Meek France defeat could spell the end for ‘non-football’ of Didier Deschamps | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 6 min read

On a steamy night in Munich, France finally found a way to entertain the world at this European Championship. It turns out that France losing is really very gripping. Not least when the decisive figure in the game is a supercharged 16-year-old whose entire presence seems to express not just elite talent, but lightness, fun, the creative spirit.

France never played like pre-tournament favourites across their six matches in Germany. Here they were beaten by a superior team, far more incisive in their attacking, and supremely good at controlling the midfield. Defeat by Spain is one thing. This felt like something else too, perhaps even a passing on for the strangulation-football of the mature Didier Deschamps era.

With 11 minutes left, 2-1 down and going out of these Euros, Deschamps brought on Olivier Giroud, his fourth substitution, but also a footballer who doesn’t so much run as drift like an ornate mahogany armoire being slid across a polished parquet floor. Even Deschamps’ last stand in Germany was an act of pragmatism, numbers, muscle memory, and all this in a semi-final that was being won by the intervention of a kid with braces.

The oddest thing about France here was their meekness. They did very little chasing the game, couldn’t seem to remember how to rev up into those higher gears. The match had always been billed as a clash of styles, Spain’s inventive systems play against France’s hard-nosed structure.

Which is odd, because French football isn’t really meant to be this. France makes more elite players than any other nation. France is not England, where the first breath of talent is treated as a gift from the gods. The French supremacy has been earned, a reflection of the talent produced by a wonderful junior and development system.

So why the long face? This is a team set up to compensate for an absence that doesn’t exist. And when they lose, what is left is that feeling of absence.

Randal Kolo Muani rises high to head France into the lead against Spain.View image in fullscreen

By the end as Spain’s young players danced on the touchline it was impossible not to see this as a win for something freer, more geared towards individualism and improvised moments; and a significant event in a sport that is increasingly encased within its own iron mask of systems, athleticism and control. Spain’s football is essentiality optimistic in nature. They have been a candle at this tournament.

Deschamps is going to face some questions now. France have played defensively by design. They have taken a deliberate decision to stifle their own talent. And yes to get the England stuff out of the way there is an obvious issue here. England are not in the final. But if they get there, the question remains: how do you beat the man that beat the man? England’s entire tactical approach has been a mimesis of the death-football of France and Portugal. Well, Spain don’t seem to have much of a problem with all that. And those two wingers will traumatise England’s flanks if they play as they have.

Spain will now go on to Berlin. For France, it felt like a kind of ending. This is a team who have made it to three of the last four major finals. This is still one of the great international teams on the numbers. So why don’t they feel like it? Why do this team leave so little imprint? France under Deschamps have been like hay fever, an affliction to be borne every other summer. What is the emotional content of their success?

Even England, this England’s version of hole-in-the-head football will give you dramatic interventions, trapped energy, last-minute overhead kicks. Somehow France entered this game as the only team at the Euros not to have registered an assist. Before this semi-final they played five games during which nobody on either team had scored from open play.

This isn’t “anti-football”. It’s un-football, non-football. It’s time being killed, athletically, talent reduced to furniture. Watching France is like watching someone do accounts, brilliantly, like watching a team of your favourite elite entertainers very diligently assembling a shed, and then realising towards the end that actually, they really are just assembling a shed.

Deschamps set his team up again here with three defensive midfielders. But they still lost a lead. Kylian Mbappé made the opening goal on eight minutes, scooting inside and putting the ball on the head of Randal Kolo Muani, who nodded it in.

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At which point Lamine Yamal produced the thing, the moment that will surely stand as the defining image of this tournament. It came in three parts. He took the ball, killed it and stopped. From there, he teased Adrien Rabiot one way, then snapped back the other, leaving Rabiot line-dancing himself into the ground. From there Lamine Yamal had the (self-made) time and space, for part three. The shot was perfect, curled from beyond the top corner and inside the goal, finding a spot nobody is ever going to be able to cover.

It was wonderfully conceived and executed, an act of pure individualism even in the tightly-knit matrix of these Euros.

For 10 minutes or so afterwards France were unable to get out of their own half. How, Deschamps will wonder, did Dani Olmo find so much space against a team with seven defensive players on the pitch to create the winning goal?

And that was pretty much it. France had no other levels here, a group of brilliant footballers trapped inside their own system. Deschamps will take the criticism, some of it unfair. People forget the dreadful 2010 World Cup pre-Deschamps, the waste of talent, Raymond Domenech proposing to his girlfriend weirdly live on TV.

Under Deschamps they became the new West Germany. Strong, pragmatic, physical, a frightening manager with a cold and boggly eyes. But they looked like a team backed into a corner here. By contrast, whoever faces Spain in the final will find not just a wonderfully functioning unit but a team with a rare and carefully calibrated ration of freedom about it.


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