Deschamps, France fix what ain't broke
SALVADOR, Brazil -- If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?
Not if you're Didier Deschamps. You fix it better.
Even if it means that by fiddling with it you risk stalling the whole bandwagon just as a nation -- after three major tournaments and one measly win in 10 games -- was ready to climb on.
The France boss did just that in dropping Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann following the 3-0 win in the opener over Honduras. The pair made way for Moussa Sissoko and Oivier Giroud and a shift to what was effectively a two-man striker force, after the 4-3-3 in the opening game.
Why mess with tactics and personnel like that?
"Well, it's something we've tried in the past. I thought about it a lot and I thought it was the right thing to do," Deschamps said nonchalantly.
Outwardly, he was as cool as early Arthur Fonzarelli. Inside, you'd like to think that he was high-fiving himself. And maybe even a bit relieved.
Wholesale changes like that can backfire. And, when they do, a manager pays a hefty price. Media and public opinion turn against him. The dropped players harbor resentment. The replacements become insecure.
Instead, nothing like a 5-2 win -- which could easily have seen France hit double figures -- to share the wealth and keep everyone happy. Griezmann and Pogba both got on the pitch and the latter even had his highlight package moment: an exquisite chipped pass with the outside of his boot straight into the path of Karim Benzema, for France's fourth goal.
Just as important, Giroud showed he can contribute, and how. He scored a goal, set up another and worked tirelessly against the Swiss centre-backs. He engaged them physically (a fortuitous boot to Steve von Bergen's head meant his game ended after nine minutes, making way for Philippe Senderos). And, perhaps more important, his big frame offered a sizeable target every time France countered, while his quick brain used the ball intelligently, holding it up and laying it off like something out of a football textbook. Sissoko, too, did his part in midfield, scoring the fifth goal as a bonus.
Truth be told, fate (and the Swiss) made it easier than it should have been for France, and not just because of Von Bergen's injury. In the 17th minute, Mathieu Valbuena's flighted corner was met by a peach-perfect Giroud header to give Les Bleus the lead. On the ensuing kick-off, Valon Behrami somehow failed to spot the lurking Benzema, who seized the errant pass, waltzed into area and set up the ever-present Blaise Matuidi.
Two goals in the time it takes to tie your shoes. This wasn't a sucker punch, this was a cartoon piano falling out of a top floor window on Switzerland's collective heads.
Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld knows his onions. You don't win two Champions' League titles and nine league crowns with three teams in two different countries and achieve the moniker of "Gottmar" without having seen it all and knowing how to react.
Maybe his mind went back to the other time his team had conceded two goals in such rapid succession: the 1998-99 Champions League final, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer entered the Twilight Zone and exited it holding the European Cup.
That time, there was no chance for a riposte. The game was over. This was different. Switzerland were going to slug it out. And that played directly into Deschamps' hands.
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"Those two goals were a tremendous blow," Hitzfeld acknowledged. "Beyond the score it gave France a huge advantage. They no longer had to create, they could just sit, play on the counter and wait for our mistakes. And, yes, we made mistakes on top of that."
The Swiss pushed on, powered by the scurrying runs of Granit Xhaka and the creativity of Xherdan Shaqiri, with Ricardo Rodriguez down the left and Gokhan Inler through the middle lending support.
But when you do that, you concede the counter. And doing so against a side that breaks as well as France borders on the self-destructive. Particularly when patrolling in front of Diego Benaglio's goal you have two guys like Johan Djourou and Senderos, centre-backs who don't enjoy being exposed in the open field.
And so Benzema won a penalty after duping Djourou into fouling him. Benaglio's save was a rallying cry to push on. But it only meant that France were going to unleash the counter again. And again. And again.
The most clinical was just before halftime and featured the kind of movement and passing that makes tactical wonks drool. Straight from a cleared corner, Benzema held the ball up in his own half before laying it off to Raphael Varane. His inch-perfect pass found the sprinting Giroud, who crossed to Valbuena to make it 3-0.
And here, perhaps, you realised an important difference between the World Cup and league football. Domestically, when you're 3-0 down at the half, you may sometimes look to limit damage if you're behind or simply control the game if you're ahead. Not here. Not at Brazil 2014 at least.
Switzerland charged out of the gates at the half, heads down, and France continued to counter with gusto, Benzema and Giroud wasting chances after mistakes by Djourou and Senderos. The script didn't change, the Swiss lemmings streaming towards the French cliff as Benzema and then Sissoko brought the tally to five. Late in the game, Swiss efforts were rewarded with classic garbage-time goals -- a Blerim Dzemaili free-kick, an Inler pass that sprung the offside trap for Xhaka -- which may only matter if goal difference needs to be tallied after the third match.
"Six points in two games, you can't do better than that," Deschamps said afterward. "We have a good goal difference and that may determine the group winner. And we prepared well for both games and were very effective in both."
More than the gaudy scoreline and the dozens of chances created, that may be his biggest takeaway. France confirm that they have two ways of playing and both look equally effective. Just as important, they have key men in key positions peaking at key times. Giroud, Yohan Cabaye (laser-accurate as the team's de facto point guard in cueing the counter), the central defenders, Matuidi, Valbuena and, of course, Pogba, even in his role off the bench.
And then there's Benzema. You can poke holes in his performance -- the missed penalty, a few chances he should have buried, allowing Dzemaili's free kick to get through the wall -- but then you come across this. In two games, he scored three goals, provided two assists, hit the post, won a penalty, caused an own goal and had two goals disallowed (both somewhat dubiously). What this means is that he's getting involved to the nth degree. And sometimes, going far in a World Cup is also about having your form players in the thick of it as often as possible.