Football Features

“Martial misses his moment” – Five things learned as France’s spine stands tall in big Nations League win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:36, 14 November 2020 | Updated: 9:36, 30 March 2021

In an intense night of football, France beat Portugal 0-1 in Lisbon to make the 2021 UEFA Nations League finals.

The win gives France a head-to-head tiebreaker edge on as well as three point lead over Portugal with just three points left to play for. What did we learn?

1. Martial misses his moment

It’s rare that Didier Deschamps is comfortable experimenting with his team. Once he finds a line-up he likes, he generally sticks to it. For years this meant Olivier Giroud in the XI even if he was only useful in about 20% of the games France played.

Now with Giroud’s decline and Kylian Mbappé’s injury, he has been forced into changing his attack. Realistically, Mbappé walks back into the team when fit but Giroud might not, which means Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman were competing for a spot in Deschamps’ first XI, the side that will contest the Euros and the Nations League finals in 2021.

And whilst Coman was alright, bringing threat in the wide areas and lots of pace, Martial missed his moment at the head of the side.

 

Wearing Mbappé’s no. 10, Martial had the chance to establish himself as the go-to partner for the PSG prodigy, instead he showed the kind of frustrating inconsistency that has dogged him most of his career. His movement was sublime, but France have movement for days what they need is finishing and in that arena Martial completely failed to deliver (he hasn’t scored a goal for France since 2016).

He had three golden chances to score and each time he made a mess of things, either scuffing a shot straight at Rui Patricio or by heading the ball against the bar from just a few yards out. France got the win in the end, so Martial’s profligacy didn’t cost the French, but it could have done. And given the amount of options he has at his disposal, one wonders how many more opportunities Anthony Martial will get.

2. Portugal player ratings

3. The Cristiano Problem

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest goalscorers of all-time, certainly the greatest in Portugal’s history. He’s been scoring goals in their shirt since he was a teenager, providing the goal output that allowed a stoic and defensive side to keep competing.

Now at 35, nearing 36, he is the captain of this younger, more dynamic Portugal team. But tonight’s performance shows that the absurd question must be asked: would Portugal be better off without Cristiano?

Not out of the squad, of course, you could never leave his goalscoring power at home. But should he be starting? When you look at the sheer dynamism and movement in the Portuguese XI with the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva, you wonder if the team would be better served building around those three and young threats like Francisco Trincao?

Portugal were so stoic tonight in Lisbon, wasting the creativity and movement of their brighter attackers. Things perked up after France scored but that was partly because the French just sat back but moreso as Diogo Jota came on for William Carvalho and Portugal went all-out. The thing is, why don’t they start games at that furious pace? Playing fluid, attacking football with everyone pitching in defensively?

With a fixed point like Cristiano at the top of the team the dynamic qualities of their younger players are so often-neutered. This has been the case for a while but Cristiano’s goalscoring always bailed him out. Now even that deadly touch is beginning to leave him – he missed two very good chances tonight that he’d have buried two years ago – it would make sense to drop him.

But you definitely still bring him off the bench. The way Portugal were assaulting France’s goal at the end of the game, as the World Champions sat back and absorbed pressure, was perfect for Cristiano. Having an elite goalscorer like that is a double-threat for Portugal as he can both score and also draw attention to create space for others, and had he been fully fresh rather than carrying 60 minutes of fruitless running in his legs, he would likely have been more deadly.

Portugal are out of the Nations League, but come the Euros next year it would be such a bold step if Fernando Santos were to solve The Cristiano Problem by using the striker as a late-game sub to terrify and damage weakened opponents, rather than continuing to start him and disrupting the fluidity of his younger, more dynamic attacking talents.

4. France player ratings

5. France’s spine stands tall

In 2018, France won the World Cup. They did so despite playing a, shall we say, less than adventurous style of play. They were able to do this because of the strength of their spine. From Hugo Lloris to Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti to N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba to Antoine Griezmann to Olivier Giroud.

Tonight against Portugal we finally saw France uncoil and reveal that after two years of mostly middling results and performances, France’s spine is as straight and rigid as it was back then.

Lloris remains in goal and played superbly today, making one unreal stop from Joao Moutinho. Varane remains in defence but is joined by Presnel Kimpembe, who has the authority and athleticism that Clement Lenglet lacks and is a superb partner for Varane. Kimpembe’s headed clearance in the second-half, denying Cristiano Ronaldo a certain goal and getting headbutted in the process, was an absolutely miraculous bit of defending that sums up what he brings.

In midfield Kanté and Pogba appear to be gearing up their big tournament modes again. Kanté in particular was back to his relentless best in Lisbon and Portugal couldn’t live with him.

We even saw an interesting wrinkle from Didier Deschamps where instead of allowing Paul Pogba to rampage forward, he sat the playmaker deeper and instead allowed Adrien Rabiot and N’Golo Kanté to raid and it’s telling that the game-winning goal came from a Rabiot shot being palmed out into the path of Kanté, who bundled home as the furthest forward Frenchman. This wrinkle is risky (Pogba was dribbled past more than all his team-mates combines) but it will unsettle opponents and give France a sharp edge.

In attack we have Griezmann looking absolutely in his element as a no. 10 with two mobile forwards ahead of him. Griezmann may be awful at Barcelona, stuck playing as a no. 9 or no. 11, but in France blue he is just sublime. His pass through to Martial in the first-half (which Martial missed) was the absolute highlight of the match and rest assured if he’s passing that to Kylian Mbappé (who will complete the spine when he returns from injury), the ball is ending up into the back of the net.

France’s spine is standing tall, and for anyone who has hoped to stop the World Champions winning the Euros in 2021, that’s not a terrifying prospect.

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