Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus have really struggled in front of goal at Euro 2024, and yet, they’ve reached the semi-finals. If they go all the way, their defence will likely have been decisive.

For many viewers, Euro 2024 hasn’t been a classic tournament when it comes to pure entertainment; perhaps that’s partly down to an oversaturation of elite football these days, or maybe even a consequence of players having to play more often than ever before.

Either way, you could probably count on one hand – and still have digits left over – the number of teams who’ve genuinely excited in Germany, and France certainly aren’t one of them.

Now, that’s not necessarily a criticism. As mentioned, the demands on players are significant, and yet Les Bleus have still managed to reach the semi-finals, which is never an achievement to be sniffed at. Performances might not have been spectacular, but we – fans, neutrals, the media – aren’t owed spectacular. It’s football and it comes in many different forms.

Having said that, it’s entirely reasonable that neutrals and fans especially might have expected a little more from Didier Deschamps’ side when you consider the talent their squad is overflowing with, and the fact they’ve entertained us plenty of times before.

France squad depth

While arguably a little fortunate against England at the 2022 World Cup, France couldn’t be accused of being relentlessly dull en route to their penalty shootout defeat to Argentina in the final, and in Kylian Mbappé they had the Golden Boot and Silver Ball winner.

They were also comfortably the best team on display at the 2018 World Cup as they went on to lift the trophy, while at Euro 2020 they were generally pretty good but surrendered a two-goal lead to Switzerland in the last 16 and were dumped out on penalties.

This time around, as they prepare to face Spain in Tuesday’s semi-final, the contrast in perceptions of Les Bleus and their opponents couldn’t be starker. La Roja have been reimagined by Luis de la Fuente, letting go of ‘tiki-taka’ and playing some exciting football inspired by a forward-thinking midfield and two brilliant, direct young wingers; France have ground results out, looked laborious and lacked invention.

It’s baffling when you look at how much natural ability is in their squad, but a France player still hasn’t scored a non-penalty goal at Euro 2024. Mbappé netted from the spot in the Matchday 3 draw with Poland, but otherwise their only goals have been own goals scored by the opposition.

France xG map non-penalty

Eighty-six non-penalty shots France have attempted collectively; that’s the fourth most of all teams and considerably more than fellow semi-finalists England (58) and the Netherlands (74), and yet none have directly resulted in a goal without a helpful diversion off a defender. Those efforts have amounted to 7.3 non-penalty expected goals (xG), which obviously highlights a degree of wastefulness, but the issue runs a little deeper than that.

Twelve of their shots have been classified by Opta as “big chances” – sure, only four teams have more, yet it’s no more than Austria or Turkey, and only marginally more than the likes of Croatia (11), Georgia, Hungary and Italy (10), none of whom got past the last 16.

Furthermore, those 12 big chances equate to just 13.8% of their total shots, a greater proportion than that of just seven teams in the whole tournament, and the average xG value of their attempts (0.08) is the fifth worst of the teams to reach the knockouts.

With that in mind, it could be argued creativity has been a problem. In open play, Jules Koundé (11) and N’Golo Kanté (10) have laid on the most chances to teammates; one is a centre-back playing at right-back, the other a midfielder more renowned for his defensive quality than unlocking opposition defences.

Ousmane Dembélé at least looked lively off the bench in the quarter-final against Portugal, becoming only the second substitute on record (since 1980) to create six chances in a European Championship match after Cesc Fàbregas for Spain against Russia in 2008 (also 6).

It would appear he’s likely to come back into the starting XI on Tuesday on the back of that showing, which took him to 3.8 chances created per 90 minutes at this tournament, the fourth most of players to feature for at least 150 minutes.

Though Antoine Griezmann seems set to be dropped, according to L’Equipe. The Atlético Madrid forward has only created six chances in open play, while his fruitlessness from 1.9 non-penalty xG doesn’t exactly reflect well on his performances in front of goal.

Griezmann has been tried in a couple of different roles without much success at the tournament, though he’s hardly the only problem in attack. It’s generally felt like they’re missing something in the forward positions, with Marcus Thuram or Randal Kolo Muani predominantly chosen as the rudimentary focal point (if not in practice). While it was the latter’s shot that deflected off Jan Vertonghen for the winner against Belgium, neither have been especially convincing.

