France – Switzerland: French Folly, Swiss Glory (3-3, 5-4 After Penalties)
An unpredictable EURO 2020 needed a truly unpredictable moment to make its mark. It arrived last night, and the football world stood stunned. The variance of international tournaments makes upsets very likely, but few predicted that it would be France who fell victim to fate. And few would have predicted it should come in such spectacular fashion. After a forgettable first half in a deviated formation, Les Blues turned it on in the second half – but the second they relaxed, Switzerland’s hardworking, ultra-alert collective was there to take full advantage.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
While fellow contenders England, Germany and Belgium were handed tricky draws, Didier Deschamps’ France probably breathed a sigh of relief after looking at their matchup. After all, the reigning world champions had topped their group, albeit after suffering dips against a dogged Hungary and a cautious Portugal side. For Deschamps, it was not the offense but the spaces in midfield that were most concerning, with the manager rolling out a different formation for this Round of Sixteen tie. While primarily being a move borne out of wariness, there was perhaps a hint of arrogance to this move – with the feeling that if any side were to exploit the new shape, it probably would not be the disciplined yet unspectacular Swiss.
The shape chosen was a defensive-minded 3-4-3 structure, with a defense of Presnel Kimpembe, Raphaël Varane and Clément Lenglet protecting Hugo Lloris in goal. The double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté was flanked by the wing-back pair of Benjamin Pavard and Adrien Rabiot, with Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Karim Benzema making up the front three.
Swiss manager Petković selected a familiar side, with Yann Sommer being shielded by Ricardo Rodríguez, Nico Elvedi and Manuel Akanji. The wing-back pair of Steven Zuber and Silvan Widmer flanked the double pivot of Granit Xhaka and Remo Freuler, with Xherdan Shaqiri supporting the strike duo of Breel Embolo and Haris Seferović.
The Swiss method
The challenge facing Switzerland was significant: how do you play against this French team? Against a set block, there are no gaps to attack, and in semi-transition situations, you have the speed of Varane and Kimpemble to contend with. Meanwhile, there is also the constant risk of exposure if you attack in numbers, with Benzema and Mbappé just waiting to pounce on long passes.
Against this backdrop, the Swiss remained composed and slowly worked their way into the game. In buildup, the three center-backs formed a good base for circulation, but there were variations on this template. Since Pogba stepped up alongside Griezmann to cover the Swiss double pivot (and move on to press the defense if necessary), Xhaka was not easily accessible.
The Swiss looked to build mainly from the left, though the Freuler/Widmer axis on the right also offered avenues for progression.
As a result, Rodríguez often played the pass to wing-back Zuber, who then had the option of passing it to Xhaka, Shaqiri or even switch to the far side to Seferović or Widmer. If he was pressed, a passing lane opened into Xhaka, using which the Swiss could progress swiftly. Alternatively, Rodríguez moved very wide in the first line, allowing the wing-back on his side to advance and form a front four. There were situations when this movement from Rodríguez prompted Xhaka to drop into the left center-back spot, with Shaqiri taking his place in the double pivot.
A similar routine was followed on the right, where the wide center-back Elvedi could drive with the ball with wing-back Widmer advancing and both Freuler and Seferović offering themselves for the pass. While France pressed with a front four which could be supported by the wing-back on the side, the Swiss structure (and its various iterations) was reasonably secure in terms of progressing into the French half.
From here, it would be up to combinations between the forward trio and double pivot that would decide how they could penetrate, with the wingbacks also capable of being accessed given how narrow the French backline was. Freuler, whose flexible movements offer a nice complement to the slightly more rigid Xhaka tried to make something happen with his run, but it was Zuber’s cross, met by Seferović, that opened the scoring for the Swiss. It was a surprise opener to say the least, since France were expected to score first and sit back for the rest of the game.
Sluggish France falls behind
A football match is just ninety minutes long, which makes it curious that France decided to waste the first forty-five minutes in a truly dire display. The back three often spread wide with Kimpembe taking a slightly higher position, which allowed Rabiot to take up a more advanced position.
France’s first half shape offered minimal avenues for progression. Rabiot’s presence congested the space available to the forwards, which was crucial in allowing them to combine.
Much of the French possession flowed through this side to little avail, since Rabiot alone could not beat his man from the touchline. There were a couple of rotations on this flank with Benzema going out wide and Rabiot coming inside, with Griezmann ready to link play and break the lines for the lurking Mbappé. For as good as this sounds in theory, it rarely worked this way, with the exception of one sharp cross from Rabiot which was pushed away by Sommer before Benzema could get to it.
