Football Features

“Dembélé is undeniably the missing French X-factor” – Hungary hold France and expose the World champions limitations at Euro 2020

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:34, 19 June 2021

In an incredible afternoon of football, Hungary held world champions France to a 1-1 draw at Euro 2020.

The result was definitely a shock, few could have guessed that Hungary (without their best player Dominik Szoboszlai) would be able to compete with and hold the World champions and tournament favourites. However, what should concern Didier Deschamps is not the shocking result but the fact that the performance was not really much of a surprise.

It’s hard to divorce result from performance, but seriously, France playing like this was not really a surprise. They devastated Germany in their opening game but never really got out of first gear in the process, and more worryingly they only scored once against a wide-open German side and that was an own goal from Mats Hummels.

And that was with Germany playing into their hands, stylistically. Hungary, meanwhile, did no such thing.


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Just like they did to Portugal, the Hungarians sat back in defence in an organised low-block. They shut off space, closed down crosses and stifled play superbly. And when they had to break out from the back, they did so with speed and intelligence.

Take the goal, scored by Attila Fiola; they isolated Benjamin Pavard in the wide open field and attacked him (and Raphael Varane) at speed. Germany were never able to do this because they didn’t play to draw the French out as Hungary did. Germany tried to engage them as equals, got snuffed out, and were then put into the French game of counter-attacking cat and mouse that they are always liable to win.

Hungary were not too proud to play to their own strengths, rather than engage the French with theirs. So they sat deep and countered all day, daring the World champions to break them down – knowing full well that France excel in transition and can sometimes struggle to prise open a tightly shut defence – like at the 2018 World Cup against Australia, where they needed an 80th minute own goal, or Peru where it had to be a deflected Mbappé strike and a 1-0 win, or Uruguay where they needed a goalkeeping howler to make it secure.

Or going a bit further back: the Euro 2016 final that they lost, at home, to Portugal. Their next opponents in Group F.



Of course they didn’t lose the game, they managed to equalise because just short of the hour mark Didier Deschamps brought on Ousmane Dembélé. The wing wonder instantly gave the French side width and depth in a way that only Kylian Mbappé was doing previously (but now Mbappé could take up goalscoring positions in the middle).

Every time Dembélé had the ball, even the times he gave it away with sloppy passes, Hungary were on edge. They couldn’t live with his pace 1-v-1 yet committing more men to cover him would expose them in other areas. In a team full of superstars, Ousmane Dembélé is undeniably France’s missing X-factor. When he was on it all came to life.

For the 30 minutes Dembélé was on the field, France looked like they could get a winner. And of course they did bag an equaliser when Hugo Lloris’ long-ball found both Mbappé and Dembélé charging forward against a Hungarian defence that was momentarily caught 2-v-2 against searing pace. They panicked, France worked the ball across goal and Antoine Griezmann stabbed it home.

Of course the issue France have is that Dembélé went off injured close to the end of the game. And in those final 8 minutes it was kind of painful how much France actually missed him because without his ability to massacre opponents 1-v-1, Hungary found it almost easy to shut the French down as they no longer feared anything out wide.

Going forward in the tournament, if France can’t call on Ousmane Dembélé then they better hope Kingsley Coman is fit and focused because what is abundantly clear is that Didier Deschamps need to be able to call on a quick winger against deep-lying opponents. His team needs that width and pace and dribbling skill to stretch their opponents (because goodness knows their full-backs aren’t up to it) and create space in the middle for their other playmakers to work their magic.

Against Hungary they only had that for 30 minutes, and so couldn’t fully recover from the hole their sluggish first-half play had dug them into. Now, sure, more proactive sides will give France the kind of space they want, but dogged and reactive sides will take the lessons Hungary have taught today and will shut down the French, forcing Deschamps to turn to his bench for match-changing impact.

Whether or not his bench can deliver that X-factor will be the difference between France winning Euro 2020 and crashing out in embarrassing fashion as they did in Euro 2016.