May 25, 2024

France, So Deep and So Dominant, Finds One Goal Is Plenty

For a few minutes, not long after the start of the second half, France finally had to break a sweat. Quite how many minutes, exactly, is a matter of perspective: the French might come in low, at about 10 minutes; Germany, by contrast, might be inclined to be a little more generous, and put the figure a little higher, at 15 or so.

It might have felt a little longer to Raphael Varane, gritting his teeth, or to Didier Deschamps, trusting just a little to luck, or to a French fan, watching on, desperate for their team to cling on to a lead that, at 1-0, somehow managed to seem as fragile as porcelain and as certain as iron.

But that is all it was: in the opening game of a major tournament, against a putative rival, on enemy territory in Munich, France looked discomfited for no more than a quarter-hour, and even that was relative. Serge Gnabry might have scored: certainly once, possibly twice. Toni Kroos snapped a shot in from distance. Robin Gosens hurled himself at a tantalizing Gnabry cross, only to make contact not with the ball but with Benjamin Pavard.

There was no seat of the pants desperation, no skin of the teeth siege. France, the reigning world champion, did not ride out a storm. At best, it weathered a brief, inconvenient squall, waited for the clouds to dissipate, and then set out under fair blue skies once more, untroubled and unruffled and serene, a team in complete control.

That France possesses greater depth than any nation in the world, at this point, goes without saying. It has, as the former Lille executive Marc Ingla put it, become “the Brazil of Europe,” home to a seemingly endless production line of impossibly gifted young players.

Its top flight, Ligue 1, has rebranded itself as the “league of talents,” a place to see tomorrow’s stars today. It has so many towering central defenders that one of them, Aymeric Laporte, had to decide that he was Spanish just to play international soccer. France has more players currently employed in Europe’s top five leagues than any country, including Brazil.

And its national team reflects that. Didier Deschamps, the French coach, was so spoiled for choice when picking his squad for this tournament — even before he decided to offer Karim Benzema, his prodigal son, a shot at redemption — that he could have left all 26 players he did select at home, picked a whole different squad, and probably still made the semifinals.

That is the quantity; 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, next in line to be the best player in the world. The midfield is built around the indomitable N’Golo Kanté, or possibly the artful Paul Pogba, or maybe even the elegant Adrien Rabiot: It depends, largely, on who has the ball at any precise moment.

It is the combination of the two — the sheer number of implausibly gifted players — that makes France such a daunting proposition, that ensured Deschamps and his squad arrived at this tournament expected to add a European Championship to the World Cup it secured in Russia three years ago, and take its place among the front rank of the greatest international teams of the modern age.

But it is not the quality of its individuals that defines this France team. It is the strength of the collective that Deschamps — hardly the most charismatic or inspiring of coaches, even among his peers in the international game — has forged from them. France did not win the World Cup by morphing into some soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. It does not intend to repeat the trick here by taking the breath away.

Instead, Deschamps has taken the gold of a generation and used it to build a wall: one that shimmers and glitters and can, in the right light, be quite beautiful, but is still, first and foremost, a wall. France’s defense is stolid and obdurate and miserly. Its midfield contains more than enough brilliance to dazzle opponents, but it is no less adept at squeezing them, constricting their space and their choice until they run out of ideas or, better yet, hope.

With its almost comically devastating attack — the raw speed and the rare brilliance of Mbappé, the precision of Benzema, the craft of Griezmann — France could cause chaos at will. It does not. It uses its front line only sparingly, picking its moments, content that the unspoken threat of their presence is deterrent enough.

Instead, it prefers to spend its time seeking total, absolute control. That is the mark of truly great, truly gifted teams: They give you the sense that everything that happens on the field is at their behest, as if they are in charge not only of the speed of the game but the ticking of the clock. The very best teams have one thing that the merely good can never quite attain: agency. And France has agency in abundance.

That, certainly, is what Germany found. It did not play badly — there will have been plenty to give Joachim Löw, its coach, hope that there will be no repeat of the humiliation of 2018 in his farewell tournament — but it did not matter, because for long stretches it was playing someone else’s game.

France took the lead, through a Mats Hummels own goal, midway through the first half, and though it did not seem particularly hurried to double it, it never looked like relinquishing it. When Germany did, briefly, wrestle the upper hand, the French seemed happy enough. Deschamps’s team sank back to its own half, then to its own penalty area, and repelled everything that came its way.

And when the Germans had run out of steam, when they had blown themselves out, the French cleared the sweat from their brow, and took control once again. France had a goal. A second might have been nice — Rabiot hit the post, Mbappé had one ruled out for offside, Benzema did, too — but it was not, strictly, necessary.

For all the talent at his disposal, Deschamps knows that one is always enough. That, perhaps, is the defining trait of his team. It is what, deep down, makes it so ominous, more than the players in his squad or the ones left at home: that no matter what it needs to do, no matter how great the challenge, France always has enough.

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