Monday’s surreal drama, Switzerland, Croatia and Spain all conjured more telling changes. Deschamps’ major success with a substitution was to clear up the mess he created by picking a back three.
A man with a Beckenbauer-esque assortment of trophies – a World Cup, European Championships and European Cup as captain, another World Cup as manager – does not tend to be defined by defeats. But France ought to have won Euro 2016 and, while this verdict may be unfair to whoever eventually does triumph, perhaps they ought to have won Euro 2020. And instead they depart a tournament where the only player to score in a France win is Mats Hummels. The inquest may reach damning conclusions.
Subscribe to FourFourTwo today and get a FREE England Euro 96 shirt!
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.