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Didier Deschamps is very much a reflection of France. The unconditional adoration isn't there. The results are.
Or, were. France's Euro 2020 is over well before anyone expected, thanks to Switzerland's raucous rally on Monday, and now the quarterfinals will proceed without the reigning World Cup champions in them.
The French, and specifically the French under Deschamps, have more on their resume than just that triumphant summer. They were also Euro 2016 finalists, felled only by a stumbling Eder fireball (in Paris, no less) despite roundly dominating Portugal. They acquitted themselves well at the 2014 World Cup too, outclassed by eventual champion Germany in the quarterfinals but still offering a promising start to Deschamps' time as manager.
A staid defensive midfielder in his playing career, it's no wonder why Deschamps approached coaching France with that same (lack of) spirit. For starters, he took the job only two years removed from an out-and-out player revolt. France had spent the better part of two decades boomeranging between trophy contention and humiliation. The ship needed long-term steadying. Who better than the captain of what was then the only World Cup-winning side in the country's history?
Then there's the dynamic of international soccer. It's hard. It's a merry-go-round of players that's golden one generation, barren the next. Managers get short bursts of time to evaluate talent and implement tactics. Fans rolled their eyes whenever Deschamps rolled out his latest circumspect setup, a 4-3-3 here, a 4-4-2 there, with everyone from the center backs to center forwards tasked with hanging back.
But to him, it meant shrinking the game. Simplification. Take one less thing off the players' minds, so they can unlock more of their own individual brilliance. Because France, as presently constituted, is bursting with it.
And France, ultimately, was too reliant on it. In the place of inspired team football, moments of wonder combined with opponents caving to the threat of that wonder, and France's shell thwarted enough attacks to collect results, year after year.
Take the opener of this European Championship against Germany. Paul Pogba, one of the most gifted passers in the sport, sailed a ball only he could see out wide to a rampaging Lucas Hernandez, who throttled in a first-time cross into the box that ensnared Mats Hummels in a slipstream to produce an own goal.
While France had a couple more goals taken off the board that game due to offside, Germany actually had the better of the chances. But France still won, because that's how France under Deschamps operates. "Efficient" is probably the wrong word, but "coiled" would do just fine, ready to strike while relatively unexposed themselves.
Is it wrong to want more from a team this ridiculously rich in ability? From a front line that starts a restorative Karim Benzema, a ceiling-less Kylian Mbappé, and an expert Antoine Griezmann? From a midfield that starts Pogba and the world's signature ball-wrecker in N'Golo Kanté? Obligation has always been a mythological demon in soccer, appearing mainly to those who ask for it, while everyone else politely applauds the pragmatism.
Only now, Deschamps' earliest major tournament exit will invite criticism like never before. Part of it was due to a strange lack of pragmatism. Deschamps trotted out a 3-4-1-2, with three central defenders deployed across the back line and Benjamin Pavard and Adrien Rabiot serving as pivots out wide, able to push into the attack and drop defensively. It's similar to how Thomas Tuchel won the Champions League final last month with Chelsea, with Ben Chilwell and Reece James doing the honors on the wings and suffocating Manchester City's preferred methods of generating offense. So it made sense in context.
But it didn't make sense in practice. How deeply had Deschamps trained his squad this? It's a fair question, given his tendency toward conservatism. Did he think Switzerland lacked the requisite threat going forward in a more open game?
To that last point, he was pretty close to being right. France, after all, did produce moments of brilliance and did lead 3-1 with 15 minutes to go. From there, Switzerland scored two rather unlikely goals, and each exhausted team failed to find a winner before penalty kicks reared their indiscriminate fortune.
So once the furor over France's failure subdues, the federation has to answer some tough questions. They'll have to decide if Didier Deschamps is the right 1998 legend to continue the job, or if they should turn to a different one, like Zinedine Zidane. They'll have to decide if nine years is long enough to keep the ear of every player in the world's deepest pool — or if it's merely long enough.
Quel choix, isn't it? Make the safe move, or make the bold one.
France hasn't done that in awhile. You don't have to when you're alive in tournaments.
Time to see what happens when you're not.
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