France’s late, late show may have downed a gritty Albanian team 2-0 in Marseille on Wednesday but French coach Didier Deschamps learned that football is indeed a great leveller.
On the opening night of Euro 2016, Deschamps had made a couple of eyebrow-raising choices against Romania. He had started Dimitri Payet instead of Anthony Martial on the left wing and subsequently removed his star man Paul Pogba midway through the second half to accommodate a flourishing Payet in the centre – a switch from his preferred 4-3-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1.
Many had wondered then if a defensively light Blaise Matuidi, and not Pogba, should’ve been taken off. But every move worked like a charm as Payet propelled France to a 2-1 win.
On Wednesday night, Deschamps was at it again. This time with little success. He left both Pogba and forward Antoine Griezmann out of the starting line-up and started with a 4-2-3-1.
Payet was deployed through the centre from the first minute in front of Matuidi and N’Golo Kante, the French central midfield pairing. Martial and young Kingsley Coman occupied the left and right flanks respectively. These were bold changes which raised eyebrows, arms and even voices. These were also changes that did not work.
For starters, Martial put in a terribly weak and unimaginative performance. His first touch was all over the place – he miscontrolled a few passes and completely missed a few others. He looked unprepared and unfit. Even his striking instincts in front of goal betrayed him. Martial was unrecognisable from the player who often single-handedly drove Manchester United forward in a difficult last season.
Add to this, the Matuidi-Kante partnership which showed up its weakness in leaving acres of space for the opposition counter-attacks. Even in the first half, the Albanians often found themselves racing with the ball towards the French goal – though they failed to make anything out of it. It was a real point of concern for Deschamps but it made the game lively for the neutrals to watch.
At the half-time interval, the coach reverted to his norm. Pogba replaced Martial. And Payet, who remained the best attacking player on the pitch, went back to the left wing. France switched back to the 4-3-3 it had gotten used to playing under Deschamps.
This worked to a certain extent. The second half saw France up the ante and pile on the pressure. If Albania had more shots on goal than France (five to four) at the interval, the equation had soared to 22-8 in France’s favour by the end of the match. However, the end product was missing till late on.
It has been a recurring theme in these European Championships. Teams like Spain, England, Germany, Czech Republic, Portugal, Croatia and even Switzerland have failed to fully capitalise on their scoring opportunities. Some have done enough to eke out wins. Others haven’t. We’ve had 15 matches and no team has scored more than two goals in one game. There’s been a dearth of good finishing.
In France’s case, Olivier Giroud, the team’s number one centre forward, was the guilty party. He missed a series of headed chances that came as a result of pinpoint crosses. None of his five headers were directed on target (one of them came back off the post) and he should’ve scored with at least two.
But that is a side of Giroud’s game the whole of France is well aware of. He blows hot and cold. He is far from a one-chance-one-goal striker and requires a number of opportunities to score. At English club Arsenal earlier this year, Giroud went on an astonishing run of 15 league games without scoring.
Prior to the Euros, he was booed at the grounds by the French public. That’s because his place in the squad comes at the expense of Karim Benzema, Kevin Gameiro and Alexandre Lacazette. It is another Deschamps gamble that the French public has its eyes on. It is hard for them to accept that Giroud is the first-choice answer to their goal-scoring needs although he has been doing well: he scored eight times in France’s six matches before the Albania game but not without a degree of wastefulness.
He left the field to a few jeers from the crowd, replaced by another centre-forward in André-Pierre Gignac with little over 20 minutes to go. Gignac looked like a player who was a little short on game time but at least offered more than just a towering presence stationed to head the ball in. With Griezmann on the pitch too, France were going all out for the win.
Cross after cross had been delivered in the second half. And chance after chance had gone begging. Against Romania, the home team had attempted 21 crosses. Against Albania, that number rose to a very high 36 as the French lacked ideas in the middle and found space out wide. Payet alone accounted for 17 of those crosses.
Eventually, one of the crosses, from centre-back Adil Rami (his only cross of the game too) was expertly headed in by Griezmann. This was followed by Payet’s now seemingly customary goal for his nation. France had 20 attempts on goal prior to hitting the back of the net. None were on target. They scored with their first two shots on target.
Deschamps has tinkered with his line-up in the opening two matches. He doesn’t appear to have settled on a starting XI that gives him confidence. But substitutes Griezmann and Pogba, both unhappy to be dropped, made quite a statement after coming on.
Now, with Martial and Giroud struggling, he has a further headache on his plate as France plan ahead for the Round of 16 after becoming the first nation to qualify for the knockout stage.