And so it ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. France have been dispatched by a plucky and opportunistic Switzerland side, but also in large part by the frustrating tactics and selections of their manager. Didier Deschamps’ team had been the favourites to win this competition since the final whistle blew in the World Cup final in 2018.
There have been some minor changes in personnel since that match, with Blaise Matuidi retiring from international duty and Samuel Umtiti being felled by injury. However, on the whole, his side looked more than primed to follow in the footsteps of the France teams of two decades ago, who 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 – his four goals in the tournament notwithstanding – lacked solidity, the Germany fixture aside. In that 1-0 win over Germany, there was never a hint that France, playing with three of the back four who had won the World Cup in 2018, with Presnel Kimpembe in for Umtiti, would concede. Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard are both idealised hybrids of centre-backs (in their physicality) and full-backs (in their workrate) and they did not look vulnerable at all. Raphäel Varane was imperious in defence, with his experience and communication helping Kimpembe (who had only won 14 caps before the tournament) grow into the match.
With Hernandez unavailable for the Switzerland match due to a knee injury, and his replacement, the more attack-minded Lucas Digne, also out, Deschamps rearranged his vaunted 4-3-3 into a 3-4-3. The risks of undertaking such a major tactical shift mid-tournament are obvious and, given how quickly France retreated from it, we can safely say that it was as ill-advised as it seemed. Any set of players would have struggled with such a radical shift on short notice, but the defence picked by Deschamps only added to their struggles.
A natural move would have been to bring in Kurt Zouma on the right of the three, given that the Chelsea man has been exposed to that shape regularly this season. Zouma’s pace would also have alleviated some of the pressure on Benjamin Pavard being deployed in a more advanced role. With Kimpembe on the left, Varane – who is a wonderful organiser and an adept passer but has not always looked the most fleet of foot at this tournament – could have been safely positioned in the middle.
Instead, Deschamps opted for Clement Lenglet, a player who was coming off a mediocre season with Barcelona and had not played even a minute in the group stage or in France’s two pre-tournament friendlies. With Kimpembe and Lenglet haring about next to him, even the normally reliably Varane looked at sea and his effectiveness in the tackle was soon muted by an early yellow card.
More important than Varane’s booking, though, was Lenglet’s lack of form. He was badly exposed in Switzerland’s opening goal and was removed at half-time. Deschamps must regret his failure to involve Aymeric Laporte in the last 18 months. Given Umtiti’s injury issues, the fact that the Manchester City player was never capped is simply inexcusable. To make matters worse, he will be playing for Spain against Switzerland in the next round.
France looked more coherent in the second half, with Kingsley Coman coming on and the team clearly switching to a 4-3-3. However, Deschamps’ choices again made things unnecessarily difficult. Instead of deploying Lyon full-back Léo Dubois, who has played at left-back on more than a dozen occasions in Ligue 1, he asked Rabiot to play as a makeshift left-back. Rabiot had already run himself ragged as a similarly makeshift wing-back in the first half and, even though he is a more than competent midfielder, he adds no natural width.
On top of that, Rabiot has been coping with an injured ankle, making the role of a full-back particularly unsuitable given the demands it places on a player. Even with Digne and Hernandez both unavailable, it was a surprise to see more pressure placed on Rabiot, who had, to his credit, turned in a competent first half. Picking up injuries after a long and challenging season is unsurprising, but France’s problems hardly ended there.
As it had in previous matches, the relationship between Kylian Mbappé and Benzema too often foundered, with both strikers often occupying similar areas on the left flank. This confusion in terms of positioning – something that was hardly helped by Benzema’s long period in the international wilderness – meant that France’s attack often lacked cohesion, despite Antoine Griezmann’s determined efforts to play as a No 10 behind the front two.
Mbappé, perhaps frustrated by his limited service and dearth of opportunities, too often snatched at chances. Yann Sommer did make a fine save to deny the striker’s penalty, but his inability to find the net from open play was surely weighing on his mind during the shootout.
In the Germany match, the number of chances the forwards missed did not matter so much because the team was in control, especially in terms of their defensive aptitude and continuity – much as it had been at the 2018 World Cup. But with that continuity gone, the knock-on effects were simply too great to overcome. Even Paul Pogba, who scored a brilliant goal from range, cut a frustrated figure at times. And the underrated passing ability of his midfield partner, N’Golo Kanté, also went unused. Despite his usual work ethic, the Chelsea man was all but invisible.
Not all is lost for France. This is the benefit of having the World Cup so close to the Euros. Deschamps can sort out the system and personnel he thinks is best and reflect on the mistakes he made, even if injury and form had forced his hand to some degree. Had injuries not affected what would have been his first-choice back four, France would surely have had enough to win this match, if not the entire tournament.
That said, some in France will question Deschamps’ future. His reliance on counter-attacking is one thing when you reach consecutive major finals, but it is another altogether when you concede three goals to Switzerland and go out before the quarter-finals. Deschamps’ contract runs through the World Cup next year and, despite his missteps against Switzerland, the FFF will likely give him another chance.