The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once said: “Beauty always promises, but never gives anything.” While Weil’s thinking may seem out of place in the context of Euro 2020, her words sum up how football tournaments are won: with substance over style. France illustrated as much in their impressive 1-0 win over Germany in Munich on Tuesday night.
It was the most anticipated match of the group stage, pitting the last two world champions against each other, and both sides came into the tournament surrounded by drama. Joachim Löw had brought Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller back into his side, a move spurred on by their galling exit at the group stage of the World Cup in Russia three years ago. Didier Deschamps, for his part, had recalled Karim Benzema from the international wilderness. With Benzema in sparkling form for Real Madrid, the France manager decided that legal matters could be ignored for a month.
While we had a good idea of what Hummels and Müller would offer Germany, Benzema’s fit for France was more intriguing and uncertain. It was a risky decision for Deschamps, especially in what still looks like a very challenging group, with holders Portugal to come.
With Griezmann working tirelessly in his usual attacking midfield role, and Kylian Mbappé stretching defences further forward, Benzema was the wildcard. The Real Madrid striker partnered Mbappé in a 4-3-1-2, replacing the more imposing (and very effective) Olivier Giroud as a more physical foil for Mbappé’s electric presence. While the interplay between the trio – which should continue through next year’s World Cup, barring injury – still requires some fine-tuning, both Mbappé and Benzema had the ball in the net against Germany (even if they were flagged offside). The start of a fruitful relationship seems to be there.
In defence, Presnel Kimpembe, who many thought could be a potential weak point in his first major tournament, was solid, and Raphaël Varane was imperious. There was also a good balance in the midfield, which remained compact yet had just enough invention from Paul Pogba. Adrien Rabiot is not as tactically versatile as Blaise Matuidi, who he has replaced in midfield, but France’s approach is nearly identical to what it was three years ago at the World Cup.
The full-backs sit deep, while N’Golo Kanté buzzes about in front of the defence, aided by a leather-lunged display from Rabiot. Pogba is now given more freedom to join the attack, unlike when he partnered Matuidi at Euro 2016 and stayed deeper as part of a midfield two in a far more muted role. His (slightly) longer leash this time around meant he not only protected the back four against Germany, but also served as a conduit for France’s play on the break. He showcased his impressive range of passing on several occasions, breaking the lines of German defenders, and he also pushed forward to deliver the final ball in attacks.
He was even further forward than Griezmann at times, most notably for the match’s only goal. He picked out left-back Lucas Hernandez, who fired in a cross that was deflected into the goal by Hummels. As familiar as we are with Pogba’s exquisite passing, he also got through a mountain of work, stifling Müller and his teammates in the centre of the park and forcing the Germans to the flanks, where neither Joshua Kimmich nor Robin Gosens offered much natural width.
No player recovered possession more than Pogba and, even though he flagged a little in the second half, he rose to the occasion, stirring his teammates into action as they resisted Germany’s forays forward. Towards the end, Pogba almost seemed to be playing as a fifth defender, doubling up to help Pavard sit deep.
Manchester United fans will wonder how Pogba has seemingly raised his game for France, much as he did in Russia in 2018. Deschamps deserves some credit there. His needs-must approach is ideal for tournament football and Pogba understands that. The manager makes Pogba’s job simple and he responds in kind. France’s uncomplicated approach, combined with the continuity of the players (Benzema aside), is already paying dividends. While other managers are changing tactics and personnel, Deschamps is sticking to the script.
There is still a long way to go in this tournament, as Pogba reminded his teammates after the match. Anything could happen, from injuries to an outbreak of Covid-19, but France showed in their opening game why they are favourites. Even with Germany threatening late on, France never really looked like conceding. The success they enjoyed in Russia three years ago looks likely to continue.