SAINT-DENIS, France — After one of the biggest disappointments in French football history, a clearly deflated Didier Deschamps tried to put it down to “tiny details.”
“It was a close match,” the France manager said after his side’s 1-0 defeat to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. “We had chances, as did the Portuguese, but unfortunately they scored.”
Or, more specifically, Eder scored. Fernando Santos’s decision to bring the striker on initially raised eyebrows, only for the player to then raise the roof with his 109th-minute long-range strike.
It only reflected better on the Portuguese manager that Eder was supplied by another sub in Joao Moutinho. That in turn reflected badly on Deschamps. Santos’ subs did not just win this game; they also highlighted just how poor the French manager’s own decisions were.
Deschamps’ attempts to put the defeat down to “tiny details” was understandable, but the reality was that France lost because he himself got too much wrong. That is what it boils down to.
There is a lot of blame to go around with the hosts, but more must be placed at Deschamps’s feet than anyone else. He admitted afterwards that France “threw away a great chance to be European champions” but it looks even worse when you properly lay out why it was such a great opportunity.
France had the fortune to play a final in their home stadium against a less talented team, whose biggest star had to go off after just 25 minutes.
Everything was going the hosts’ way, but Deschamps got almost nothing right. He squandered it all, in a piece of mismanagement to rival Marc Wilmots’s poor work with Belgium.
It was not just that Deschamps failed to maximise those ample advantages. It was really about how much his decisions actually minimised the effectiveness of his players. He made such talent look less than the sum of their parts.
A distinctive feature of France’s entire tournament has been Deschamps getting his starting lineups wrong, only to fix it halfway through to see his side through. It happened in four of their six matches before the final, but was most notable in the round-of-16 game against Ireland, when he finally moved Antoine Griezmann into the centre.
That initially seemed a sign of Deschamps’s impressively proactive approach, and decisiveness, his willingness to make necessary changes. Instead, it now just looks more like he was getting lucky, and never had a clear idea. He clearly couldn’t fix his problems when it mattered most. He had run out of ideas.
The most damning thing was so much of what could be fixed seemed obvious. From the start of the tournament, it has been clear that Deschamps was struggling to find a balance in midfield given the type of players available to him. He still persisted, however, with some hugely puzzling configurations that were proven to not work in previous games.
The final, illustrated that most; it seemed as if the midfield trio was set up to get the best out of the worst player in it, while also subduing the performances of the better ones.
This is not to say that Moussa Sissoko is not a quality player, but he clearly hasn’t had the career or talent of Blaise Matuidi or — especially — Paul Pogba. While those two toiled, however, it was Sissoko who was released to express himself.
That is utterly bizarre when you just stop and think about Pogba’s best qualities. The 23-year-old has been widely criticised for not doing more with his ability throughout the tournament, but Deschamps should take the blame for it, rather than the player himself.
Pogba was only rarely used in the role best suited to him, when he could get forward and fully utilise that awesome power and inventive range of passing and shooting. We saw some of it in the second half of the semifinal against Germany, after N’Golo Kante had been brought on.
Despite that, Deschamps inexplicably reverted in the final and even, arguably, regressed. Pogba was placed in a holding midfield role and often seemed as if he had been instructed to stay as close to the centre circle as possible. That meant Sissoko was off doing the things that the Juventus midfielder usually excels at. What could Pogba have done had he been in the same shooting positions as Sissoko?
And what must Anthony Martial have be thinking? He was ludicrously underused in this tournament, and that only served to ask even more questions of Deschamps’ tactics.
If the manager’s decisions in midfield were confusing, his decisions in attack were just confounding. Right from the start of the tournament, there has been argument that Martial should be starting every single game up front even if he is more a winger than a striker, because his sleek running would just better fit the type of angled passes players like Griezmann were regularly trying.
Olivier Giroud’s aerial qualities and lay-offs meant there was still some logic in Deschamps’s decision to persist with the Arsenal striker, despite some of his misses and the comedy of his slow running against Germany, but there was absolutely no logic in only ever replacing him with Andre-Pierre Gignac.
This was once again a move that had been proven to be ineffective, but Deschamps still persisted with.
It arguably cost him more than anything in the final, with two big moments. Gignac might have done well at the end of normal time to leave Pepe on the ground with a turn, but the better decision was probably to just play the ball back out to the on-running teammate in a much better shooting position.
Having eschewed that, Gignac still should have scored with his shot. He hit the post, but was at least someway sharp in that moment. That was not the case with his second moment.
A few minutes into extra time, Griezmann had the ball on the left and looked to play it into the box, only for Gignac to be beaten to it in a way that suggested he did not expect it to come to him. By contrast, Martial is supreme at sensing those opportunities and suddenly acting on them.
Gignac’s selection, however, illustrates how long-running some of Deschamps mismanagement has been. It is not just that the striker should not be in the team. It is that he should not be in the squad. It simply remains remarkable that Gignac was picked ahead of Kevin Gameiro, let alone Martial.
From all these criticisms, the French manager could justifiably point out that the team still created enough chances to win the game, and it all would have been so different had Griezmann scored that second-half header.
The key point, however, is that France should not have needed to rely on such margins. The gap in quality between themselves and Portugal was too big, but Deschamps’s work served to narrow it.
He never came close to finding a formation that just fit the players available to him. It was almost always so disjointed, so stilted.
“I can’t hold anything against my players,” Deschamps said afterwards. “They gave everything tonight.”
Some of them would be justified in holding it against him, because the French manager got almost nothing right.