Round of 16 Review: Why France Needs to Start Playing More Like Denmark
Four big takeaways from a wild four days at Euro 2020
The last two World Cup champs and the Euro 2016 winners are all are gone! Spain and Croatia played maybe the craziest knockout-round match of all-time -- until Switzerland and France did them one better! England beat Germany in an actual, real-life major soccer tournament! The ... Ukraine! Here are my four big takeaways from a wild four days.
1. This is the game Didier Deschamps was dreading.
On the eve of the 2018 World Cup, a French nurse called into a local radio station. Her team was in the finals. They won their group; they obliterated Lionel Messi’s Argentina, arm-wrestled Luis Suarez’s Uruguay, and held the attacking firepower of Belgium at arm’s length. But this woman was not happy with what she’d seen: “Deschamps has a Ferrari in his hands and never breaks the speed limit!”
It wasn’t just one dissatisfied healthcare worker, either. One of France’s major news stations was critical of France’s approach throughout the tournament, and they ran a poll asking their viewers if they’d been too tough on Deschamps. Eighty-percent responded: “Non”. Another commentator named Daniel Riolo proclaimed, “If we become world champions, we’ll be the ugliest world champions in history.”
His worst fear came to pass -- sort of. France became world champions but did so with a bizarre, mostly-dominant-but-somewhat-helter-skelter 4-2 over Croatia.
Unsurprisingly emboldened by his World Cup title, Deschamps brought the same approach with him to Euro 2020 in 2021. You’ll often see successful teams like these refuse to evolve despite the fact that soccer itself and how it’s played tends to shift from year to year and that certain players get better, some get worse, others get injured, and they all get older. That’s not quite what happened this time around; Deschamps replaced Olivier Giroud with Karim Benzema, who was a massive upgrade and scored four goals at the tournament compared to Giroud’s zero at the World Cup. And Adrien Rabiot (and his mom) came in for Inter Miami legend Blaise Matuidi. Both of those changes seemed like they’d at least push France toward the speed limit.
And yet, they didn’t get there until halftime of the Round of 16 against Switzerland. Against Germany, they scored off an own-goal early and then produced one of the most passive defensive performances you’ll see at any level. Against Hungary, they tried to manage the game, then went behind, and only really started to pour on the pressure once they needed to score. The Portugal game got ripped open by a bunch of penalties, and then against Switzerland, Deschamps decided to change things up. It turned out that France were moving too fast for his liking, so in came a third center back in Clement Lenglet, and Deschamps’s two defense-minded fullbacks became defense-minded wing backs. It was essentially five defenders and N’Golo Kante ... against Switzerland.
While France had successfully been able to play to the scoreline in 2018 and some of 2021, the strategy of “doing just enough” finally caught up to them in Bucharest. The race chart from Stats Perform explains it all:
In terms of chances-created, France had the slight edge over Switzerland, but this time it was the other team that converted an unlikely shot. At halftime, Deschamps took off Lenglet and replaced him with Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman. Time to step on the gas -- and they did. France created a ton of chances in the second half and extra time. They took 19 shots to Switzerland’s eight, they won possession back in the final-third over and over again, and well they scored three goals!
It’s just that they also succumbed to what Deschamps has always dreaded. The best teams are better off playing games like this; the more chances there are in a match, the more likely your quality is to win out. At the same time, in an international tournament, there just are not enough games for those kinds of things to average out. A mistake in the high press that leads to a goal might send you home, instead of leading to an unlucky draw against a mid-table side that ultimately makes no difference. France finally opened themselves up in order to rip the opposition apart, and it worked -- except the other team also scored from two of their three best chances, too. It got to penalties, and Kylian Mbappe proved himself to be a mega-fraud who can’t handle the pressure and should just retire to MLS and see out the remainder of his failed career at FC Cincinnati. (For new readers: I am being sarcastic.)
