Love or hate their counterattacking style, the French national team of manager Didier Deschamps knows how to get the best out of their most impactful midfielders and attackers. “Pass into space for Mbappé” is a tactical cheat code, and such a strategy becomes even more absurdly effective when the players feeding him balls are Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, or Karim Benzema.
The first matchday of the EURO 2020 concluded with a titanic game between Germany and France, and the Germans suffered France’s defense + counterattacking strategy. A cursory look at the statistics—such as the xG plot below—might wrongly show Germany as the dominant side, but these numbers were just a result of the game state: after France’s 20th-minute goal, Les Bleus mostly sat back and let the Germans come to them. The Germans kept crashing against the French wall led by Varane while every counterattack spearheaded by Mbappé looked like half a goal.
The beginning of the game turned out surprisingly open-ended, with France’s 4-3-3 defensive setup looking less compact than usual and leaving some space in between their lines. Germany’s tactical setup helped create this defensive disorder since the French struggled to press the German 3-4-3 possession structure. By building up with three center backs and two wingbacks, the Germans forced Pogba and Kanté to cover a lot of ground when pressing and leave more space behind them. However, Germany could rarely exploit this issue because their attackers—Gnabry, Müller, Havertz—didn’t really have the explosiveness to beat a French defensive line featuring fast and powerful players like Lucas Hernández, Presnel Kimpembe, and Varane.
As Germany’s attack struggled to create good chances, it was only a matter of time before France’s world-class attackers responded and inflicted significant damage. In the 20th minute, a wonderful switch of play by Pogba found Lucas Hernández, who hit the ball on the volley towards Mbappé. Mats Hummels got to that ball first, but his attempt at a clearance ended up going into the top of Neuer’s goal, looking more like a finish of a striker than a proper defensive clearance.
While Germany took the initiative after this goal, France’s defense—now playing in a deeper block—looked more stable and compact. The Germans could not breach the center of France’s defense, where the likes of Varane and Kanté could snuff out any attacking threats at a breakneck pace. Most of the German threat came in from the wings, with an exceptional Kimmich doing his best to create good chances against the marking of Lucas Hernández. However, any German crosses into the box would be cleared by the French defense, led once again by a Varane who was outstanding at both defending open spaces and his box.
This game state continued into the second half, and the substitutions of German manager Joachim Löw did not improve the situation for his team. Speed demons Timo Werner and Leroy Sané replaced Kai Havertz and Serge Gnabry at the 74th minute. The pair could have been useful in the initial open-ended stages of the game, but the compact French defense did not concede any time and space for them to have a real impact during the second half. Meanwhile, the French kept creating dangerous counterattacks from passes into space for Mbappé, either through long passes from Pogba and sometimes Varane or through shorter passing combinations with Benzema, Griezmann, and Kanté. Two of these second-half counters ended up in the back of the German net—a stunning shot by Mbappé, who cut inside from the left and curled a shot past Neuer, and a Mbappé run + assist to Benzema—but the goals were ruled out due to offsides.
As far as Real Madrid players, Varane stood out as the undisputed leader of the French defense. His impact was felt when France needed to defend more open spaces behind Pogba and Kante and when they needed to defend the box from the dangerous crosses of Kimmich and co.
Benzema and Kroos, on the other hand, had quieter games. Benzema’s slick link-up play made France’s attack more fluid and helped put Mbappé in advantageous attacking positions, but he didn’t have much impact in the box against the trio of German center backs. Kroos was once again the center of operations of the German attack, but his passing options were rather limited. The German forwards stayed in central positions and were easily tracked by French defenders, with only wingbacks Kimmich and Gosens providing good alternatives for Kroos to quickly and effectively switch up play. He didn’t synergize too well with his midfield partner İlkay Gündoğan, and one could argue that both players could benefit from playing with a more defensive midfielder behind them.
On Saturday, June 19th, France will face Hungary while Germany will face Portugal, yet another big opponent whose defense will be tough to break down.