After five consecutive draws (and a penalty shootout loss), France finally won again, beating Finland 2-0 in Lyon.
The game was notable for two things beyond the result; the shape France played and the star of the show on an individual level. First the shape: it was a 3-4-1-2 (or 3-4-2-1) which France last used quite unsucessfully in their round of 16 defeat to Switzerland at Euro 2020. Well, not even the whole round of 16 game, just the first-half. It was going that badly!
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But Les Bleus returned to the shape tonight with one enormous, colossal difference: he had two flying wing-backs in the wide positions. Leo Dubois is not the best player around but he is unquestionably a full-back (and received a standing ovation from his home stadium when he was subbed off in the second-half). Meanwhile Theo Hernandes is a freight train and, unlike his brother, a natural born wing-back. Making his debut for France, Theo was an absolute sensation up and down the touchline.
Having genuine width out wide rather than the makeshift nonsense we saw at Euro 2020 made the formation so much more potent as France could actually stretch Finland wide while keeping two or even three forwards in the midfield.
The midfield functioned as you’d expect, with Paul Pogba more comfortable shifting the ball wide. Adrien Rabiot was less useful but he’d be replaced by N’Golo Kanté in the main team anyway.
France's all-time top scorers:
◉ Thierry Henry (51)
◉ Olivier Giroud (46)
◉ Michel Platini (41)
◉ Antoine Griezmann (40)The Atletico Madrid striker moves one behind Platini. ? pic.twitter.com/bbsiFqChMk
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 7, 2021
The defence looked a bit ropey in possession in the first-half as they tried to figure the new shape out, but France have enough talented centre-backs that some combination of bodies can be assembled around Raphael Varane (one imagines a fit Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard could fit the bill perfectly) would be more than enough to shut down opponents. Of course the defence in particular would need actual training time to get functional in the shape, especially passing from the back under pressure.
The star of the show was in attack, however. But before that, the shape of the front three was much the same as it is when France play a back four. Antoine Griezmann is a no. 10 behind a no. 9 with exceptional link play and a striker with great pace. At the World Cup it was Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappé, tonight it was Karim Benzema and Anthony Martial, and usually you’d expect Benzema and Mbappé to start.
So we come to the star of the show, the goalscorer: Antoine Griezmann.
Playing this 3-4-1-2 with genuine width from wing-backs (rather than sporadic width from centre-backs playing full-back) pushed Griezmann and Benzema closer together which meant their fast passing exchanges on the edge of the box allowed France to actual undo an opponent with clever play, instead of relying on set-pieces or pace from Martial (usually Mbappé).
France played some liquid football and Griezmann, with Benzema his able co-conspirator, was at the heart of everything. His movement was sharp, his touch was precise and unlike the previous three years since he didn’t win the 2018 Ballon d’Or, he was ruthless.
Griezmann scored both goals, taking him level with Michel Platini in the French record books with 41 strikes. But it was the way in which Griezmann took the goals which really stood out. They were not easy chances or even simple ones, they were goals that required him to show his trademark physical effort but cap it with his dextrous genius.
Antoine Griezmann has now drawn level with Michel Plantini in third-place on France's all-time top scorers list (41).
History-maker. ? pic.twitter.com/lBYPzlcFzw
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 7, 2021
Since moving to Barcelona, Griezmann seemed to forget he was one of the very best players in the world and began playing like a Gallic Dirk Kurt, all effort and energy with precious little ingenuity. Here tonight he showed both. The touch and trivela finish for the first goal was absolutely spectacular but the second, a thundering sprint to reach a pass and then the composure to slip it underneath the onrushing goalkeeper with his weaker right-foot, was exactly the kind of lethal striker play that made Barca think he could lead the line for them.
France’s football has always relied on the genius of their creative players to generate goals out of very little in terms of coherent attacking play; but with this new system Didier Deschamps is finally giving his attacking players a structural platform for them to strut their stuff. He’s finally making their lives easier.
If tonight is anything to go by, that little bit of help has reminded Antoine Griezmann that he is one of the very best players on the planet (just in time for his second debut with Atlético Madrid!) and when you pair a glorious Griezmann with a brilliant Benzema and the magical Mbappé ahead of a proven midfield, genuine width from actual specialist wing-backs and a defensive trio that will only get stronger with more practice, well then you have to start seriously discussing France being the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain the World Cup.