Is France’s defense-first pivot a cause for concern?


France coach Didier Deschamps has the defensive strength he wants, just not the attacking efficiency yet.

After two games in Euro 2024, the French team is probably not where we expected it to be. With an attacking power of Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann, Marcus Thuram, Kingsley Coman and/or Olivier Giroud, Les Bleus have incredible talent, variety and depth. Scoring was not a worry coming into this tournament.

Conceding goals, however, seemed a bit more problematic. Chile, Germany and Greece all had scored twice against the French in the two international breaks before this tournament. Deschamps knew that to win the Euros, 40 years after the Michel Platini generation and 24 after his, he had to fix these defensive issues. The problem is that in doing so, he has lost some attacking efficiency.

Over 180 minutes in Germany, the 2018 World Cup winners have kept two clean sheets and haven’t scored a goal of their own, a surprise given their force going forward. Austrian Maximilian Wöber‘s own goal is the only time the ball has gone in the back of the net during a French game so far. Against Austria, Mbappé & Co. had 14 shots and expected goals (xG) of 2.13, but edged their opponents for a 1-0 win.

Against the Netherlands on Friday, they had 15 attempts for an xG of 1.42. They have missed big chances. One for Mbappé, two for Griezmann and one for Thuram. France have reached three of the past four major tournament finals because they have been ruthless in both boxes. Efficient, clinical, unbeatable. Right now, they are doing it but only in one box, theirs.

Deschamps reminded everyone before the start of the competition that to win this Euro, there must be defensive solidity and strength. And he’s speaking from experience. Deschamps won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euros as a player with the best defence in the world. He won the 2018 World Cup as a manager with the best defence in the world.

To go back to being an unbreakable wall, he employed older tactics with new personnel: defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté in front of the back four and an asymmetrical 4-4-2 formation. The tactical system is a recycling version of 2018: Adrien Rabiot plays the Blaise Matuidi role on the left of midfield, Dembélé is in place of Mbappé on the right, Griezmann is playing as a second striker like in 2018 and Aurélien Tchouameni is the new Paul Pogba. Rabiot can assure the balance in midfield while Dembele attacks.

Griezmann can be everywhere — “the more he touches the ball, the better,” Deschamps said after the game — and Mbappé, when he is back from his broken nose, will have no defensive duties and a lot of freedom to attack. But the biggest positive defensively has been the arrival in the team of William Saliba. The Arsenal centre-back, the best in the Premier League last season, had never started in a major tournament.

In two games, he showed how great he is. His partnership with Dayot Upamecano has been fantastic. He makes this team more solid, like we saw against the Dutch where the French gave them nothing, no chances, hardly no transitions and no hope. They allowed 0.33 xG against the Oranje and 0.74 against the Austrians.

“Like in the first game, we were solid defensively, with a better press even,” Griezmann said after the game. “We are so compact defensively. The defenders and midfielders are doing a great job. We give nothing to the opponents.”

And what about the performance and strategy in attack? “Our lack of efficiency is frustrating but not alarming. We have to improve in front of goals and be killers,” he added.

Striker Olivier Giroud also expressed his views about the imperfection between attack and defence as France prepare to take on Poland in a crucial game on Tuesday.

“Our defence is a huge asset. It has to be. But it can’t be to the detriment of our attack. But we created chances and I would be more worried if we hadn’t,” he said.

While we are waiting to see if a masked Mbappé will be back to face the Poles, Deschamps sees the glass still half full.

“I am satisfied by the two performances so far,” he said. “There are a lot of positives, but we have let ourselves down with our finishing. And if you don’t score, you can’t win matches.”

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