France and Switzerland both went through to the knockouts, as they knew a draw would allow them to. But on a curious night in Lille, there was no sense of a carve-up, just of two sides who might be better than they demonstrated – and will certainly need to improve if they are to go deep in the competition.
With the hosts already assured of qualifying – albeit not necessarily in top spot – Didier Deschamps rang the changes again, only this time more out of rotation than desperation. He dropped five of his front six against Albania – Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet, N’Golo Kante, Anthony Martial and Blaise Matuidi – and of the replacements, Paul Pogba seemed determined to make an impression.
In the first half, Pogba had no fewer than four shots; two were on target, while another shaved the top of the bar. All teams have a go-to guy but at times it seemed this much-changed France team were simply giving him the ball at all opportunities and hoping something would happen.
By contrast, the Swiss – who haven’t got nearly so much squad depth, but who could have nicked France’s top spot with a win – only made one change, dropping the misfiring Haris Seferovic for the raw but promising Breel Embolo, and consequently looked much more familiar with each other and more comfortable in their patterns of play. Indeed, although France had the clearer first-period opportunities, Switzerland totted up more passes, finding each other assuredly – if not always penetratively.
Control without completion
Between half-time and the hour mark, the Swiss stepped up and took control. Xherdan Shaqiri’s Stoke season has been somewhat sporadic, but he clearly has ability; shuffled up into the No.10 slot by boss Vladimir Petkovic, he encouraged Switzerland’s best spell, either dropping off to create or – more frequently – by seeking to support frontman Embolo. In that 15 minutes, the Swiss side completed 99 passes to France’s 33.
Mention must be made here of Granit Xhaka, who has been a tidy player indeed for Switzerland. After two games at this tournament, only the impeccable Toni Kroos had made more passes; here, Xhaka again topped the pass table with 94, of which 84 (89%) reached their man. France’s top passer, Pogba, made fewer than half that number, completing 36 of 46 for a 78% accuracy. Arsenal fans can look forward to Xhaka – who also topped the ball-recoveries list – retrieving and distributing the the ball for them.
That said, the picky will note that not a lot of Xhaka’s passes ended up in the final third. That’s partly because he was often minding the shop while others flew forward – Shaqiri and Blerim Dzemaili from midfield, plus the perpetual-motion full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, while on a couple of occasions Fabian Schar also powered forward from centre-back to join in.
However, it was also because for all their passing and bluster, Switzerland frequently hit a glass ceiling at 30 yards out: of their players, only Shaqiri was among the game’s top five passers in the final third. In the entire game, they didn’t have a single shot on target; in the whole second half, they didn’t have any sort of shot at all. Quite simply, they lack a cutting edge.
Embolo shows glimpses of enviable talent but isn’t yet up to leading an international forward line alone, and was eventually replaced by Seferovic, who again looked anything but a Golden Boot contender. Like many teams in this tournament, the Swiss look good in attacking midfield but lack a goalscorer.
Seeing what happens
The French look good in attacking midfield too, and one of them is a goalscorer: Payet, who arrived on the hour to great applause and expectation on his old home turf. He’d scored in the previous two fixtures but couldn’t make it a group-game hat-trick, although he came mighty close when he sidefooted Moussa Sissoko’s deep cross onto the bar.
With his eye for goal and raking lateral passes, Payet did look the player most likely to break the deadlock in the last half-hour, partly because Pogba had receded somewhat – after the break, the Juventus midfielder didn’t register a shot and only completed four passes in the Swiss third.
And therein might lie the problem for France. Perhaps because of the team rotation, perhaps because of the lack of pressure, Deschamps’ team didn’t seem to really have a plan bar giving it to their best players and seeing what happens. It’s a tactic that’s worked before, winning World Cups; and in a results-based business, Deschamps is doing his job.
But there remains the feeling that by the end of the group stage we might expect to have a clearer identity of who exactly the hosts are. Now we must wait until Wednesday to see who they face next, and whether that team will be able to ask questions that France may struggle to answer.
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