There were a few grumbles in the aftermath of France’s 1-0 victory over Germany on Tuesday evening.
For some, winning in third gear was an ominous sign of the space for growth as the tournament progresses, but for many others it was further evidence Didier Deschamps plays too conservatively.
It is a familiar accusation by now, and a slightly strange one considering Deschamps won the World Cup three years ago and continues to prove, in a purely results business, that he has an imperious strategy for doing so.
Much of the negative post-match analysis focused on Germany winning the Expected Goals [xG] battle 1.26 to 0.29, but statisticians will tell you there are too many anomalies skewing the data to focus on individual xG figures.
- Santiago Munoz: Newcastle's new teenage signing out to write his own scripts
- Is Chelsea boss Tuchel the best in-game coach in world football?
- 'Grealish is made for the big stage' - Man City star needs to justify £100m pricetag as Guardiola prepares to run the gauntlet
- 'To hell and back' - Juventus' struggle in Spezia shows Allegri has bigger problems than Ronaldo exit
It is a metric primarily used for long-term trends.
The sight test is a better tool on this occasion, and clearly France – for whom two offside goals and Mats Hummels’ own goal don’t measure in the xG – were the dominant force.
Granted, there is legitimate concern that France’s unwillingness to seize the initiative after taking the lead leaves them vulnerable to the unpredictability and bad luck of tournament football. Germany could have snatched a late, if undeserved, equaliser in this game.
But considering Deschamps has lost just two of 24 matches since the beginning of the 2018 World Cup, any anxiety over single-goal leads reflects the mindset of neutral onlookers rather than the character or historical stability of the French.
A lifetime watching football leaves us worried by fine margins. That is not how this France team thinks. They know how to hold onto a lead; how to control the rhythms of a game by sitting off the opponent.
Deschamps ought to be praised, not criticised, for deploying a tactical strategy that is not only clearly successful but is arguably the best possible system he could deploy.
A collective clamour to see the wild, high-pressing, expressive attacking football that has dominated club football over the last five or six years leaves neutrals desperate to see France utilise their embarrassment of riches to entertain us.
Unfortunately – and there’s a lesson in here for England fans pushing Gareth Southgate to show us more – that’s not how international football works.
National managers have very little time to work with their players, which severely limits the potential to drill the kind of tactical detail required to play exhilarating football.
From coaching the intricacies of positional play to building chemistry between players to fine-tuning those pressing traps, it takes serious tactical work on the training ground to play so boldly.
Expansive football is inherently riskier than sitting in a compressed midblock and waiting patiently for opportunities in the transition to attack. To play like Manchester City is to rely on perfection. Without it, a high defensive line and high pressing are ruthlessly exposed.
That’s why France cannot realistically attempt it, and why Deschamps should be championed as one of international football’s best ever tacticians.
After all, his nine-year tenure at the helm has shaped and defined the tactical aesthetic of the era. If anyone had this sort of influence in the club game they would rightly be hailed as one of the greats.
What’s more, the need to play with defensive caution has been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19 on European football.
Players have never been so exhausted entering a summer tournament, which again suggests a furious high press or explosive attacking football would be too much to cope with.
Italy may have made a brilliant start to Euro 2020 by ignoring these principles, but it is more than likely they will run out of steam before the tournament ends.
We have already seen this play out at club level in 2020-21 as tactics across Europe’s big five leagues were simplified.
Pep Guardiola’s Premier League title win with Manchester City has widely been attributed to his ability to work out pandemic football before anyone else, which he achieved by slowing the game down with ball retention and dramatically holding off in the press.
In other words: by playing more like Deschamps’ France.
As if that wasn’t enough to vindicate France’s tactical approach, Deschamps also happens to be deploying a system perfectly suited to the idiosyncratic talents of his most important attacking players.
This is a crucial, and often overlooked, reason why Deschamps is such a good coach.
Without the option to buy or sell players to fit their own identity, it is vital for international managers to maximise resources by using tactics familiar to their players at club level – where the vast majority of their coaching takes place.
Paul Pogba has always excelled more in a deeper counterattacking setup because it relies less on defensive instincts to cover huge open spaces and because he gets to play Hollywood through balls.
N’Golo Kante, though adapting brilliantly under Thomas Tuchel, has a history under Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte of preferring to sit in a compressed shape with bodies around him, improving his tackling and intercepting numbers.
Antoine Griezmann has spent most of his peak years under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid and has struggled to adapt to Barcelona’s system.
Karim Benzema’s best form has come under Zinedine Zidane and his minimal-pressing midblocks at the Bernabeu.
Kylian Mbappe has excelled in the Champions League when Tuchel or Mauricio Pochettino has abandoned a possession game to play on the break.
France aren’t just playing in a system they know, or a system that won them the World Cup. They are using a tactical setup that is perfect for international tournaments, perfect for pandemic football, and perfect for the players at their disposal.
Deschamps is doing everything right.