The bigger issue, though, is that Deschamps’s initial approach finally failed, too. And so the favorites are gone, with a per-game shot average roughly equal to Scotland, a pressing rate1 that was closer to Sweden and Finland’s than Spain or Germany, and fewer passes completed into the box than Russia or the Czech Republic. They finally broke the speed limit; it just came 45 minutes too late.
2. England weren’t great, but they were good enough.
That was either a 50-50 game, or England were slightly better. Germany took more shots, but England spent more time in the final-third and completed more passes into the penalty area. Per Stats Perform, Gareth Southgate’s team created 1.34 expected goals. Jogi Low’s team created ... 1.33. I think you can quibble about the quality of the chances a little bit, but there were basically two big opportunities for each side. In the first half, Kai Havertz put Timo Werner in on goal, but Jordan Pickford made a nice save. (The chance was a lot tougher than various announcers gave it credit for, and I think some xG models are overrating it, too). Then there was Raheem Sterling’s goal, followed by Thomas Muller putting a breakaway wide, followed by Harry Kane’s game-sealing header. One team finished both of their best opportunities; the other team missed both of theirs. That’s that. That’s what decided the game.
Of course, with every England lineup announcement, everyone wants the manager fired. And then with every positive England result, everyone wants the manager knighted. Both seemed to happen in a two hour span on Tuesday. Now, I'm open to an argument that England actually should’ve been able to create more space between themselves and an incredibly inconsistent Germany team at home. Despite the scoreline, the match really was just decided by the way the ball was kicked or headed four separate times. Starting Bukayo Saka -- a very good prospect who is not yet a very good soccer player -- was bizarre, given all of the amazing established attacking talent that England had on the bench. Perhaps unsurprisingly, England barely created anything from open play until Jack Grealish, who was the best player in the Premier League this season before he got hurt in February, came in and helped create both goals. The midfield of Declan Rice and Kalvin Philipps, too, seems overly defensive, given that it was being protected by two defensive-leaning wing backs and three center backs. It really feels like there’s room for Southgate to fit in more on-ball talent without really sacrificing much of the team’s solidity.
But in a way, that’s a good place to be. It’s Ukraine next, and then either Denmark or the Czechs in the semis, before whoever emerges from the other side of the bracket in the finals. Outside of Spain, England aren’t likely to play another team with the same attacking firepower as Germany. And they’re gonna be sizable favorites against everyone they play up until the final, too. While going conservative eventually came back to bite Deschamps, it made sense for Southgate to try to keep things tight against Germany. But if he wants to avoid any speed bumps over the next matches, it seems like it’s finally time to take the handbrake off.
3. The Group of Death is dead.
Portugal were unfortunate to lose to Belgium, but it’s not like they played particularly well, either. They took a ton of terrible shots while Belgium just kinda sat there and did nothing, save for two late-game counter-attacks that didn’t result in shots.
I present to you the general soccer-watching public’s opinions of the managers of the last two major-trophy-winning European teams:
While I think France have been genuinely impressive and breathtaking at times under Deschamps, Portugal kinda backed into winning the Euros. They didn’t win a game in the group stages and then lucked into a pretty easy path to the final, where they got dominated by France and then won on a once-in-a-lifetime goal from a player who has scored one goal for Portugal since then and was last seen not doing much in the Russian Premier League. They packed bodies behind the ball and ground out results en route to an unlikely title win. This year, though, they had a ton of attacking talent to surround or (*gasp* replace?) Cristiano Ronaldo with. Instead of maximizing it, though, Santos insisted on playing either three traditional midfielders or two incredibly conservative defensive midfielders behind a front four. On top of that: While Raphael Guerreiro might be the best left back in the world -- he’s basically an elite creator and ball-progressing midfielder wrapped into one -- he only took five touches in the penalty area all tournament and received just seven progressive passes.2 At Borussia Dortmund this past season, he averaged four of each ... per game! There’s a really fun collection of players here, but Santos basically tried to be France, which is a problem because A) well, go read the first section again, and B) he doesn’t have Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe. They could’ve easily beaten Belgium, but beyond the late flurry in the opening match against Hungary, Portugal just didn’t look cohesive or particularly impressive at any point in the tournament.
