No One Is Safe At The Euros
11:33 AM EDT on June 29, 2021
It had to be Kylian Mbappé. Soccer has a way of writing its narratives in real time, and there was no one else who could be destined to take the decisive penalty in a shootout. This was France's plan, after all. Destiny may say one thing, but it is up to the manager to set the order for shootout takers, and Didier Deschamps purposefully put his best attacker fifth, the spot with the most pressure but, perhaps, the most catharsis. This was an opportunity for Mbappé to redeem himself after a set of poor performances at the Euros.
It didn't quite work out that way, though:
Instead of Mbappé keeping France alive, the reigning world champions were sent home by the night's true hero, when Switzerland and Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer dove to his right with perfect timing and sent both Mbappé's shot out and his country to its first-ever Euro quarterfinals. Sommer's face in the image above says it all. This was an upset of epic proportions, completed in the most unlikely of ways.
A lot of soccer had been played before it came down to a duel between Mbappé and Sommer, and if Deschamps is to take most of the blame for France bowing out significantly earlier than anyone expected, it won't be for putting his 22-year-old striker fifth in the shootout. If fans of the Netherlands have a rightful gripe with its own manager, French fans have one that's less about results and more about process. It's hard to complain about a tactician who delivered the 2018 World Cup, but there are cracks in Deschamps's armor even with the most coveted prize in world soccer under his arm. It often feels that France wins despite Deschamps and not because of him, and Monday's game looked to be another point of evidence for that argument.
After all, if you have the most talented team in Europe, why would you set them up to play such static soccer? Deschamps lined France up in a five defender formation, or perhaps three, depending on how you feel about wing backs. Those wing backs were converted center back Benjamin Pavard and central midfielder Adrien Rabiot. That is the type of lineup that a team puts out if it is expecting a grueling back-and-forth battle, but should that have been France's goal against a Switzerland team that got rocked by Italy in the group stage and made it through to the knockout rounds only via the third-place tiebreakers?
That's not to discredit the Swiss, who were wonderful, first in taking a 1–0 lead after only 15 minutes, and later battling back to level with two goals in the last ten minutes. He may not be the most beloved player on Arsenal, but a lot of credit has to go to Swiss captain Granit Xhaka, who took what France gave him in that five defender formation: a lot of space in the midfield to hold the ball and look up for long passes, always a strength in his game. His assist for the late equalizer was the best example of both how wrong Deschamps got his tactics and how good Switzerland was when it absolutely had to be:
Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic also did a better job with his own tactics and substitutions. Kevin Mbabu, the nifty right back who plays for Wolfsburg, came on in the 73rd minute and gave his team hope seven minutes later with a gorgeous cross headed in by the 6-foot-2 Haris Seferovic, who had previously scored another header for Switzerland's opener. Xhaka's pass in the 90th minute found another substitute, and it was Mario Gavranovic who slotted a gorgeous ball home to send the game to extra time. Four of Petkovic's subs also scored in the penalty shootout. The 57-year-old manager simply out-coached Deschamps, allowing his team to keep bringing the game to the French, who ran out of ideas after Paul Pogba's incredible 75th strike that appeared to kill the match for good.
There were chances for both sides, more so for France, in extra time, and the cruelest of finishes—a penalty shootout in an international tournament—could've been avoided. It was Mbappé again who disappointed. In the 115th minute, he found himself with a tight, but not impossible, angle, ball at his feet and the next round in his sights. He missed; that's just the kind of tournament the Paris Saint-Germain man had, with his only contribution to France's scoreline—a nice assist for Karim Benzema earlier in this game that was immediately overshadowed by Benzema's unbelievable touch—meaning little compared to his high-profile misses.
If there is a silver lining for Mbappé, it's that he is already a World Cup champion, and he has many tournaments left to redeem himself. Had France advanced, that redemption could have come as early as Friday, but instead of France and Spain clashing in a juggernaut bout for a spot in the semifinals, it will be the Swiss who try to figure out how to stop the Spaniards from scoring five goals every game. Soccer games are complex beasts, and those that go to penalties have too many key moments for all the blame to lay on one person. It does make for a perfect story, though, that the young star, coveted by clubs around the continent, was the one to have the result in his control and throw it away.