France and England's entertaining friendly gives reasons to be cheerful
Summer international friendlies are not, it can safely be said, generally known for their intensity. Mostly, they are stagnant affairs, their motions gone through by tired, barely interested players eager to stretch out on the beach. But France's encounter with England was different. France's encounter with England was fun. Harmless, meaningless fun. And it's rare that that can be said of a modern-day football match.
This was a particularly friendly friendly. England played host to France in November 2015 with great tact and sensitivity just days after Paris was attacked by terrorists. Nineteen months later, after recent attacks in Manchester and London, France returned the gesture and the pregame featured fans of both sides singing the English anthem.
England, oddly formless but endearingly ambitious, landed the first blow through Harry Kane, a close-range finish on nine minutes, which came from a Ryan Bertrand pass after an impetuous backheel from Raheem Sterling.
France, slow to start but lightning fast when they found their stride, were the better team, and equalised through the unlikely figure of Samuel Umtiti, who netted after reacting quickest when Tom Heaton parried Olivier Giroud's header. The hosts then took the led just before half-time through Djibril Sidibe after a fine run from Ousmane Dembele.
The match should have taken a decisive turn toward England after the break when Dele Alli was felled by Raphael Varane in the box -- Kane converting a penalty after the officials used VAR to condemn the Varane to the loneliness of the dressing room -- but it did not.
Instead, this French team, in such exuberant mood, had no intention of shutting down the game for the draw and Dembele's winner, 12 minutes from time, was entirely deserved. The hosts could have scored more but, as it was, England's mistakes cost them dearly enough to see them beaten. Experience though, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is simply the name men give to their mistakes. And England will be far more experienced after this contest.
It is to the Football Association's credit that they have chosen to ascertain their status with friendlies in 2017 against Spain, Germany and France. It would have been easy to schedule simpler opponents and to rack up a run of genuinely meaningless results. At least there is no chance of England sleepwalking into their next humiliation.
So what did Gareth Southgate learn? Probably only a little that he did not already suspect. He has, in Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and John Stones, a back three of certain desirable attributes and certain well-known shortcomings. What he doesn't have is a midfield pairing to protect them. N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba made up the French engine room; either one would have dramatically improved England and Pogba, in particular, was magnificent throughout.
Those English defenders were caught flat-footed by Dembele shortly before half-time for France's second. Stones performed the role of legendary England captain Billy Wright to Dembele's Ferenc Puskas in a surprise reenactment of a famous incident from 1953 that famous English football writer Geoffrey Green memorably described as a "fire engine going to the wrong fire."
But the move had begun when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain roared out of midfield to try to close down Pogba. With him so far up the pitch, England's defence was exposed. One swift pass fed Dembele, already ahead of Eric Dier, and the situation escalated quickly to an inevitable climax.
This was a certainly a useful experiment, in so much as time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. But you do suspect that England would look safer with a central three, rather than a back three even if, again, it is important to be wary of reading too much into friendlies.
England's humiliation at Euro 2016 was preceded by victories against France, Germany and eventual winners Portugal. Ahead of their mundane European Championship campaign of 2012, England beat eventual winners Spain, not to mention Belgium. When the evenings grow long and players are running on vapours at the season's end, solid conclusions are hard to find.
Perhaps it is enough to recognise that, even now, even with so much scrutiny, so much money and so much hyperbole, a simple "pointless" game of football can offer so much pleasure. That it can still be so much fun. For supporters of two nations that have shared much pain in recent years, this was, at the very least, a welcome distraction.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.