TOAnd so it ends, not with a bang, but with a groan. France has been dispatched by a courageous and opportunistic Switzerland, but also largely due to the frustrating tactics and selections of their coach. Didier Deschamps’ team had been the favorite to win this competition since the final whistle sounded in the 2018 World Cup final.
There have been some minor personnel changes since that match, with Blaise Matuidi retiring from international service and Samuel Umtiti knocked down with injury. However, overall, his team seemed more than ready to follow in the footsteps of the French teams of two decades ago, which won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later.
However, the current iteration of the team, which has struggled to integrate Karim Benzema, despite his four goals in the tournament, lacked solidity, putting the Germany match aside. In that 1-0 win over Germany, there was never any indication that France, playing three of the four defenders who had won the World Cup in 2018, with Presnel Kimpembe in place of Umtiti, would concede. Lucas Hernández and Benjamin Pavard are idealized hybrids of centrals (in their physique) and full-backs (in their pace of work) and they didn’t seem vulnerable at all. Raphäel Varane was imperious on defense, with his experience and communication helping Kimpembe (who had only won 14 caps before the tournament) to grow in the match.
With Hernandez unavailable for the Switzerland game due to a knee injury, and his replacement, the more offensive Lucas Digne, also out, Deschamps rearranged his boastful 4-3-3 into a 3-4-3. The risks of undertaking such a major tactical change mid-tournament are obvious and given the speed with which France withdrew, we can safely say that it was as ill-advised as it seemed. Any group of players would have struggled with such a radical change in such a short time, but Deschamps’ chosen defense only contributed to their problems.
A natural move would have been to bring Kurt Zouma to the right of the three, given that the Chelsea player has been exposed to that form regularly this season. Zouma’s pacing would have also relieved some of the pressure on Benjamin Pavard’s deployment in a more advanced role. With Kimpembe left, Varane, who is a wonderful organizer and a skilled passer, but hasn’t always looked the fastest in this tournament, could have safely placed in the middle.
Instead, Deschamps opted for Clement Lenglet, a player who had come off a mediocre season with Barcelona and had not played for a minute in the group stage or in the two pre-tournament friendlies in France. With Kimpembe and Lenglet by his side, even the normally trustworthy Varane looked out to sea and his inning effectiveness was soon muted by an early yellow card.
However, more important than Varane’s reserve was Lenglet’s lack of form. He was very exposed in Switzerland’s first goal and was eliminated at half-time. Deschamps must regret not involving Aymeric Laporte in the past 18 months. Given Umtiti’s injury woes, the fact that the Manchester City player was never an international is simply inexcusable. To make matters worse, he will play for Spain against Switzerland in the next round.
France looked more consistent in the second half, with Kingsley Coman coming in and the team clearly shifting to 4-3-3. However, Deschamps’ decisions made things unnecessarily difficult again. Rather than deploying Lyon full-back Léo Dubois, who has played as a left-back more than a dozen times in Ligue 1, he asked Rabiot to play as an impromptu left-back. Rabiot had already behaved like a similar makeshift full-back in the first half, and while he’s a more than competent midfielder, he doesn’t add natural breadth.
On top of that, Rabiot has been dealing with an ankle injury, which makes the role of winger particularly unsuitable given the demands he places on a player. Even with Digne and Hernandez unavailable, it was a surprise to see more pressure being put on Rabiot, who, to his credit, managed a competent first half. Suffering injuries after a long and challenging season is not surprising, but France’s troubles only just ended there.
As in previous matches, the relationship between Kylian Mbappé and Benzema fell apart too often, with both forwards often occupying similar areas on the left flank. This confusion in terms of positioning, something that was not helped by Benzema’s long stint in the international wilderness, meant that France’s attack often lacked cohesion, despite Antoine Griezmann’s determined efforts to play as number 10. behind the two forwards.
Mbappé, perhaps frustrated by his limited serve and lack of opportunities, too often seized opportunities. Yann Sommer made a good save to deny the forward’s penalty, but his inability to find the net from open play surely weighed on his mind during the penalty shoot-out.
In Germany’s game, the number of chances the forwards missed didn’t matter as much because the team was in control, especially in terms of their defensive aptitude and continuity, as it had been in the 2018 World Cup. But with that continuity gone, the side effects were simply too great to overcome. Even Paul Pogba, who scored a brilliant goal from the wing, was frustrated at times. Nor was the underrated passing ability of his midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, taken advantage of. Despite his usual work ethic, the Chelsea man was practically invisible.
All is not lost for France. This is the benefit of having the World Cup so close to the Euros. Deschamps can rank the system and staff that he thinks is best and reflect on the mistakes he made, even if injury and form had forced him to some degree. Had injuries not affected what would have been their first pick in four, France surely would have had enough to win this match, if not the entire tournament.
That said, some in France will question the future of Deschamps. Their dependence on the fast break is one thing when you reach back-to-back big finals, but quite another when you concede three goals to Switzerland and come out before the quarter-finals. Deschamps’ contract runs until the World Cup next year and despite his mistakes against Switzerland, the FFF will likely give him another chance.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism