France set up Spain semi but Mbappé and Griezmann issues remain

Once again Didier Deschamps made changes, once again they had a negligible effect, once again France advanced – rinse and repeat. That is the story of Les Bleus’ Euros so far as they played to type in their latest victory, over Portugal, on penalties.

Deschamps’ dysfunctional diamond

The diamond was ditched by Deschamps against Belgium, despite deploying it in training on the eve of the last-16 game. However, his solution, moving Antoine Griezmann to an unfamiliar position out wide in a 4-3-3, did not get the best out of the Atlético Madrid forward, nor did it solve the continued issue of finding balance in midfield.

It was therefore no surprise to see Deschamps twist again against Portugal. In all five games, France have deployed a different midfield combination. None of them have worked and it was no different on Friday night.

Griezmann’s underperformance is the biggest conundrum facing Deschamps. The coach seems incapable of creating the conditions in which the former Barcelona forward can thrive. Griezmann’s decline in this tournament has been stark, sharp and surprising. He was previously Deschamps’ most consistent performer and his most trusted player in midfield, which was reflected in his appointment as vice-captain in the wake of the 2022 World Cup.

Antoine Griezmann profile

However, he has not yet turned up in Germany and was even dropped in the final group stage game. In a more central, advanced, and familiar position, he once again struggled to pull the strings and provide the creativity that Deschamps so craves. There are systemic issues but within that, the individual cannot be absolved of all responsibility. Should Griezmann fail to rediscover that spark that has made him an ever present in the France line-up since 2016, Les Bleus’ issues look set to continue.

Deeper in the diamond, there was an eye-catching performance from Eduardo Camavinga, who in the absence of the suspended Adrien Rabiot, staked a claim to start in the semi-finals. Bar his miss in the 70th minute, he comes out of the game with an unblemished report card and his defensive diligence is sure to endear him to Deschamps. The diamond idea should be scrapped but Camavinga has earned his place in whatever configuration France choose against Spain on Tuesday.

Mbappé goes missing

There were two liabilities on the pitch in Hamburg, one on either side. The continued presence of Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal’s starting line-up has been a frequent source of contention while Kylian Mbappé is proving to be a headache albeit in a different way.

France’s attacking structure, both in and out of possession, is built to accentuate Mbappé’s strengths and hide his weaknesses. Normally, such a choice can be easily justified; there is no questioning he is one of the best players in the world and so moulding your system around him is only natural. However, we are yet to see that Mbappé in Germany.

Kylian Mbappe asked to be substituted against Portugal during extra time. Photograph: Boris Streubel/Uefa/Getty Images

The France captain is currently a shadow of himself. The fractured nose, suffered against Austria in the opener, partially explains it; Mbappé looks scared going into duels and is – either consciously or subconsciously – avoiding them. However, ironically, the broken nose masks a larger issue – he simply isn’t fit.

A minor knee issue prevented him from starting against Canada in Les Bleus’ final warm-up game, and just days before the start of the tournament, he missed training. “My physical fitness is not the most important thing, the most important thing is to be mentally ready,” said Mbappé on the eve of the match against Austria. Not all was well.

He repeated the claim on Thursday. “No, I don’t think I have my legs fully. I think I need a good pre-season”, said Real Madrid’s new forward. “To be at 100% and properly quick, I need good physical preparation and I’m sure that’ll be better after a pre-season with my new club.”

He revealed that he asked to be substituted late on against Portugal. “I told him that I was no longer feeling up to it, that I was too tired,” the captain said. His performances beg an unthinkable question: should Mbappé be dropped? There is an argument to say that Bradley Barcola, perhaps Les Bleus’ brightest spark in this tournament, should be deployed in his place against Spain.

Serene Saliba dominates defence

William Saliba has slotted in seamlessly at the heart of the France defence. He never looked like being a starter at these Euros, despite being named in the Premier League team of the season for a second consecutive year. The Arsenal centre-back was criticised by Deschamps as recently as March, with the France manager saying that he “did things [he] didn’t like”. Yet, despite having seemingly settled on the Dayot Upamecano-Ibrahima Konaté partnership, he dismantled the defence in order to integrate Saliba – quite the sign of trust from Deschamps.

That faith has been repaid tenfold. The serene Saliba was largely untroubled, dominant in the air and tidy in possession (98% pass accuracy); he also made the right decision in bringing down Francisco Conceição late in the match, with the forward close to bursting into France’s box.

Before the tournament, Saliba admitted that he “didn’t have a standout match” for France – he now has five and he is a big reason why Les Bleus are yet to concede in open play so far.

Kolo Muani misses the mark

On a night where France had the chance to exorcise the demons of the Euro 2016 final, Randal Kolo Muani had the opportunity to get rid of some demons of his own. The Paris Saint-Germain forward admits that he is still haunted by the miss against Argentina in the World Cup final, saying that it will “stay with [him] for life”. He may replay the moment in his head and now he replayed it on the pitch against Portugal too. His chance, just after the hour mark, was a carbon copy of the one that Emi Martínez saved in Qatar 18 months ago. Kolo Muani opted for the same technique and yielded the same result. This time, his strike was not as sweetly struck and was likely going wide, even despite Rúben Dias’s block.

Kolo Muani, in for the unconvincing Marcus Thuram, didn’t completely fail his audition for the No 9 jersey and was important out of possession, but nor did he take the decision out of Deschamps’ hands. The heir to Olivier Giroud’s throne remains undecided.

France’s Théo Hernandez sees his penalty find the top corner and win the quarter-final against Portugal. Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

Penalty practice pays

Penalty practice has been a thorny topic for Deschamps. The France manager has previously been dogmatic in his assertion that penalties simply cannot be practised. “Penalties are always the same: it’s a balance of power between the taker and the keeper. It’s not that I consider that it cannot be worked on, but I am convinced – and my experience as a player tells me this – that it is impossible to recreate a situation, on a psychological level, between training and a match,” he once said, during an impassioned six-minute speech.

On the sliding scale of penalties being a lottery and an exact science, Deschamps certainly errs towards the former. Yet he deviated from his method before the match, practising penalties in training sessions. Practice did make perfect: five penalties, five goals and a first qualification from a penalty shootout in a major tournament since 1998 for Les Bleus. “When you have the chance to repeat things multiple times, even if they aren’t the same takers…” said Deschamps after the match, meandering into another thought but also deconstructing his previous truth. Cause and effect, practice and perfection, Deschamps has been converted.

The Guardian

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