Where France go from here following a catastrophic failure of a tournament…
(Note: Both Part 1 and Part 2 were written around the time France were eliminated from the Euros. Posting this was delayed, and it was since revised several times since, but it is still written in the frame of just having watched France be eliminated)
I’m sure many of you enjoyed that, and I do not blame you. It was an incredible game for the neutral, and Switzerland advancing as the underdog definitely makes the tournament more interesting.
But for myself, supporting France, that was brutal.
And I understand that we cannot win every tournament. I was not brought up in the football world in an environment where France were regular contenders, as disappointment on the international stage after 2006 was quite regular. I cherished the run to the final in Euro 2016 and winning the World Cup in 2018, those are two of my brightest memories as a football fan. But now, for the first time in a while, I approached an international tournament for France with expectation. We were considered by many to be the best team in the world. We were the reigning world champions. We have maybe the best young player in the world in Kylian Mbappé paired with maybe the most talent-rich pool of players since 1998, if not in the history of French football, to select from.
France failed. There is no other way to put it. From top to bottom, this was a failure.
There is a lot of things that can be said about France during this competition. Even looking back to qualifying, to the two UEFA Nations League campaigns, generally to the games that France played following their success in Russia, you could tell that something just was not quite right. It was the 2-0 drubbing against Holland in Rotterdam, that loss away in Turkey in qualifying and the subsequent draw against them in Paris, that Iceland game that we made brutal work of, that game against Moldova that we probably should have lost, the Ukraine draw, the Finland loss, there were so many signs that something was not right.
That trend continued into the tournament. A strong performance against Germany was followed by weak, sometimes downright awful, performances against Hungary and Portugal followed by elimination against the Swiss. As an added punch to the gut, it was the first penalty shootout for France at a major tournament since that summer night in Berlin in 2006, and, well, we all know how that one ended too.
It was painful not necessarily in the way it happened or who it happened against, but rather how inevitable it all felt. Yes, we cannot win every tournament, but from qualifying until now, it felt as though we were watching a car crash in slow motion. You knew the final outcome, you knew it was inevitable, and you knew you could do nothing to stop it. Had France lost in the quarterfinals or semifinals, these feelings would not be as strong, but given how the tournament went from start to finish for Les Bleus, it certainly felt like this was something that should have been avoidable.
There are three names that will likely circle around the media as those in the football world react and evaluate this tournament from France. In this direction is where we go too, as honestly, those four names offer a good lens for us to examine this team.
Karim Benzema. Aymeric Laporte. Kylian Mbappé.
Let us start with the one I am most biased over. Karim Benzema’s inclusion in the France team was the biggest story of the tournament for Les Bleus. Following years of legal investigation, as well as personal feuds between himself and Deschamps, Benzema was brought back into the team on the eve of the tournament, reportedly after him and Deschamps met, settled their differences, and made up. The prospect of a front three of him, Mbappé, and Griezmann was tantalizing, terrifying, and basically every adjective you could think of. The world champions being able to bring in a player of Benzema’s quality from the blue basically described just how historically good the player pool for France is. The potential was sky high…
…and it did not quite work out. It was not a mistake to bring Benzema, despite what some stupid people will say, but it was clear from the beginning that there was no clear understanding between the front three. This is what happens when you pull a player from the wilderness, drop him into the team, and expect them to gel. It was not working, and while Benzema did score four goals and definitely was not bad by any means in this tournament, I do think part of the issue for France was trying to get that front three to work in such a short period of time in a run of demanding games. Moving forward, this is still a good experience, especially when looking toward the World Cup in 2022. I would assume that this front three, in whatever tactical set up Deschamps (or whoever the manager is) comes up with, is going to be the front three during World Cup qualifying. There will be more time for them to find an understanding, and this is not a sign to completely scrap this set up, especially seeing some of the goals that Benzema was able to score near the end of the competition (it’s not something Giroud would be able to offer, to say the least).
Unfortunately, Benzema will likely be an easy scapegoat in the eyes of many. As the most sudden change from the 2018 team to now, there will likely be many who say that Benzema’s inclusion upset the balance of the squad, or it upset the morale off the pitch or led to Deschamps tinkering too much with a working set up. And I think most of that is nonsense, and I will say why later, and while there did seem to be some personality issues within the France camp, I can at least come to the conclusion based on what I have seen that they were not heavily involving Benzema (or I can at least hope they were not). But bringing Benzema was still a necessary thing, and it quite frankly would have been better to have happened sooner. Given how many times France’s attack looked turgid in games prior to the Euros, and especially given how few French strikers were in good form and playing regularly, including Giroud, the desire to take a chance on Benzema was quite logical and quite needed. Deschamps said it himself back in 2019, saying he needed Giroud to leave Chelsea and get regular first team playing time before the Euros, and he did not do that. What was needed was time: time for Benzema to understand his role in the team, time for the team to understand how to play with a striker like Benzema, and time for Deschamps to figure out how best to utilize Benzema. Luckily for them, they will have plenty of time to figure that out moving forward.
