If Didier Deschamps were to sit down and design the perfect cannon-fodder opponent for his French team, the result would look a lot like Joachim Löw's Germany, 2021 edition.
Slow defenders, who nevertheless insist on pushing up to the halfway line. A rococo passing game that offers plenty of chances to steal the ball in midfield. An improvised front three, who all keep a respectful distance from the French goal. And because Germany have lots of big-name players and are historically Europe's strongest football nation, France wouldn't have to deal with the pressure of being heavy favourites.
If France were ever going to put on a show it would be against a team like this. It didn't happen. Instead, they got in front with an own goal after 20 minutes, then sat back and spent the next 70 minutes watching Germany try to equalise. Offside goals apart, France did not create a single significant chance. They won 1-0, but only because they got lucky when Serge Gnabry bounced a shot over the bar. France were so much stronger than Germany that luck should not have been a factor, but for some reason they resisted the urge to press the advantage home.
It’s clearly more important to France to get a good result than to play a good game. But why can’t they do both? Have they reached the point where they feel they are so much better than everybody else that they have started to set themselves private challenges for their own amusement – like seeing how long they can get away with doing the absolute minimum required to win by the smallest possible margin?
Yes, Didier Deschamps is a football coach, not some sort of clown, and we know that he is not here for our entertainment but to win another tournament for the people of France. Still, Tuesday night left you wondering about his team, who are by universal acclaim the favourites to win the Euros. Why were they so passive? Was it a choice – sit back and let the Germans have it, they’ll do nothing with it? Or was the passivity the unintended consequence of picking two forwards in Mbappé and Benzema who don’t press? If so, maybe there will be changes for the next game. If not, it might be time to consider that if France can’t play a good game against Germany, then maybe they won’t play a good game against anybody.
The thing is that it's hard to excite people without being brave. What does it mean to be brave? Influential propagandists on the subject include Johan Cruyff – for whom it was first and foremost about wanting the ball – and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote that the matador could only kill the bull with honour by moving within range of its horns. The common factor is the willingness to accept risk. France, as we have seen, are happy to let you have the ball, and they are not in the business of unnecessary risks.
Deschamps believes that to trust in the defence is to play to the squad's strengths. France, after all, have so many great defenders that Bayern's Dayot Upamecano and Liverpool's Ibrahima Konaté can only get in their U21 squad, while Aymeric Laporte had to become Spanish to get a game. And in Kylian Mbappé, they have the best counterattacking player in the world. So playing on the counterattack is, for France, a rational strategy.
But not everything can be reduced to percentages. Another theorist of courage, Victor Hugo, captured what France prized most in its self-image in his account of the opposing personalities of Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo.
Wellington personified “precision, foresight, geometry, prudence, an assured retreat, reserves spared, with an obstinate coolness, an imperturbable method, strategy, which takes advantage of the ground, tactics, which preserve the equilibrium of battalions, carnage, executed according to rule, war regulated, watch in hand, nothing voluntarily left to chance, the ancient classic courage, absolute regularity”. Napoleon represented “intuition, divination, military oddity, superhuman instinct, a flaming glance, an indescribable something which gazes like an eagle, and which strikes like lightning, a prodigious art in disdainful impetuosity, all the mysteries of a profound soul, associated with destiny . . . faith in a star mingled with strategic science, elevating but perturbing it . . .”
Teams like France don't mind exciting and entertaining teams, whose daring can be turned against them
Football analysts have not yet come up with a way to measure “an indescribable something which gazes like an eagle”, but you know it when you see it and Didier Deschamps doesn’t have it. A Wellingtonian to the bone, he won two World Cups without it and he doesn’t give the impression that he’s ever felt the lack of it.
Only two teams in the Euros so far have gazed anything like an eagle: Belgium, who play their second game against Denmark on Thursday evening, and Italy, who qualified for the second round by beating Switzerland on Wednesday night.
But teams like France don't mind exciting and entertaining teams like these, whose daring can be turned against them. Teams like France fear other teams like France, who are also happy to cede possession, close the gaps and play on the break. They fear teams like Portugal – who happen to be the last team to beat France in a tournament finals match, when Eder's speculative strike in extra time won the Euro 2016 final in Paris. That night most of the French went home wishing they had shown more – but Deschamps saw nothing to make him question his principles. The only risk he willingly accepts is the risk of failing the same way.