Didier Deschamps’ naivety was on display all of Euro 2016, but against Portugal, he was finally made to pay for it and may have cost France the title.
Deschamps was given a wealth of talent in the midfield. His job was to figure out how to deploy it and even after seven matches, it was clear he had no idea. His preferred three-man triangle of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, and N’Golo Kante suited none of their strengths, and shackled two of France’s biggest attacking threats in Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann. After some tweaks, Deschamps finally settled on a 4-4-1-1 formation with Pogba and Matuidi at the heart of midfield, but still, he got it wrong.
In theory, Pogba and Matuidi are the ideal partnership; both supremely athletic, good on the ball, and intelligent decision-makers. In actual matches though, they’ve never looked comfortable as a midfield pairing. Despite wildly different skillsets, they ended up in almost identical roles. Because of this, their presence together in a two-man midfield doesn’t amplify their positive attributes; it limits their prodigious abilities, especially in the case of Paul Pogba. Without an actual defensive midfielder, or even Kante, whose defensive predispositions make him well-suited to a midfield pairing with a more adventurous partner, France continued to struggle. Their flaws were laid out for the world to see as Germany ran rampant through their midfield in the first half of their semifinal match.
Article continues below ...
Six matches into the tournament and Deschamps still hadn’t figured it out, but they won so he stuck with it and he paid for it. Pogba played alongside Matuidi yet again, but it was the Juventus man who was puzzlingly instructed to sit deep, rarely venturing past midfield. Tethered to the center circle, Pogba was a non-factor, unable to influence the game in the final third, and increasingly isolated in the middle of the field as Portugal pressed intelligently to disrupt any combination play in that area.
Paul Pogba of France reacts after Portugal’s first goal during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France
When Ronaldo went off injured it should’ve been a boost for France. It wasn’t, as Deschamps did little to change his approach despite a colossal change in the match. Pogba still stayed deep, apparently to snuff out any Portuguese counterattacks, despite that threat having been cut in half with Ronaldo’s injury. Unsurprisingly, the space between midfield and France’s attackers grew and Pogba could only watch from deep.
Because of the limitations placed upon Pogba, Moussa Sissoko had to drop deep and carry the ball forward. Sissoko was France’s best player on the day as a result, which Portugal were more than happy with. Portugal let Sissoko do as he wanted, knowing that they were fine so long as Payet, Pogba and Griezmann were contained, and Deschamps was somehow OK with that too.
Even when Deschamps made changes, he made the wrong ones. He took Payet off, removing France’s premier creative force. In came Kingsley Coman, who is supremely pacy, but isn’t exactly the most creative. In Payet’s absence, the creative burden should have fallen on Pogba. Instead, Deschamps left him right where he had been — patrolling the area in front of the back four, too far from goal to be an effective influence, and too often forced to spread play wide or launch hopeful long balls. Left as the main deterrent in midfield, Pogba’s attacking contribution was limited to sporadic and tentative forays forward, for fear of no-one to cover behind him.
Even late into regular time, when it seemed inevitable that N’Golo Kante would come on for Matuidi in order to allow Pogba the freedom to attack, the move never came. Pogba was left to labor on, competent at his role, but limited by his manager, a symbol of his team’s fruitless and frustrating struggle.
As time ticked on, the gap between midfield and the attack became more and more glaring, despite Coman’s best efforts to create some sort of spark going forward. The winger showed some of the electric talent that’s made him one of the world’s most coveted youngsters, but his pace simply was of no use against a Portuguese defense already committed to denying space in behind at this point in the game. Andre-Pierre Gignac came on for the struggling Giroud, and Anthony Martial too, but still, Pogba trotted around midfield dispirited, tethered to his own center circle, and wave after wave of French attack fizzled out until the final whistle ended their misery. Deschamps looked puzzled, the French supporters dejected, and the players stunned.
France lost, the result of a failed midfield and nonsensical tatics that plagued them from the start. It took seven matches for it to bite them, but it finally had as Deschamps looked on without a solution yet again.
As has been the case nearly all tournament, France had looked good. They dominated possession amd looked confident, but there was something missing. They couldn’t consistently turn their individual greatness into a cohesive team. They needed their manager to step up and give them that final boost, but that never happened and Deschamps cost his country the Euros.