The case for France's defence at EURO 2020
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Les Bleus' formidable forward line has garnered a lot of attention at UEFA EURO 2020 but, says David Crossan, the back line merits equal respect.
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While France's much-vaunted attack takes most of the headlines, it was ultimately a defensive masterclass that secured the 1-0 victory over Germany in Munich on Tuesday.
Die Mannschaft mustered a single shot on target as Didier Deschamps' side kept their fifth successive clean sheet, the country's longest sequence for 13 years. It sent out a clear message: even if you can find a way of dealing with the forwards, you still have to find a way to Hugo Lloris' goal.
From the 1998 FIFA World Cup onwards, the key to France's success has been an outstanding defence. The Pavard-Varane-Kimpembe-Hernández back line could yet challenge the iconic '98 quartet of Thuram-Blanc-Desailly-Lizarazu for the tag of France's best ever. Getting past them will be a major challenge for Hungary in Budapest on Saturday.
What makes this generation so good?
Continuity + Kimpembe
France's starting line-up against Germany contained eight players that began the World Cup final against Croatia in 2018. The one change to the back four from Moscow was Paris Saint-Germain's Presnel Kimpembe in for the injury-stricken Samuel Umtiti, having battled off Clément Lenglet for the right to be Raphaël Varane's fellow centre-half.
Varane and Kimpembe have now started 14 international matches together and have struck up a great understanding. Varane, who missed the 2016 finals through injury, told EURO2020.com: "Presnel and I have qualities that complement each other. We talk to each other a lot, before the match, at half-time and out on the field. We speak a lot in order to decide who will mark and who will cover. The more we play together, the greater our understanding."
This is Kimpembe's first major finals as a regular starter, although he did partner Varane for the first time in the 0-0 draw against Denmark at the World Cup. The tough left-sided defender complements the smooth Varane and has impressed Lucas Hernández. "At the World Cup I had Sam [Umtiti] alongside me and now it's Presnel," Hernández explained. "He's a great player too. He's young but very experienced."
Modern full-backs are often more comfortable in attack whereas France's are defenders first and foremost, the Bayern pair of Hernández and Benjamin Pavard having both played centre-back at club level. That is not to say the full-backs don't contribute going forward; Hernández's cross led to Mats Hummels' own goal on Tuesday and Pavard scored the goal of the tournament against Argentina at the last World Cup.
Defence, however, remains the number one focus for the duo and coach Deschamps alike. "As the coach has said before," explained Pavard, "being a full-back for me is above all about knowing how to defend well and then if you can attack, you attack."
Defending as a team
Having N'Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba and Adrien Rabiot in midfield helps, of course – so too does the work ethic of the forwards. Varane refers to the attackers as the team's first defenders, and Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Karim Benzema were defensively committed against the Germans. Griezmann covered 11.1km, second only to Kanté of France's players.
On Tuesday, the 'Three Musketeers' in attack were relatively quiet, yet their 'one for all' spirit perfectly embodies France's ethos. "Solidity and teamwork are words that apply perfectly to us," said Hernández. "This team is very solid and we all know what we need to do at all times – and I think that's the biggest strength of this team."