France. Didier Deschamps is finally running out of breath
Didier Deschamps is a reflection of France. Unconditional worship is not there. The results are.
Or, were. France’s Euro 2020 is way ahead of expectations thanks to the lavish Swiss rally on Monday, and now the quarter-finals will be held without the reigning world champion in them.
The French, and especially the French under Deschamps, have more on their résumés than just this triumphant summer. They were also finalists of the Euro 2016, only felled by a stumbling Eder fireball (in Paris, no less) despite dominating Portugal all around. They also did well at the 2014 World Cup, being outclassed by eventual champions Germany in the quarter-finals, but still offer a promising start to Deschamps’ coaching days.
In his playing career, Deschamps was a level-headed defensive midfielder. So it’s no wonder that Deschamps approached France’s coaching with the same (lack of) spirit. For starters, he took the job just two years away from a total player revolt. France had spent most of two decades swaying between trophy fighting and humiliation. The ship needed long-term stabilization. Who is better than the captain of the then only world championship team in the history of the country?
Then there is the dynamism of international football. It is difficult. It is a carousel of players who are golden in one generation and sterile in the next. Managers have short periods of time to evaluate talent and implement tactics. Fans rolled their eyes when Deschamps rolled out his newest, prudent setup, a 4-3-3 here, a 4-4-2 there, with everyone from the center-backs to the center-forward being tasked with holding back.
But for him it meant shrinking the game. Simplification. Take one less thing out of players’ minds so they can unlock more of their own individual brilliance. Because France in its current constitution is bursting before him.
And France was ultimately too dependent on it. Instead of inspired team soccer, moments of wonder combined with Give in to opponents to the threat that miracle, and France’s grenade foiled enough attacks to produce results year after year.
Take the start of this European Championship against Germany. Paul Pogba, one of the sport’s most gifted passers-by, sailed a ball that only he could see far to a raging Lucas Hernandez, who throttled into the penalty area on a first cross that entangled Mats Hummels in a slipstream to produce his own Goal.
While France had taken a few more goals off the board in this game due to an offside position, Germany actually had better chances. But France won anyway, because that’s how France works under Deschamps. “Efficient” is probably the wrong word, but “rolled up” would do well, ready to strike along the way even relatively unexposed.
Is it wrong to want more from a team that is so ridiculously skillful? From a front line starting a restorative Karim Benzema, a coverless Kylian Mbappé and an expert Antoine Griezmann? From a midfield that Pogba and the world’s most famous ball destroyer starts in N’Golo Kanté? Commitment has always been a mythological demon in football, appearing primarily to those who ask, while everyone else politely cheers for pragmatism.
Only now will Deschamps’ earliest exit from a major tournament lead to criticism like never before. Part of it was due to a strange one defect of pragmatism. Deschamps triumphed with a 3-4-1-2, with three center-backs spread across the defensive line, and Benjamin Pavard and Adrien Rabiot served as pivots able to push into attack and fall defensively. It’s similar to how Thomas Tuchel won the Champions League final with Chelsea last month, with Ben Chilwell and Reece James doing the honors on the wings and smothering Manchester City’s preferred methods of generating attacks. So it makes sense in the context.
But in practice it didn’t make any sense. How deep had Deschamps trained his squad for this? Given his tendency towards conservatism, that is a fair question. Did he think that Switzerland lacked the necessary threat in a more open game?
Up until that last point, he was pretty close to being right. After all, France delivered brilliant moments and led 3-1 with 15 minutes to go. From there, Switzerland scored two unlikely goals, and any exhausted team couldn’t find a winner before penalty shoot-outs built up their indiscriminate fortunes.
So once the excitement about France’s failure subsides, the federation will have to answer some tough questions. You have to decide if Didier Deschamps is the right 1998 legend to keep the job going or if they should turn to someone else like for example Zinedine Zidane. You have to decide if nine years is enough to hear every player in the world’s deepest pool – or if it’s just long enough.
Quel-Choix, Is not it? Make the safe move or make the brave move.
France hasn’t done that for a long time. You don’t have to if you live in tournaments.
Time to see what happens when you aren’t.
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