In the recent international “break” that saw star players like Kevin De Bruyne and Virgil van Dijk complain about its purpose after a grueling season, several larger nations struggled. The two most notably poor performances came from England and France, arguably the two favorites for Qatar 2022. England looked stagnant and lost twice to Hungary, leading to the most extreme Southgate-out sentiments we’ve seen for a while. France fielded one of their most exciting squads of this current cycle, blending emerging talents with the experience of the 2018 World Cup winners, yet slumped to disappointing results against Denmark, Croatia, and Austria.
While it would be foolish to make blanket statements about their performances in this window, it is fair to note that the performances were worrying. That’s logical. Concerns and criticism are always okay and should be encouraged in this sport. But the international game has become so finicky. Spain’s dominance at the start of the last decade probably clouded our judgment, but true victory is so hard to come by in today’s game. The margins that determine success and failure have become even finer than they already are at the club level. So many things have to go your way.
France’s 2018 World Cup win serves as a key example of why tournament football is treated differently from the club game by coaches, and should be viewed accordingly by us, the fans. The metrics that are used to measure and explain club and players’ performances rely on sample sizes that international tournaments simply can’t. They are short and every game has a heightened meaning. One mistake that you could otherwise correct later in the Premier League season can ruin years of work. The international game has to be managed to perfection, meaning managers mitigate risk at all costs.
Given the amount of talent at France’s disposal, their setup in Russia was inherently negative, featuring a lower-block, with a defensive midfielder playing wide left (Matuidi) and two center-backs by trade (Hernandez and Pavard) at full-back. Deschamps trusted Pogba enough to form a double pivot alongside N’Golo Kanté and relied on 18-year-old Mbappé to provide a threat in behind. Thibault Courtois, the goalkeeper for arguably the most forward-thinking European national side in Belgium, famously slammed France for their (lack of) style of play when they were defeated 1-0 in the semi-final by a header off a corner.
France won penalties in the right moments, made the most of set-pieces, and were lethal on the break. They were the beneficiaries of a fluke goal against Uruguay (Muslera’s parry into his own net) and produced that one moment of magic (Pavard’s goal vs. Argentina) that changed the dynamic of their tournament. Deschamps made a compromise by playing safer despite having the best squad on paper and won the World Cup.
Compare that to Euro 2016 where Portugal’s Eder sucker-punched France with a long-range effort that was essentially a winning lottery ticket and you will find something relatively similar. Portugal had barely survived in just about every round, yet managed to become champions for the first time in their history without Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. They played conservatively and did just enough. Everything came together. Since then, Portugal have continued to play defensively in tournaments, scoring some nice transition goals but consistently falling second-best to better opposition.
The difficulty with convincing fans that playing conservatively is sustainable in these competitions comes when you don’t win. In defeat, there is always the perception that the collective play and personnel can be improved upon, even when luck may be the biggest factor.
Gareth Southgate has been vocal about analyzing the successes of France and Portugal in the modern international game, and why their more conservative approaches have proved successful. The amount of work and research Southgate and his staff do makes it impossible for them to be unaware of the alternative ways England could be playing.
His entire philosophy as England coach has been based on meticulous analysis to improve the performance of the entire English FA. Prior to 2018, England had not been to a World Cup semi-final since 1990. Southgate has managed a fairly consistent group of players throughout with the aim to bring the group together. (Under previous management, England had given isolated caps to players like Gabby Agbonlahor and Bobby Zamora. You don’t see those one-offs anymore)
Whether you want Harry Maguire to rot or Jack Grealish to start every game, you must appreciate the progress England has made. Younger players are being successfully integrated, and most of them are not yet at their peak. The Nations League results were a wake-up call but were not the real thing. You can’t convince Southgate to play more expansively when he is preparing for a World Cup where he will likely play conservatively. England have shown real progress from where they were before he took over. They have a good chance of winning.
As fans of the most exhilarating game in the world, it is healthy to temper expectations. It’s difficult and potentially less fun, but winning rarely occurs. The international game can’t provide you with the same experience the elite club game does; it is now built on defensive structure and set pieces. France, Portugal, and England now all favor back three systems, and they’re not the only ones. This is just what international football has become, for better or for worse.
You just have to hope one of your players can provide that moment of magic that sends you into euphoria.