That becomes problematic when Mbappé, presumably struggling to ignore his broken nose, hasn’t been as decisive as expected either. Furthermore, Mbappé, Thuram and Kolo Muani all share similar characteristics in that they like to operate in deeper – or wider – areas rather than being poachers. That’s not necessarily an issue in itself, but it can result in the team having less presence in the box or central areas – the passing networks below suggest that could be the case.

It is surprising then that Olivier Giroud has been restricted to just 44 minutes on the pitch at Euro 2024. While some might feel France should be looking to the future rather than a 37-year-old, but he’s in the squad for a reason and went into the tournament on the back of his first 15-goal domestic campaign since 2015-16. He also offers something entirely different to France’s other forwards, both in terms of how and where he operates.

He hasn’t always been universally popular, such as when he failed to score a single goal at the 2018 World Cup. But even then, it could be argued he was effective in helping get the best of Mbappé, and then he netted four times in six games – a haul bettered by only Mbappé and Lionel Messi – at Qatar 2022.

France haven’t been among the most prolific teams in terms of crosses, with their 12 per match in open play about average – though clearly their slightly more subtle approach hasn’t yielded a feast of goals, so why not go with a blunt instrument this time?

After all, Deschamps hasn’t skirted around talk of their lack of goals; he accepts they’re playing a dangerous game, saying after the penalties escape against Portugal: “We need to score more goals. When you score more goals, you can manage things, [otherwise] we are at the mercy of our opponent.”

Of course, there’s also no getting away from the fact it’s always going to be an issue if Mbappé’s not as productive as normal, with the Real Madrid star’s only goal from 20 shots coming from the spot.

His nose injury and a back complaint from before the tournament are logical explanations, though he also highlighted another change when it was put to him that he hasn’t been making the same off-the-ball runs as before.

“It depends on the team,” Mbappe said last week. “A striker must always adapt to all situations, to his teammates, to their characteristics. Many people refer to the game we had when I arrived in the national team, but we had different players. For example, in the middle, we had Paul Pogba; with him, you just have to lower your head, run, make a call and you know that the ball will arrive at your foot.”

Currently serving a four-year doping ban, Pogba’s vision in midfield could often be a game changer for France, particularly when his distribution was allied with Mbappé’s pace and runs in behind.

Paul Pogba to Kylian Mbappe passes
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

And yet, Pogba played no part at the 2022 World Cup but Mbappé certainly wasn’t starved of service. In Qatar, he received 27 more line-breaking passes (104) than any other player in the tournament; at Euro 2024, his 44 received is fewer than 24 players and less than half the 89 collected by Bukayo Saka (albeit from fewer matches).

However, for all the talk of France’s lack of productivity in the opponents’ penalty area, they’ve also been miserly in their own.

Stats such as all four goals from France’s five Euro 2024 matches (three for, one against) being penalties (2) or own goals (2), and all 128 non-penalty shots in those matches (86 for France, 42 for opponents) failing to produce a goal, obviously don’t reflect well on them as an attacking force, though there’s the flip side as well.

Their 44 shots faced in total is the seventh lowest of all teams at Euro 2024, and five of those to have fewer didn’t make it out of the group stage. Additionally, only Germany (0.57) have better non-penalty xG against per-game averages than Les Bleus (0.74), highlighting how they’ve generally done a good job at restricting their opponents’ flow of high-value chances.

France xGA map

And when they have managed to actually test Mike Maignan, the AC Milan goalkeeper has been reliable. His 94% save percentage is the best of any goalkeeper to feature more than once; in fact, that’s the best record at a single Euros since Iker Casillas (also 94%) in 2012 with Spain.

Nevertheless, he’s definitely been protected well. William Saliba, Dayot Upamecano, Théo Hernández and Koundé in front of Maignan have been solid, especially the Arsenal centre-back. The only defender among those still in the tournament to better his 24 clearances is Virgil van Dijk (30), while he and Upamecano rank among the best centre-backs for possession regains (19 each). Together, those two offer near enough a complete package at the back.

At the moment, their reliability as a centre-back pairing in front of a dependable goalkeeper looks likely to be what sets France apart if they do ultimately go all the way. With goals surprisingly difficult to come by, Mbappé only simmering, and Euro 2024’s best team facing them next, Les Bleus don’t head into the semi-finals in particularly inspiring form.

But if their brilliant defence blunts Spain’s vibrant attack en route to another final, it’ll be difficult to see England or the Netherlands plotting a way through.

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