The problem with opening your mind is that it can become hard to shut.
The France coach, Didier Deschamps, has tried so many variations before and during Euro 2016 that many suspect he is incapable of deciding on a preferred team. That is not a problem in itself; rotation and smarter use of substitutes means that the concept of a best XI will soon be antiquated. But the modesty of France’s performances in the group stage, coupled with the eye-catching decision to omit Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann from the second match against Albania, mean that Deschamps is under unprecedented scrutiny for a coach at a European Championship.
The last time the hosts had realistic ambitions of winning the tournament, Portugal in 2004, there was no social media and a football match began with the kick-off. Now it begins an hour before, with team news scrutinised like never before. Most coaches are damned whatever they do and with international football more of a squad game than ever before, the tyranny of choice is far greater.
Deschamps’ selection against the Republic of Ireland on Sunday should give an idea about his plans for whatever remains of France’s tournament. Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet and N’Golo Kanté, all rested against Switzerland, will surely start, but he has to choose between Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko in midfield. Matuidi, Deschamps’ preferred choice, is out of form, and excluding him would also allow Pogba to play to the left of centre. But it is a decision the manager would take reluctantly.
Although the hosts have years to prepare for a tournament, it is unwise to set anything in stone. Kanté made his debut only in March, the same month as Payet was recalled. They have probably been France’s best players so far. The ideal is to have an XI in mind and stick to it, as Terry Venables did at Euro 96. His only changes were enforced by suspension, but his established XI were flexible enough to use a different system for each game.
Most of England’s successful tournaments, however, have involved dramatic mid-tournament changes. They are not alone in that. Marco van Basten, Denmark’s Henrik Larsen and Cristiano Ronaldo had profound influences on Euro 88, Euro 92 and Euro 04 respectively, yet all started the tournament on the bench.
It’s not something highly paid coaches might want to dwell on too much but tournament wins are often achieved on the hoof. When France won the World Cup as hosts in 1998, all 19 outfield players in their squad started at least one game. That team struggled through much of the knockout stages, yet for most the abiding memory is the joyous 3-0 win over Brazil in the final. When the big picture is so striking, nobody notices the background imperfections. One stirring performance against Ireland would change the mood, and make the group stage little more than an irrelevant prologue.
At first, France thought they would be playing Northern Ireland rather than the Republic. “Since the odds of coming up against Northern Ireland were much higher than the Republic of Ireland, or even Belgium or Sweden, we had already begun to prepare for and study Northern Ireland,” said Guy Stéphan, the assistant coach, on Friday. “Then on Wednesday evening we had to completely change things and shifted our focus to the Republic of Ireland.”
France’s main defensive concerns will be Shane Long, who bullied Laurent Koscielny when Southampton beat Arsenal 4-0 last season, and dead balls. France look vulnerable from set pieces, and against Switzerland their disarray was such that the Swiss striker Breel Embolo accidentally cleared off the line to stop a Pogba own-goal.
Pogba’s awesome long-range shooting – he hit the bar twice against Switzerland – could come in handy against a deep-lying defence. “Ireland are well organised at the back and it’s not easy to move them out of position,” said Stéphan. “To do this, you can play with more width, play more quickly and shoot more from distance, where they have to come and close you down.”
France scored only four goals in their three group games, and have led for only nine minutes plus injury time during the tournament. Yet they hit the bar three times against Switzerland, something that has almost been ignored to suit the story of a struggling side. “We have to find solutions,” said Stéphan. “But I think one of the best is playing quickly, playing one-touch football. I think we can do better at this.” Most of France would agree with that.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010