Who would have thought that Monday, June 28th of 2021, would turn out to be one of the greatest days of knockout football we have ever witnessed. After Spain banished its demons and overcame Croatia in a stunning 5-3, we enjoyed a back-to-back thriller that saw tournament favorites France get knocked out by Switzerland.
French coach Didier Deschamps, known as a pragmatist who rarely changes his system, decided to try out a creative solution for this game. Instead of the usual 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, France mirrored Swizterland’s 3-4-1-2 system, with a back three consisting of Raphäel Varane, Presnel Kimpembe, and Clément Lenglet.
This tactical experiment led to an underwhelming first half from France. The team's possession mechanisms were disrupted, and France struggled to generate good chances against an organized Swiss block. Mbappé and Benzema had a quiet game on the front line, with Griezmann doing his best to link up all the pieces in the French offense. The only French player who saw his performance improve in this new setup was Adrien Rabiot, playing as a left-wingback.
The French defense looked even shakier than the offense. Like in previous games, France conceded plenty of space between their defensive and midfield lines, even when they didn't press aggressively. This situation was consistently exploited by Xherdan Shaqiri and especially by a mobile Breel Embolo—one of the most underrated forwards in this tournament. Despite playing with the three center backs, France's defense of the box was weak and disorganized. Deschamps' personnel selection did not help, with an error-prone Lenglet starting despite an awful season at Barcelona. Lenglet's poor form was exposed during Switzerland's first goal, with Haris Seferovic outmuscling him for a header. Towards the end of the first half, France switched to a back four, with Kimpembe playing the left-back role.
At the beginning of the second half, Deschamps replaced Lenglet with winger Kingsley Coman, an offensive substitution meant to chase the game. However, France's defense remained shambolic, with more spaces conceded to Swiss attackers and French defenders struggling to win individual duels. This poor French defending led to a foul from Pavard on wingback Zuber that was punished by a penalty at the 54th minute. This was one of the key moments in the game, as Lloris’ save woke up France from their slumber.
A couple of minutes after the save, a good French pressing sequence led to Griezmann and Mbappé getting the ball into the box to Benzema, who scored with spectacular ball control and a chipped finish. A minute later, a great 1-2 passing sequence between Griezmann and Mbappé put Griezmann right in front of the goal. Keeper Yann Sommer managed to deflect Griezmann's chipped shot, but Benzema showed up once again to put the ball in the back of the net. In just five minutes, the French had completely flipped over the script of the game.
Despite the Swiss still creating some dangerous chances, the game look done and dusted after a spectacular long-range shot from Pogba hit the back of the net in the 75th minute to make the scoreline 3-1. However, the Swiss did not give up, and after several substitutions (Gavranovic, Mbabu, Fassnacht, and Vargas), they attacked with renewed energy. In the 81st minute, a cross from Mbabu found Seferovic once again in the box, and he towered over Varane to score. Switzerland got their big reward right at the 90th minute, when a persistent Gavranovic ran off Varane's shoulder, dribbled past Kimpembe, and delivered a magnificent finish to draw the game 3-3. France almost managed to win the game before extra time as a shot from Coman hit the post.
Benzema could not continue during the extra time due to a knock and was replaced by Olivier Giroud at the 94th minute. The French generated some good chances that Mbappé and Giroud could not convert, while the Swiss mostly ran out of energy. However, the Swiss threat running behind the French defense continued due to an excellent passing performance of Granit Xhaka during extra time. France’s attacking structure suffered a bit due to the absence of Benzema and especially Griezmann, whom Sissoko had replaced at the end of the second half.
Following the usual football narratives, the misfortune during the penalty shootout had to fall on one of the team's stars. This time the unlucky one would be Mbappé, who aimed a penalty close to the middle of the goal and had it stopped by Sommer.
All in all, France got an unexpected—but not undeserved—exit from the tournament. The key to France's 2018 World Cup victory was their solid defense, and in 2021 France did not defend nearly as well as they did back then. Their attempts at pressing left plenty of space between the defense and midfield, so France's defensive block was not compact anymore. Rabiot and Tolisso could not perform the same kind of defensive role on the wings that Matuidi did in 2018. And while in 2018 Varane and Umtiti dominated the box, this time around, the center-back pairing of Kimpembe and Varane did lose duels in the box, especially in this last game against Switzerland. This was made even worse by Deschamps' fateful decision to start Lenglet, who has committed error after error throughout the entire season.
France's attack in this tournament lacked structure and relied heavily on the individual brilliance of Pogba, Griezmann, and Mbappé, just like it did in 2018. Deschamps' decisions here did not help either, as his tactical changes in the games vs. Portugal (switch to a 4-2-3-1 and Tolisso) and Switzerland (switch to a 3-4-1-2) worsened the attack and confused his players.
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Contrary to the usual narratives surrounding him, Benzema did not stand out so much in link-up but provided a clinical and killer presence in the box that allowed France to get through tough moments in the Portugal and Switzerland games. It says a lot about his personality and character that he came through in these big moments.
The same cannot be said of Varane, who started the tournament with a strong performance against Germany but then fizzled out in the remaining matches. He looked especially shaky against Switzerland, losing duels he normally wouldn't lose. To be fair to Varane, France's defensive issues have more to do with the collective than with the individual. It's hard even for Kanté and Varane to make miracles when a defensive structure concedes so much space as France did in this tournament.