In a one-sided night of football, France smashed Bulgaria 3-0 in their last friendly before Euro 2020.
For the vast majority of France’s victory over Bulgaria, the world champions didn’t look great. They were intensely dominant (and Antoine Griezmann scored a stunning overhead kick) but Bulgaria’s defensive shape aided that dominance, and while Daniel Naumov in the Bulgaria goal was great throughout, it wasn’t until the very end when France pulled away and made the result comfortable.
The catalyst for pulling away? The introduction of Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar and the switch from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-2-3-1. France suddenly had the searing pace and skill of Dembélé out wide and from the very start he was destabilising Bulgaria with his dribbling and passing (he created a golden chance for Kylian Mbappé seconds after coming on). Lemar in the middle is a better dribbler and passer than Kanté and plays with more thrust than Griezmann, and as a result the French were really moving at Bulgaria with speed.
Olivier Giroud got the goals, but they both came as a result of France’s increased tempo forced by Dembélé and Lemar. It would be lovely if France could always play with that kind of swagger and sauce and hype and happiness.
That’s a cool idea, but it’s not the game France are out to play.
Didier Deschamps’ French team are fighting the tide of history as they come into Euro 2020. They want to win the tournament, and in doing so add the European title to their World one. They would be the first side to do this since Spain managed it in 2010 (and again in 2012). Before Spain it was the last French World champions who managed it back at Euro 2000.
Basically, what they’re trying to do is almost impossible. The weight of expectation and tactical natural stagnation over time are the biggest threats to any great international side’s sustained dominance and it has so often taken out a team in full stride.
To that end, Didier Deschamps hasn’t sent France out to Euro 2020 to entertain the masses with beautiful football; he’s sent them out there to win. That’s all they want to do. Win. To follow in the footsteps of the 1998 champions and to make up for their own failure in Euro 2016 when they lost the final at home against Portugal. They want victory.
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And often the best way to get victory is to reduce risk. That’s how France won the World Cup after all. Back in 2018, Didier Deschamps played a system that was quite similar to the one used in 1998, only he made great use of Kylian Mbappé’s searing pace on the counter-attack. He had other players he could have used to make the win easier, but he stuck by his guns and ground his way to the final where he simply had the superior firepower to plucky Croatia.
Now he’s got basically the same team but the system is slightly changed. Sure Presnel Kimpembe has replaced Samuel Umtiti due to the latter’s knee exploding, but it’s the other two changes to the XI that could help France evolve while remaining tight and compact.
First Karim Benzema in for Olivier Giroud is quite simply an upgrade in almost every way. Benzema’s increased mobility makes France so much more threatening. It’s not complicated, but it is effective.
The other change is huge, with Corentin Tolisso coming in for Blaise Matuidi (or Adrien Rabiot). Matuidi (or Rabiot) play the position as box-to-box shuttles, which means N’Golo Kanté has to hold midfield. Now, he can do that but as we’ve seen this season for Chelsea he’s at his best when he’s allowed to run, and as we saw against Bulgaria, Tolisso is more apt to sit in midfield and play passes which allows Kanté to run and break lines.
Sure, against a defensive low block like Bulgaria that’s not necessarily the most useful thing but in an open contest against an international heavyweight – and remember France are in a group with Germany and Portugal – it could break the game wide open.
These are two small tactical shifts that could help France achieve the impossible and win the Euros just after winning the World Cup. As the commentator said: “they are what it says on the shirt: champions of the world” – because they have a phenomenal Plan A, with a superb starting XI that is just different enough to their World Cup winning team to avoid stagnation playing the kind of ruthless win-at-all-costs football opponents hate, and a ridiculous Plan B that involves bringing Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar off the bench and playing the kind of beautiful fast and flowing football that fans love.
France can do it all, will they do the impossible? Time will tell.