There is something slightly odd about this France side, in that the scores of its games so rarely reflect what has just happened. No team seems quite so often to hammer an opponent by a single goal. Germany may have won the shot count and the possession battle in Tuesday’s 1–0 triumph for Les Bleus in the teams’ first match of what’s the competition’s most difficult group. But this was rarely a game Germany looked like winning, with it never quite able to put France under pressure and always appearing vulnerable to the counter.
Ultimately, an own goal from Mats Hummels, who had scored the winner at the right end when Germany beat France in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, was enough, but Adrien Rabiot hit a post, Karim Benzema had a goal ruled out for a tight offside and Kylian Mbappé did as well, albeit for a slightly more obvious infraction. The favorite and world champion began extremely impressively. For Germany, meanwhile, the sense, as it has been for so long, was of a team that is far less than the sum of its exceptional parts.
For France, the build-up had been dominated by Didier Deschamps’s surprising decision to recall Benzema, whom he had dropped before Euro 2016 after he was accused of involvement in a plot to blackmail his international teammate Matthieu Valbuena over a sex tape. That case goes to court in October.
Introducing any new figure into a successful unit is always risky, but particularly one who stirs such strong emotions as Benzema. He was then the subject of attacks from the French far-right, and became part of a row between Mbappé and the center forward Benzema replaced, Olivier Giroud, over claims Mbappé wouldn’t pass the ball to the latter enough. Mbappé explained he had merely meant that the differing profiles of the two players meant he tended to interact more with Benzema, who drops deep, than with Giroud, who leads the line. Regardless, there was no sense of any discord Tuesday.
Germany’s form since winning the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2017 has been dismal. After a group-stage exit at the World Cup, manager Jogi Löw dropped Hummels, Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng. If anything, things got even worse over the following two years with a 6-0 defeat to Spain in the UEFA Nations League and a 2-1 home defeat to North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying. Almost in desperation, it seemed, Löw recalled Hummels and Müller, but 20 minutes in, he must have been wishing he hadn’t.
Löw, having switched to a 3-4-3 after the World Cup, reverted to a back four in November before readopting the back three in the pre-tournament friendlies, presumably in an attempt to shore up a defense that has looked extremely leaky. But that is a system that risks leaving space behind the wingbacks, especially in a team that is still learning the shape. The first French goal, though, was about a far more basic failure of organization as Germany’s marking collapsed at a throw-in just inside the German half, the two holding midfielders inexplicably caught in front of the ball.
Paul Pogba was granted an extraordinary amount of space and he fashioned a perfect pass with the outside of his right foot to Lucas Hernandez surging into space on the left. When he slammed the ball across goal toward Mbappé, a backtracking Hummels, having been caught in no-man’s-land, was unable to adjust his feet and shinned the ball into his own net. Whatever the shape, basic defensive organization continues to be a major problem for Löw’s side.
France has no such problems. This was a classic French display under Deschamps. Solidity comes first, the two holding midfielders protecting a back four in which the fullbacks are, by modern standards, fairly conservative. And if a crack does open up, N’Golo Kanté can be relied upon rapidly to fill it. It is not the most thrilling side, perhaps underwhelms at times given the talent it possesses, but it can usually be relied upon to do enough, or at least to force an error. It’s an expediency that perhaps is better suited to international football than the more sophisticated patterns of the club game, in which coaches have more time to work with their teams, but it gets the job done.
Deschamps’s most awkward moment had come before first kick, when a Greenpeace parachuter, attempting to land on the pitch as a gesture of protest, clipped the wires sustaining the Spider Cam, and was deflected briefly into the stand before diverting back to land on the pitch. As he came down, a green plastic hoop fell from the sky and landed near Deschamps, who was apparently struck by a small piece of debris.
That aside, this was a surprisingly straightforward evening for Deschamps. France is up and running, not straying from the formula that got it to the heights it has achieved. For Germany, though, its next game, against group-leading Portugal on Saturday, looks vital for its chances of avoiding another group-stage exit from a major tournament.
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