Euro 2024: France rely on Deschamps’ defensive ideals to beat Belgium

DUSSELDORF, Germany — How do you say déjà vu in French? France’s 1-0 win against Belgium on Monday — which sets up a Euro 2024 quarterfinal against Portugal — had a massive air of “we have seen this before,” and it fits because this is what the vice-world champions do.

While the game itself was a battle of attrition, with just four combined shots on target and a game xG of 1.25, it also showed what France are made of. They nullify their opposition, closing every door, window and possible path towards their goal. They are the most organised and structured team at the Euros. Meanwhile Belgium were poor: their head coach Domenico Tedesco got his tactics and choices wrong (a 4-4-2 with Amadou Onana/Kevin de Bruyne in midfield), but they never found an answer to France’s solidity. They could have played for hours and nothing would have changed.

However, it also felt at times that Kylian Mbappé and his teammates were never going to score either. They had 19 shots (just two on target) and needed a fortunate 85th minute own goal to win, with Jan Vertonghen deflecting Randall Kolo Muani’s wayward shot beyond Koen Casteels. In four games, they haven’t scored a goal in open play, benefitting from two own goals and one penalty to advance. It’s obviously a worry, but there is nothing more fitting for a team led by Didier Deschamps than reaching the final eight of a major tournament in such fashion.

“We are such a strong team, a compact and solid block, and we deserve some credit for the way we play,” defender William Saliba told ESPN after the game. “People don’t realise how difficult it is to play against us, how hard we make it for the opposition. We have a great head coach, a great squad, a great defence, a great team spirit.”

At times, Les Bleus‘ minimalist approach can be seen as boring. “We win, that’s the most important. The day we stop winning, we can talk,” Deschamps is known to say when challenged. He knows that a team wins trophies thanks to its defending: that’s how he won as a hard-nosed player, and also how he won as a coach. Let’s not forget where Deschamps the manager comes from: he was forged in Italy in the 1990s, where teams prioritised defensive structure and aggression. That’s his DNA, and he’s been transmitting it to his players for his entire 12 years in charge. And he is right, as long as he wins, his style will be vindicated.

“You don’t realise how good France are. We knew that if we made a mistake [in our defensive third], they would punish us. That’s how much we feared them tonight,” Kevin De Bruyne told French TV after the game.

France’s tactics make teams play against their nature, frustrating opponents and forcing them to do things differently. It is a big weapon in their arsenal, at least so far at this tournament, but it’s impossible to say if it’s enough to carry them all the way to the trophy (which would be their first Euros win since 2000) while beating the likes of Spain or Germany to get there. But there is not a team left in the tournament as solid defensively and collectively than this French side, and that’s down to Deschamps.

At full time on the pitch, defenders William Saliba and Dayot Upamecano had a powerful embrace before running towards goalkeeper Mike Maignan for a group hug. These three are the heart of this machine, outstanding against Romelu Lukaku and Loïs Openda. Jules Koundé did the job against Jérémy Doku on the right flank, and Les Bleus controlled pretty much everything. They are the masters of controlling tempo and locking down games.

They also know that Mbappé will get better. In his Batman mask, he showed a slight improvement against Belgium compared to his performance against Poland. He is still not at his best, clearly bothered by what he has to wear to guard against his broken nose, but he is feeling better on the pitch. He also had a lovely moment in the dressing room with Kolo Muani after the game.

Kolo Muani is the unlikely hero of the night. He was not expecting to come on in an elimination game, having played just 23 minutes so far at the Euros to little effect. Yet he made the difference with energy, effort and determined running.

And that’s the other thing about Deschamps. With his pragmatism and his tactical flexibility — he’s used four different systems in four games so far — he will always get everyone involved. Adrien Rabiot will miss the quarterfinal through suspension, meaning Youssouf Fofana or Eduardo Camavinga will have to be ready. Ousmane Dembélé and Bradley Barcola didn’t play at all in the last 16 after starting the previous game, meaning they could get another chance on Friday.

As for Antoine Griezmann, the head coach told him on Monday morning that he was going to play as a right winger, an unusual position for him. “I told the coach: let’s go, let’s do it. I’m here for you, I’m here to help him,” he told ESPN. “I’m not a winger, I am going to go one vs one but I can play anywhere to help the team.”

This is the mentality and the mindset that Deschamps has instilled in his players. He is the general and they are his soldiers ready to follow him in every battle. Despite not looking their best so far in Germany this summer, they’re into the quarterfinals, just like we knew they would.