From a surprise inclusion to a surprise exclusion, there will likely be some things said about Aymeric Laporte and his decision to represent Spain over France. Since Spain are in the quarterfinals and France are not, it seems to have worked out for Laporte. I said on a previous podcast around the time Laporte’s nation switch was finalized that I was not, and still am not, concerned about Laporte’s absence in the long run, but I was very concerned about it in the short term, and my concerns were brought to reality in the Euros. Deschamps as a manager is very obsessed with the idea of playing a left-footed center back on the left and a right-footed center back on the right. While France have quite a few very good center backs, most of them are right footed. This was not a problem in 2018, as the pairing of Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane were outstanding the whole tournament. With Umtiti’s subsequent injury issues and drop in form, the left-sided center back role was vacated. Laporte, a left-footed center back in very good form, was the logical replacement, but Deschamps never gave him a chance, calling him up once and using him as an unused substitute, never cap-tying him and allowing him to change to Spain.
When Laporte switched to Spain, France were left with Presnel Kimpembe and Clément Lenglet to fill that role. Kimpembe is a fine player coming off of a strong season, but he has been known to be prone to the occasional lapse of judgment. Lenglet was once very highly rated, but he has since been subpar at best for Barcelona for quite a while. Kimpembe was not bad on the whole, he was very good against Germany, but he did make crucial mistakes in the Switzerland game. Lenglet, who only played against Switzerland, was, to be frank, terrible. He had done nothing in the last two years at Barcelona to show he deserved a spot in the France team at all, let alone in place of Laporte. It was a clear mistake from Deschamps to not give Laporte his chance, and it is clear that the selected favorites at center back for France moving forward needs to be revisited. I am willing to give Kimpembe more chances, as he has put out strong performances in the past, but it is clear that Lenglet should not be near the team moving forward until his club level form improves. Deschamps will likely also need to revisit his obsession with left-footed center backs being needed, as it will be very hard soon to keep players like Wesley Fofana and Dayot Upamecano out of the first team.
It might end up being the least-discussed topic, but this could have been the biggest reason for France’s failure. Yes, the stifled attack was a concern in qualifying and in the tournament, and I will discuss that more later, but it was not a ruthless attack that led to success in 2018. France looked tepid at times going forward even in 2018, and aside from that thriller against Argentina, which really served as a wake up call for Les Bleus, and the Final against Croatia, they never were really a free-scoring team, but they did not need to be. France won the World Cup in Russia because of how good they were defensively, and specifically how good Varane, Umtiti, and Lucas Hernández were in that tournament, and the ultimate failing of this France team in Budapest was the weakness of the Varane-Kimpembe pairing (and the Varane-Kimpembe-Lenglet trio against Switzerland). If Deschamps is going to stick with this fairly defensive-oriented style of play, then he needs to get the back four right, because the players he chose in this competition were not good enough.
And now the golden boy himself. It is safe to say that it was not a tournament to remember for Kylian Mbappé. While he looked very dangerous at times against Germany, he often looked like he was doing too much against Hungary, Portugal, and Switzerland. There was clearly no solid understanding between him and Benzema, and they often wanted to do similar things in attack. When France were stressed, Mbappé often got the sudden urge to want to take on multiple defenders or just generally do it all himself, which is never a good thing to have happen in a team sport like football. I do not necessarily think his tournament was as bad as people are saying, as he had his bright moments, but I am sure that one of the lasting images of the tournament will be his dejected look following his penalty miss against Switzerland. The narrative is going to follow him, and given the rumors of internal discord within the France camp revolving (at least to a certain extent) around him, it is very possible that his reputation has taken a hit this tournament in multiple ways.
I am not here to talk about his attitude, to make presumptions that he may or may not have been the cause of the behind the scenes issues, but ultimately it is hard to ignore that he has developed a bit of an ego since he moved to PSG. I hope this serves as a wake-up call for him, I hope this whole year has been a bit of a wake up call for him. Failing to win the league with PSG coupled with this crushing disappointment is quite a stain on his record when compared to previous years, and this could all just be a blimp on the radar of what ends up being a phenomenal career, but he needs to learn to focus more. Do not showboat, do not try to do everything, do not focus on beating defenders, just focus on doing your job, working within the team, and playing to the best of your and the team’s ability.
Mbappé is so immensely talented, and when he is not adding the extra unnecessary bits to his game, he is one of the deadliest attackers in the world. He has bought in too much to the Hollywood show that PSG have become, and you can really tell when you compare his game at Monaco to his game now. If he gets back to the basics, focusing on how he works within the system and just working to be that direct, deadly attacker that he was in 2018 and that he was for Monaco, then man, he is going to be the star of 2022. Him working alongside Benzema and Griezmann could be unbelievable. And if things gel off the pitch and they rediscover that team spirit and mentality that they had in Russia, then France will win the World Cup in 2022 regardless of who the manager is. Mbappé is the key to that. He is the leader of this next, up-and-coming generation of French talent, and if he matures into the leader that I thoroughly believe he can be, then France will be serious contenders for major honors for the next decade.
There is one more name to discuss, one that will likely be discussed more than any other in relation to France’s failure in 2021. But that will have to be left for Part 2.
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