Yesterday, we dove into the very nature of Spain. How its championship pedigree is still around, but how the frustrating, and at times incomprehensible, frailties that surrounded that glorious era are in their DNA, too. And you’ll see all of them in the same match. They can’t help it. It’s who they are. They can’t run from it. They have no choice.
France does, or did, have a choice. It chose to try and play as much in second gear as they could, which was understandable to a point. It came off winning a World Cup where it felt like it only played well in certain stretches, which followed the previous Euros where it did look like an unholy force for most matches until the very end. One ended in heartbreak, the other champagne, so it’s not surprising it chose the past that had the bubbles after it. After this condensed and crazy-busy season, there is a very solid argument to try and keep things locked down as much as a team could rather than go full Barnum & Bailey and lose your legs.
France never looked all that good in the group stage, but A) It didn’t have to and B) Circumstances were somewhat against it. Its first two games were away matches, in Munich against Germany, and in Budapest against Hungary. Four points from two away games is hardly a shameful haul. And while its group finale against Portugal was eventful, it didn’t give up a goal from open play and had a very dicey penalty go against it. It was never out of cruise control, but it rarely looked like it needed to be. Defend well, and eventually Paul Pogba would hit Karim Benzema or Kylian Mbappé with a ridiculous through-ball like this, take your 1-0 and move on.
There’s a saying in sports that you can’t flip the switch merely because you want to. Well, France did, but as any parent who’s watched his or her kid destroy any car door lock or light fixture, you can easily break that switch if you keep flicking it back and forth.
There’s always been a suspicion that the France team was simply too talented and too turn-key for manager Didier Deschamps to fuck up. He certainly set out to prove that wrong yesterday. Deschamps was somewhat handcuffed by multiple injuries in one place, left-back. So he decided to play without one? Deschamps opted for a back-three, which France rarely uses, to crowbar Clément Lenglet into the lineup, which was certainly an abstract decision. Adrien Rabiot was nominally the left-back, but is a midfielder and basically played there the whole match. The imbalance caused France to look utterly awful for most of the first half, and even before halftime it had switched back to its normal back four.
France’s sleepwalk continued after half even after Lénglet was put out of his misery with a halftime substitution to get back to a proper 4-3-3 (he was utterly horsed for Switzerland’s opening goal). And France might have been toast in normal time, had Hugo Lloris not pulled its ass out of a sling with a penalty save in the 55th minute.
That’s when the switch came on. And it was just about as overwhelming and breathtaking as we all suspected France would be if it ever let it all hang out.
From the 55th to the 80th minute, France had nine of their 26 shots. They had all three of its goals, and all three were utter art. They opened up Switzerland at will. It felt like it could have put up a touchdown. Switzerland looked like the sixth-grader asked to guard an eighth-grader who was already shaving at basketball practice. This was an autopsy as much as it was a soccer game.
It was topped off by this channeling of Zeus from Pogba:
Oh, Pogba. God bless him, he always provides what you want to see. And that’s on both sides of the ledger. It would not take much to say that Pogba has been the best player at this tournament. If Mbappe could have learned what the offside rule was before the game against Germany, Pogba would be drowning in assists. He’s been spraying pinpoint passes all over the field, freed up by playing next to one-man-fortress N’Golo Kanté.
But Pogba is never more than a hop away from enraging his critics, which he promptly did in the last minute of normal time when France was merely trying to see out the game. When the only task was to keep the ball, Pogba did exactly not that. He was stirpped at midfield, and Switzerland streaked away to send the game to extra-time. It’s the kind of gaffe that’s always there for Pogba, but also wouldn’t have mattered if Kanté didn’t uncharacteristically hesitate defending the counter or if Presnel Kimpembe didn’t end up in the john after an attempted tackle on Gavranović before he scored.
The truth is that France had turned off long before that. After that brilliant stretch, France had one shot on target from the 80th to the 120th minute. For Switzerland’s second goal, Kevin Mbabu took advantage of there being no left-back from France and delivered a perfect cross. From the moment he came on in the 73rd minute, he was probably the most dangerous player on the field. France might have considered being in his zip code.
And though France could have won it in extra time through Kingsley Coman’s effort, it couldn’t get back to where it was for a brief glimpse in the second half. France is as close as any team can be to being good enough to play when they want and try and surf the rest. But you can only do that so many times. France used its quota last tournament, it would seem.