THE MEDIA can be brutal when things don’t go right, as the French national team is finding out in the aftermath of their shock defeat at the hands of Switzerland in the last 16 of Euro 2020.
It’s the end of the world as far as the French newspapers are concerned who are using phrases like “annihilation” and “we’ve fallen from so high”. France certainly underperformed in Euro 2020 by their own lofty standards, but shortcomings often reveal themselves when life becomes all about sudden death. A poor group performance can generally be hidden by the group format, as long as enough points are accumulated a lack-lustre team can blag its way through. But when it comes to the knockout game, fail to turn up and you’re on the plane home. Of course, France have experienced both sides of the coin in defending their crowns, in 2000, they followed-up their World Cup win with the European Championship, but in 2002, they were poor as they flopped in Asia.
France gave the impression there was no need to be too urgent about anything until the competition got really serious. With so much talent, they should have fared better, but has that team peaked or merely become complacent? Players like Hugo Lloris, N’Golo Kanté, Karim Benzema, Moussa Sissoko, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud are all over 30 and Paul Pogba, for so long the player with a great future ahead of him, is now 28. It is fortunate for France and their coach that another tournament is only 16 months away.
Admittedly, France had a tough group, but they were the favourites within that section of holders and hopefuls. They were unbeaten in the first stage, but won just once, a 1-0 success against Germany, secured by an own goal.
Bringing back Karim Benzema seemed to be a good idea on paper, and he scored four goals, but was he one of the reasons why Kylian Mbappé failed to light-up the Euros in the way he did at the World Cup in Russia three years ago?
Mbappé’s international career started during Benzema’s absence from the French squad. The media have accused Didier Deschamps, the France coach, of disrupting the balance of his team and some have suggested – perhaps unfairly – that the return of Benzema was at the heart of failure.
Mbappe has scored just once in 10 matches for Les Bleus and rarely looked sharp enough to add to his 17 games during France’s four games. His tournament was summed up by that last game against Switzerland, notably when he missed the all-important penalty in the decisive shoot-out.
Is Mbappe in need of a rest from the game? He has had an intensive few years – 11 goals in 127 games for PSG – and is still only 22. He’s got a year remaining on his contract with Paris Saint-Germain and may have one distracted eye on his future plans. Some feel he is over-influenced by PSG team-mate Neymar, highlighting his behaviour and occasional petulance as a negative signal.
France themselves went into the competition with a strong record over the period since they won the World Cup, losing just three times in 33 games and scoring more than two goals per game and keeping 15 clean sheets. Of the 33 games, 20 were against teams competing in the Euros. Hence, they had the talent, the momentum and, one would assume, the confidence to do well.
Across their four games, France enjoyed just over 50% of possession, although against Germany, they managed 38% versus their opponent’s 62%. They were criticised for a lack of shots in their early games – against Germany, they mustered up just four with one on target compared to 26 in the last 16 clash with the Swiss, with eight on target.
Didier Deschamps, who will doubtless come in for fierce criticism in the weeks ahead, tinkered with the formation of his team, shifting to 3-4-3 and latterly 4-3-3 when he needed to shake-off a dreadful first half against Switzerland. Deschamps didn’t hide in taking the blame for the defeat: “It is my responsibility and I told my players that I assume it…that’s the way sport is. You have to accept it even if it is hurting.”
Predictably, there will be some calls for Deschamps to be relieved of his role, but the World Cup is so close that France would be wise to be patient. Football rarely allows a manager that luxury, but France went out by a penalty shoot-out, they still have the talent for one final hurrah of their current squad.