UEFA Euro 2024: Goal shy France's defense-first policy falls short vs. Spain in semifinals

France’s final UEFA Euro 2024 game in Germany will not be this weekend after Tuesday’s 2-1 semifinal loss to Spain in Munich sent Les Bleus home and La Roja to Berlin. The French did what many forgot was possible and scored from open play through Randal Kolo Muani to open the score after just nine minutes. Lamine Yamal’s stunner and Dani Olmo’s delightful goal within four minutes of each other mean that the Spanish led less than 15 minutes later and Luis de la Fuente’s men held on to triumph.

With no third-placed game, Didier Deschamps and his players head home knowing that they could have done more although they reached the final four and went close to another final. The issue is arguably not about the Spain game and result — the better team over the course of the tournament simply won and advanced logically — but the manner by which France reached the semifinals. Had the momentum been better and more positive owing to a greater emphasis on attack, then perhaps things could have been different.

As has been the case pretty much this entire summer now where Les Bleus are concerned: where were the goals? Admittedly, we got one through Kolo Muani’s early opener which atoned for his miss against Portugal in the quarterfinals which also ensured that he got the goal he arguably deserved against Belgium which went down as an own goal. However, it was too little too late and proved to be a magic act that the French simply could not repeat which is a bit worrying given this squad’s talent.

Kylian Mbappe’s tournament was disappointing overall and although he assisted Kolo Muani for his goal against La Roja, his tally of one penalty goal continues his poor overall record at the Euros over two editions now. Admittedly, the Real Madrid-bound star’s broken nose was problematic and this was his first campaign as captain, but it does not excuse a run of below-par showings. The combination with Kolo Muani, Ousmane Dembele and Bradley Barcola from Paris Saint-Germain rarely worked but neither did any other variations which is a worry with minimal collective end product.

Looking into the reasons for that a little and it is hard to not feel that things beyond the back line were set up too defensively. The return of N’Golo Kante brought momentary relief in the group stage but wore thin as the tournament progressed and appeared to work against France in the knockout phase. The popular midfielder’s hustle alongside Adrien Rabiot and Aurelien Tchouameni was not enough and that Antoine Griezmann did not have the legs to feature as part of that trio starved it of any real creativity and impetus between the largely serene defense and an under-served attack.

What happens next with the Atletico Madrid man is going to be extremely interesting. A key piece for so long under Deschamps, the 33-year-old has shown his limitations finally and it appears that his international career might never be the same again. Once a player to build around as an alternative talisman to the likes of Mbappe, Griezmann is now a player that Deschamps had to opt to do without multiple times because he simply could not rely on a former stalwart who simply did not have the legs to go the full distance in a tournament at this level — that is not going to change at his age playing under Diego Simeone for Atleti.

Much will depend on how Les Bleus want to launch their FIFA 2026 World Cup assault with some great building blocks in this team such as Mbappe, Tchouameni and Barcola as well as a rock-solid defense including Mike Maignan, William Saliba, Jules Kounde and Theo Hernandez. There is no real appetite, though, for this tournament’s cautious and almost detrimental style to become the norm in future tournaments. A final appearance and victory would have been rightly celebrated but it is no longer a possibility and Deschamps’ defensive focus will no longer be tolerated. 

Zinedine Zidane will be waiting by the phone for discussions regarding the job should the current French tactician move on but it is hard to push him out based on a very credible 2022 World Cup final and 2024 Euro semifinal run. Ultimately, the decision will lie with the former captain and now head coach after 12 years in charge and it is unlikely to be something that he walks away from. Instead, 2026 could be his final outing unless there is a change of heart after this. The worry is that these next two years could be wasted if it is just to attempt another dreary deep run based on defensive meanness which does not even look to tap into the awesome attacking potential that this group has. 

With the departing Olivier Giroud opening another door for a new talent to arrive, there is more space than ever before in the front line alongside Mbappe. There are decisions to be made and the players do deserve much credit for making the best of various difficulties to reach the final four. However, there is little doubt that the collective talent that this French side has was not fully allowed to flourish in Germany and arguably has not at any time under Deschamps who has regularly faced these criticisms. Perhaps this time, though, there are legitimate and those groans could be about to change what is coming next for the two-time world and European champions ahead of 2026 on U.S. soil.

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