On the verge of writing his name in the French history books, Didier Deschamps is left to wonder what could have been after falling to Portugal in the final.
French fans used to have a saying about their coach, which takes Gary Lineker’s famous line that “football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win,” and gives it a twist. “In the end,” they say, “Didier Deschamps always wins.”
Well, not any more.
Deschamps was on the verge of writing his name in French football history: not only joining Michel Hidalgo (1984) and Aime Jacquet (1998) as tournament-winning coaches, but with his playing background as well, and his success as captain of France’s 1998 World Cup winners and Euro 2000 winners, he would have been French football’s most successful figure. He would have joined Germany's Berti Vogts as the only men to be part of a Euro-winning team as a player and coach (though Vogts didn't play in the 1972 final).
Instead, Deschamps can expect a heavy post-mortem after underdog Portugal shocked the host nation to win the final 1-0 in extra time.
The final followed the pattern of so many of France’s previous matches in the tournament; it was usually poor in the first half, then a substitution or tactical switch turned the tide towards the host.
Portugal may be decried for winning only one game inside 90 minutes out of seven, for leading games for only 73 minutes out of its 720 minutes played and for being too reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo.
But look at the rap sheet that Deschamps is set to face, one that looks quite different through the prism of a final loss: France needed a last-minute winner against Romania on opening night. It took a game-changing sub to beat Albania with two last-minute goals. It needed a game-changing sub to come from behind and beat Ireland. Sure, France was dominant for 45 minutes against a nervous Iceland and saw out its quarterfinal victory with ease, and it followed with an opportunistic semifinal win over Germany after a needless penalty (for which the onus is fully on Bastian Schweinsteiger) went France's way.
Up to now, Deschamps was getting credit for making the right changes. But after a defeat, the story will focus on getting it wrong in the first place. In his defense (almost literally): Deschamps has had to be pragmatic. After all, no coach has come into this tournament missing so many from his preferred XI just six months ago. The likes of Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho, Mathieu Debuchy, Lassana Diarra, Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema were all starters earlier this year.
He has had to make big decisions, and the line between getting them right and wrong is so, so fine.
For example: Dmitri Payet was not a guaranteed starter before the tournament kicked off. Many expected Anthony Martial to line up on the left wing with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann out wide to start the tournament. But Payet’s heroics in the first two games–outstanding all-around performances capped by brilliant late goals–allowed him to keep his place. Selecting Payet was a Deschamps masterstroke, then–until the knockout games, when Payet was less effective, more individual and not tracking back (Deschamps spent most of the first half against Germany shouting at Payet to get back while Josh Kimmich enjoyed the freedom on the flank).
The Paul Pogba debate could continue until the 2018 World Cup. Pogba was dropped for the second game against Albania, was better (but trying too hard) against Switzerland, and against Ireland, he switched to the left side and within one minute he had conceded a penalty. Pogba, amid record transfer rumors to Manchester United, was excellent against Germany, but against Portugal, he stayed deep and was not able to push on.
The substitutions that had worked for Deschamps in the group stage deserted him in the final: Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post in the last minute and there was shock when Moussa Sissoko and not Pogba was taken off in extra time. Martial came on only after Portugal had scored, and it looked like Deschamps was being far too cautious. Kingsley Coman had made an impact when coming on for Payet, so why not bring on Martial, France’s fastest player, as well to run at Portugal’s obstinate, though tiring, defense?
Arsene Wenger could see the warning signs during the comfortable 5-2 win over Iceland. He told L’Euro Show on BeInSport that he would pick N’Golo Kante to start against Germany, because he expected the world champion to dominate in midfield and need more help. That was proved right, and it was a similar story against Portugal; Kante’s presence would have allowed Pogba to push forward more.
And yet there are many positives that France, and Deschamps, can take out of Euro 2016. It beat its eternal thorn Germany for the first time in a major tournament. It made the fans fall in love with the team again–given the events in France over the last nine months, perhaps this, more than the end result, is the most significant outcome of Deschamps’s reign.
The players were delirious after beating Germany: Pogba wiped sweat off a reporter’s brow, interviewed Patrice Evra in Italian, and spoke like a kid off his trick that set up France’s second goal: “Yeah, did you see that? Aaaahhh!” His enthusiasm was infectious.
When Deschamps took over after Euro 2012, France had been eliminated after playing a cautious match versus Spain against the backdrop of Samir Nasri suspended for swearing at journalists. The relationship between fans and the team was at a low ebb. Deschamps has bridged that gap.
“Let’s not forget what Didier Deschamps has done,” said his former France teammate Thierry Henry on BBC after the game. “We have a team again. After what we went through as a country outside of the field, well done to them. People will question, ‘Why this and why that?’ but he is still the man for the job.”
France will not get a better opportunity than this to win another title; on home soil, against an underdog whose star player went off inside 25 minutes. Deschamps’s game plan, or lack of one, cost Les Bleus dearly. He has two more years on his contract and will be back to compete for the 2018 World Cup with a talent-laden side in Russia. But this will always be the one that he let slip away.