On paper, it was supposed to be the match of Euro 2020 group stages.
France vs. Germany. The 2018 World Cup champions vs. the 2014 champs. Two European giants, neighbors, and the previous decade’s two most prolific producers of top-level soccer talent, their players filling the rosters of the world’s biggest clubs. In the diluted group stages of a 24-team European Championship, this was the obvious highlight, the final match of the first round, the centerpiece of its Group of Death.
On paper, it didn’t work out that way. The two teams combined for just two shots on target and posted the lowest combined expected goals total of the tournament, according to statmongers OptaJoe. The only goal was scored by German defender Mats Hummels into his own team’s net, giving France a 1–0 win.
But the relative paucity of stats produced fails to capture how thrilling it was watching the sum total of French talent freestyle its way through the German midfield, and how devastating its stars looked. The own goal, for instance, doesn’t count toward the expected-goals totals, and neither do the two exceedingly pretty goals France had rightly called back for offsides. Nor does the penalty shot Les Bleus had denied in the second half, after Kylian Mbappé ran around Hummels onto the ball and Hummels slid through Mbappé to tackle the ball away.
The French strengths in 2018 remain the French strengths in 2020—err … 2021. Paul Pogba hits long passes so perfectly weighted you would swear the ball morphs into a Frisbee while it’s airborne, gliding to a cushioned stop on his teammate’s foot. Mbappé accelerates like something the Mythbusters would have to watch from behind a ballistic window.
In the first half especially, Germany gave Pogba the time to measure those long passes and Mbappé the space to pick up steam with the ball at his feet, and if you’re doing both those things at the same time, you probably should lose to France by more than one goal. Mbappé’s pace created much of the French danger. One of those balls from Pogba set up Lucas Hernandez to hit the cross that Hummels turned into his own net.
It says something about a German team that has looked shaky for much of the past three years that it was able to take France’s best shots and still make a game of it. Germany had opportunities to score—a Thomas Müller header flashed wide, a Serge Gnabry shot scuffed high—and never looked deflated by the French superiority. It says something else about that team that it so rarely managed to trouble a French side that spent approximately 75 minutes of the game on cruise control. So many of the best German attacks seemed to come when French intensity wavered. For all the ease Pogba and Mbappé showed bypassing individual German defenders, France didn’t seem to show any great urgency to supplement its one-goal lead. More worrisome for the future prospects of the tournament favorites might be how slow its rotations were when N’Golo Kanté left his position to press the ball. There were moments when neither midfielder Adrien Rabiot nor Pogba hurried to pinch in and cover the valuable real estate directly in front of the defense, and a team playing better than Germany might be able to get the ball to someone in that zone quick enough to cause trouble.
Or France might simply try harder. It might be so good that it doesn’t even need the full scope of its powers to beat Germany. France’s mercurial midfield setup—one analyst called it a 4-vibes-2 formation at halftime—consistently got its dangerous players the ball with way more space than any opponent would like. Defensively, even when those midfielders seemed to be scrambling back to apply pressure, they still managed to funnel the Germans into the central areas where Kante and center backs Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe could clean up the danger zone.
The best way to beat a France team this talented at an international soccer tournament has historically been to put all the French players together in the cloistered environment of a national team camp and wait for them to tear each other apart. This team has hinted at that, with Mbappé already feuding with striker Oliver Giroud after Giroud complained in the press about Mbappé failing to pass to him. Giroud didn’t play Tuesday; the start up top instead went to Karim Benzema, who is back with the team for the first time since 2015, when he was arrested and suspended for his alleged involvement in a plot to blackmail fellow French player Mathieu Valbuena by threatening to release a sex tape. (Benzema also once called Giroud a go-kart and himself a Ferrari, making the French attack a complex hate-triangle.)
For now, the status quo reigns supreme in the tournament’s Group of Death. Portugal, its third heavyweight, has brought a far more talented side to support Cristiano Ronaldo this year than the team that beat France in the tournament final in the Euro 2016, with attacking stars like Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes and the reigning Premier League Player of the Season, Manchester City defender Rúben Dias. But all that firepower means little if they still have to ask Ronaldo’s permission to shoot at the goal. Portugal spent 80 minutes of its 3-0 win against Hungary earlier Tuesday earning the disapproving scowls of an emotionally distant father figure from Ronaldo and 10 minutes finally making him proud (by finally setting him up to score some easy goals, bringing him within three goals of tying Iranian Ali Daei’s record as the top male international goal scorer.)
Now Portugal levels up to the next challenge, a match against Germany that will go a long way toward proving each team’s quality. If it beats the Germans, the third game against France will likely be crucial, with each team looking to avoid finishing second in the group and drawing a dangerous England side in the Round of 16. If an undefeated France and Portugal go into the last game of the group stages looking to win, we might just get the game of the tournament. On paper at least.