As for the last European manager to win a trophy before Deschamps and Santos, Jogi Low went out as he entered: picking his nose and then hoping no one would see him licking his fingers. Germany’s last three years have just been weird. At the 2018 World Cup, they looked awful defensively but were probably unlucky to get knocked out in the group stages. In the intervening years, they lost to pretty much every good team they played. And in this tournament they performed OK against France, annihilated Portugal, somehow drew Hungary in a game they easily could’ve won, and then lost 2-0 to England in what was a relatively even game. They played three tough games and didn’t really get outplayed in any of them. Given the opponents, the only real way for Germany to improve on that would be for them to just clearly be the best team in the world. I don’t think their squad suggests they should be that; France are the only team with enough 99.9th percentile talent at key positions to truly reach that point. But at the same time, their track record against good teams over the past three years is what it is: bad. Low never fell prey to the God of Grinding Out in the way that Deschamps and Santos did, but perhaps he went to the other improper extreme: try to blow the opposition off the field every game and never make any changes. Their style seemed especially vulnerable to the types of top teams you see in international soccer: organized sides that play like Burnley but also have guys like Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo sitting up top.
These tournaments have so few games, though, that it’s really kind of silly to try to make sweeping statements about any one side. Most of these results are random, which is what makes it so compelling. Instead, maybe the lesson from the failures of France, Portugal, and Germany should be this: If he wants to salvage his future reputation, whichever manager wins the Euros should lift the trophy, drink some champagne, and then immediately quit the job.
4. Are there any good teams?
Four of the eight favorites -- France, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands -- are gone. Italy needed extra time to take down Austria. World no. 1 Belgium got outshot by 15-plus shots for the second time this tournament; they also lost Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to injury, again. England have yet to concede a goal; they’re also only attempting 6.8 shots per match, which would’ve been the lowest among all 98 teams across Europe’s Big Five leagues this season. Spain looked incredibly comfortable against Croatia until the final 10 minutes, when, as far as I can tell, everyone in the squad collectively took a near-lethal amount of acid:
The only team that comfortably won their knockout-round match without the aid of a player on the other team just deciding to suddenly pick the ball up with his hands was Denmark. They dominated against Wales, and the performance was keyed by manager and former North Florida Osprey Kasper Hjulmand shifting formation mid-first half by pushing Andreas Christensen out of the back three and into the midfield. If there was a criticism to be lobbed at the Danes, it was that they only knew how to play one way -- and well, so much for that. With each passing game, these dudes just keep giving us more evidence that, even without Christian Eriksen, they’re just a really good team.
In terms of betting favorites, there’s a clear top three at the moment, per the DraftKings sportsbook:
And if you just did a blind test based on pure performance, there’d also be a clear top three, but with different teams. In terms of non-penalty xG differential per game, there are only three teams currently north of 1.00:
1) Italy: plus-1.62
2) Denmark: plus-1.43
3) Spain: plus-1.12
The top three in shot differential: Denmark, Italy, and Spain. The top three for passes completed into the penalty area: Spain, Denmark, and Italy. The top three in PPDA: Denmark, Spain, and Italy. The top three in final-third possession: Spain, Denmark, and Italy.
The Danes don’t play like underdogs; it’s beautiful. They play like a team that thinks it’s better than whoever it’s playing. They want the ball, they want all the shots. They’re not scared by the same things -- the counter-attacks, the space in behind, the mistakes -- that seemed to hold back Santos and Deschamps and could still possibly do in Southgate. Denmark are favorites against the Czech Republic, who seem like an even easier matchup then the Welsh. Win that, and it’s probably England in the semifinals. With the game at Wembley, Southgate’s team will be big favorites, but don’t tell that to Hjulmand and Co. They’ll keep playing like they always do: expecting to dominate.
This is measured by “PPDA” or “passes allowed per defensive action”. Stats Perform defines it as such: “the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third”.