France could’ve played better. The reigning world champions faced Germany on Tuesday, the first true clash of titans of these Euros, and didn’t play its best game. The fact that this is true, and yet Les Bleus still beat one of the tournament favorites 1–0 without breaking much of a sweat, is why it’s so hard to imagine how this team can lose.
The issue is that even when France isn’t at its best, it is still better than everyone else. At times, the French midfield gave the Germans too easy access to the space in front of the defenders. No matter: the French defensive line, especially center backs Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe, formed the backbone of that immovable object, utterly dominating the area in and around the French penalty box.
Other times, France’s attack wasn’t as united as it could’ve been. Manager Didier Deschamps, who at night must dream of tackles and clean sheets more than dribbles and goalfests, has built a team obsessed with safety and solidity, where every single player is expected to run his ass off in defense but really only three or maybe four players at a time are supposed to get in on the attacking. This at times stifles France’s fluidity and creativity with the ball, as shown in the mere four shots the team took all game. And yet when you have Kylian Mbappé using his superpowers to turn the ground beneath defenders’ feet into sand, and Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema guiding and accelerating plays with their famously excellent touch and movement and reading, and Paul Pogba finding charging runs with an unending string of breathtaking passes, then you don’t really need to throw many numbers forward in order to create great chances at will. (In re Pogba: watch the following video if you want to spend three whole minutes groaning with pleasure.)
To be clear, France vs. Germany was a fantastic, hard-fought game between peers from Europe’s elite. Germany didn’t get stomped by any means, and had one or two chances that could’ve easily gone in and changed the complexion of the match. Neither team played particularly well in the final third, which might’ve made the game seem boring to some, but I could watch a compilation of each team breaking the other’s high press over and over.
The intensity and quality of the match was exactly what this tournament can be at something close to its best. (And it’s a shame that the current format, overstuffed with teams that can’t really hang and a ridiculously forgiving knockout round qualification process, makes big games like this rarer than they once were.) It’s just that if you had to pick which of these two or any other team would be involved in more of these kinds of heavyweight battles in the Euros’ later stages, and which one is best equipped to come out on top, the overwhelming favorite is France, a team that is very nearly perfect.