EM 2020: France beats Germany under control at all times
For a few minutes, not long after the second half started, France had to finally work up a sweat. Exactly how many minutes are is a matter of perspective: the French could be low at around 10 minutes; Germany, in contrast, be inclined to be a little more generous and set the number at 15 or something higher.
For Raphael Varane, who grits his teeth, or for Didier Deschamps, who trusts luck just a little, or for a French fan who watches and desperately tries to hold onto a lead that scores 1 -0, somehow made it, like this to appear fragile like porcelain, but still as safe as iron.
But that was it: in the opening game of a major tournament against a supposed rival in Munich on enemy territory, France didn’t seem uncomfortable for more than a quarter of an hour, and even that was relative. Serge Gnabry could have scored: certainly once, possibly twice. Toni Kroos shot a shot from distance. Robin Gosens lunged after a tempting cross from Gnabry, only to touch Benjamin Pavard and not the ball.
There was no desperation, no close siege. France, the reigning world champions, have not survived a storm. At best, it survived a short, uncomfortable storm, waited for the clouds to clear, and then set out again under a clear blue sky, carefree and undisturbed and serene, a team under complete control.
It goes without saying that France has a greater depth here than any other nation in the world. It has become, as the former Lille manager Marc Ingla put it, “the Brazil of Europe”, the home of one endless production line from incredibly talented young players.
Its top tier, Ligue 1, has been renamed the “League of Talents”, a place to see the stars of tomorrow today. It has so many outstanding center-backs that one of them, Aymeric Laporte, had to decide he was Spaniard just to play international football. France currently has more players in the top five leagues in Europe than any other country, including Brazil.
And his national team reflects that. Deschamps, the French coach, was so spoiled for choice when choosing his squad for this tournament – even before he decided to offer his prodigal son Karim Benzema a chance for redemption – that he would have all 26 of his chosen players at home He chose a completely different squad and probably made it to the semi-finals.
That’s the crowd; the quality is no less intimidating. Benzema was thrown into an attack that already included Antoine Griezmann, the team’s spiritual leader, and Kylian Mbappé, the world’s next player. The midfield is built around the indomitable N’Golo Kanté, or perhaps the ornate Paul Pogba, or perhaps even the elegant Adrien Rabiot: it largely depends on who has the ball at the moment.
It’s the combination of both – the talented players and the sheer number of them – this is what makes France such a daunting proposition that ensured that Deschamps and his side got to this tournament which is expected to make another contribution European championship to the World Cup secured it in Russia three years ago and takes his place in the front row of the largest international teams of the modern age.
But it’s not the quality of its personalities that defines this French team. It is the strength of the collective that Deschamps – even among his colleagues in the international game, hardly the most charismatic or inspiring coach – has forged from them. France didn’t win the World Cup by turning into a football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. It does not intend to repeat the trick here by taking your breath away.
Instead, Deschamps built a wall from the gold of a generation: One that shimmers and glitters and can be really beautiful in the right light, but is primarily a wall. France’s defense is stubborn and tenacious and stingy. His midfield offers more than enough brilliance to dazzle opponents, but it is no less adept at squeezing them, narrowing their space and choice until they run out of ideas, or better yet, hope.
With his almost comically devastating attack – the raw speed and rare brilliance of Mbappé, the precision of Benzema, the craft of Griezmann – France could wreak havoc at will. It doesn’t. It uses its frontline sparingly, chooses its moments, and is content that the unspoken threat of their presence is daunting enough.
Instead, it prefers to spend its time seeking total, absolute control. This is what distinguishes really great, really talented teams: they make you feel like everything that happens on the field is done at their behest, as if they are not only responsible for the speed of the game but also for the ticking of the clock . The very best teams have one thing that the good can never quite achieve: the agency. And France has agencies in abundance.
Germany has definitely found that. It didn’t play badly – there will have been a lot to give his coach Joachim Loew the hope that it won’t happen again the humiliation of 2018 at his farewell tournament – but that didn’t matter because it played someone else’s game for a long time.
France took the lead midway through the first half with a Mats Hummels own goal and while it didn’t seem like a rush to double it, it never looked like giving up. When Germany briefly gained the upper hand, the French seemed lucky enough. The Deschamps team sank into their own half, then back into their own penalty area and fended off anything that got in their way.
And when the Germans ran out of breath when they blew themselves out, the French broke the sweat from their foreheads and took control again. France had a goal. A second could have been nice – Rabiot hit the post, Mbappé had ruled one offside, Benzema too – but it wasn’t absolutely necessary.
With all the talent that is available to him, Deschamps knows that one is always enough. That is perhaps the defining characteristic of his team. It’s what basically makes it so ominous, more than the players in its squad or those who stay at home: that France always has enough, no matter what they have to do, no matter how big the challenge.