As for the rest of the team, there is little to be said, since Pogba had more defensive duties than offensive initiation on the ball. With the ball mostly being played down the left, he was left to remain in the deep right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. where his presence was essentially immaterial. France needed Pogba on the ball to be the best version of themselves – at this, they failed miserably against Switzerland’s energetic 5-2-3 medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.
Deschamps takes off the breaks
It was impossible to ignore just how laboured France looked in their 3-4-3 shape – therefore, it made all the sense in the world when Deschamps subbed on Kingsley Coman in place of Lenglet. Now, France sported a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Rabiot in the left back spot and Coman as the left winger.
The change was made at the break, and more drama unfolded in the first fifteen minutes of the second half than in the first half as a whole. First, the Swiss – whose natural response to the changed shape was to fall into a 5-3-2 block with Embolo dropping into midfield – earned a penalty after a VAR check on a Pavard challenge. The ensuing penalty from Rodríguez was saved by Lloris, sparking a period of French domination that would see them draw level.
With better width and more space available to the front four, they were able to combine seamlessly, and a phenomenal exchange between the forwards saw Benzema go clean through against Sommer and beat him from close range. A second followed minutes later after yet another sumptuous exchange between Mbappé and Griezmann, allowing the latter to loft the ball to the far post from where an incoming Benzema simply could not miss.
The quickfire double created the ideal situation for France – they had taken the lead, placing the onus of scoring on the opposition from which they could break in behind. This was precisely what happened minutes later, where a storming Kanté run nearly broke the Swiss structure. Post the Benzema double, France clearly had the upper hand.
Meanwhile, Switzerland was no longer able to play its usual game, since France enjoyed a bit more of the ball and were pressing more energetically in the second half. Even lucky breaks like transitions from France corner kicks didn’t really go their way, as seen by a 71st minute sequence where Embolo had Kanté for company as he attempted to burst through the middle. The move fizzled out with a tame pass into Varane’s feet, displaying how in control the French were at this moment.
The Swiss defensive block could not press with their usual energy, since the movement between the lines of the French forwards was exceptional in pinning them. This phenomenon set the stage for France’s third, with Pogba having both the time and space to hit an unstoppable rocket into the far corner.
Momentum shift and extra time
With the third goal, France settled into a low 4-4-2 block, albeit one in which spaces were available on either side of the double pivot. With Swiss coach Vladimir Petković having sent on fresh legs in both wing-back positions as well as the frontline, the Swiss demonstrated more dynamism towards the end of the second half, which was probably the result of France sitting back.
Crucially, this allowed Switzerland’s defenders to play directly into the forwards who could then turn and drive at France – a departure from the more deliberate mechanisms of the first half. This allowed quicker layoffs to the wing-backs, who had the space to progress since France’s issues pertaining to the narrow defensive line continued. Seferović’s second was the direct result of another situation where the wing-back crossed with minimal pressure, with the striker darting ahead of Varane to record a true center-forward finish.
Minutes later, Switzerland thought they had scored their third, with a delivery from a deep area finding substitute Mario Gavranović who managed to sort out his feet and send it beyond Lloris. Fortunately, for France, it was ruled out for offside, and it was perhaps with a mind to more quickly close down these deliveries that Deschamps replaced Griezmann with Moussa Sissoko. But no one could foresee that Pogba – who had till that point been excellent – would lose possession in the middle, allowing Xhaka to give Gavranović the ball with Varane defending him. But the striker glided away from the Frenchman and hit the ball perfectly – 3-3, with extra time waiting to happen.
The thirty minutes that followed did not produce much champagne football, nor were there any real tactical changes made by either manager. There was not much to do except hope that a player from your side comes up with some magic, but ultimately, it was left penalty kicks to decide the outcome. In a cruel twist of fate, it was Mbappé who failed to convert his spot kick – the hero who had broken out in 2018 was now the culprit on one of the brightest stages in the world.
The small sample sizes offered by international tournaments make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. But if there has been an overriding theme of this French campaign, it is the questions over Deschamps approach with this side. Caution at this level is understandable, but surely a team such as this must have at least something resembling a structure in possession? For Deschamps and France, many questions await – including whether the national team will bring another legend from 1998 to helm the next era.
For Switzerland, this was a triumph; for Granit Xhaka, an exemplary display of midfield leadership which one simply cannot deny. The Swiss looked for him time and time again, and he delivered every time he was called upon. For this team, the hope is that these 120 minutes have not sapped them of their legs – a mouth-watering clash awaits, with Spain the villains this time.
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