Monday 26 September 2016

Brian Kerr: Les Bleus can provide their nation with final flourish

Deschamps' side have overcome defensive doubts and discovered winning formula which should give them an edge against Portugal

Brian Kerr

Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30

France's coach Didier Deschamps conducts training. Photo: Charles Platiau
France's coach Didier Deschamps conducts training. Photo: Charles Platiau

Despite all the understandable pre-tournament trepidation, there was only one moment when I felt really anxious during Euro 2016.

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It was after the Irish defeat to Belgium in Bordeaux when we nearly missed the train. We struggled to get a taxi and myself and George Hamilton were re-enacting the 'French Connection'. I don't know which one of us was Popeye Doyle.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

When we got to the station, the security checks were more exhaustive than anything we witnessed before. It was a brief reminder of what we had thankfully learned to forget.

Terrorist threats had overshadowed the tournament but, mercifully, never suffocated it. Whenever I passed through Gare Du Nord, what confronted me was a United Nations of colour, jerseys of every hue united in football, their devotion to the beautiful game defying the unspoken threat.

Security was obviously present but it seemed invisible to us. We had been warned not to use the metro but some of my most enjoyable times were spent there amidst the joyous, travelling hordes.

Mirrored

France's Antoine Griezmann acknowledges fans as he celebrates at the end of the match vs Germany. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach
France's Antoine Griezmann acknowledges fans as he celebrates at the end of the match vs Germany. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach

The French hosting of Euro 2016 mirrored their team's progress, beginning unobtrusively and seemingly becoming more and more impressive the longer the tournament went on.

By tomorrow night, ultimate victory could well be achieved and it would prove to be just as joyous as the World Cup experience for the hosts in 1998.

Of course, there had been nervous anticipation on the sporting front too as regards the novel, 24-team format deployed by UEFA.

It has to be admitted that it was hugely beneficial for the overall profile of the game in Europe, particularly when almost half of the countries who started out on the qualifying road to France ultimately reached their destination.

Read More: Anatomy of Cristiano Ronaldo: How he became the perfect footballing specimen

We have viewed tremendously colourful snapshots of just how the feverish madness witnessed on this entire island was replicated in other countries like Iceland and Albania.

One wonders, though, after a while, will the public get tired of the surfeit of games initially involved in eliminating just over half of the competing countries from qualifying, before then taking another 36 tournament games to evict only eight teams before the knockout round?

A novelty factor is not always sustainable.

Spain's summer confirmed the end of their wonderful era. Their adaptation from tiki-taka to a new football language has not yet been fully translated.

Because of the extra knockout round, it seems unlikely we will ever again witness a surprise winner such as Greece (2004) or Denmark (1992).

Still, Iceland and the other small nations, in terms of population - Albania, Northern Ireland and the Republic - brought colour, made friends and attracted the interest in the underdog story.

I was getting texts from people with no love of football. "Come on Iceland!"

But really only ourselves and Wales in patches brought anything exciting football-wise to the party.

This tournament has once again confirmed the fact that solid organised defensive structures, with a good counter-attacking plan, goes a long way.

Many of the star individuals that teams were relying on to become the pathway to success - Lewandowski, Ibrahimovic, Kane, Muller, Hazard - were instead confronted by frequent road-blocks, largely nullified by defensive systems and tight marking.

In truth, only Gareth Bale, Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo have surmounted the challenge and produced the goods on anything approaching a consistent basis.

The lack of dribbling skills has been too glaring to ignore. Germany, renowned for their efficiency, have still not manufactured a centre-forward.

They deserved to make the final but circumstances conspired against them, as did their inability to mine a striker.

Systems have superseded the individual; it is little wonder the smaller nations set up in this manner for they are merely aping their superiors.

What this tournament has also shown is that dominating possession has become less important. Where Spain won the tournament four years ago at the peak of their powers by completely lording possession, the wheel has turned.

Just as we saw with Leicester winning the Premier League, more teams are happier to allow the opposition to have the ball in order to suck players into a counter-attacking spider's web.

Extinct

Wingers are almost extinct. For now. Converted wingers, on the other hand, have become increasingly prominent.

Bale has moved inside; he is now effectively a number ten. Nani and Ronaldo have also forged new roles.

Most teams have dispensed with them but use adaptable midfielders and strikers in wider positions, supporting a lone central striker.

Even Martin O'Neill has renounced his original formation that included both Aiden McGeady and James McClean, although he still does try to retain one of them.

The endangered species that is the winger has been slowly culled to allow more players in midfield to gain control of that central area.

Also, full-backs are increasingly being deployed to provide teams with attacking width and are hence also responsible for the slow extinction of wingers.

Germany's full-backs had more ball than anyone against France but both Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich lacked the dribbling and crossing ability that could create enough chances. This, allied to the lack of a centre-forward that could finish them, led to their downfall.

What's become obvious is that forward players need to be much more adaptable. Very few teams are playing with two out-and-out attackers any more. Even our leading striker, Shane Long, was mostly deployed on the right.

Although France and Portugal have reached the final with two front men - albeit not exactly alongside each other - most teams have played with one central, focal striker with support from two or three erstwhile centre-forwards or ex-wingers.

Read More: 'Ronaldo's shot was useless...apart from goal he didn't do anything' - Joe Ledley says Bale is superior to Real team-mate

Closer to home, Wales' progress outstripped everyone on these islands; while they won four of their six games, the two Irish teams and England won just three of their 12.

What set Wales apart? For a start, they had the only world-class player. They had a team that had been settled for almost two years now, aided by a well-drilled defensive system and a Premier League midfield capable of consistently retaining possession.

England's showing confirmed that their massive potential was merely that. They failed to achieve the correct balance between potential and experience.

A kind word wouldn't go amiss for Northern Ireland, who exceeded expectations by getting to the last 16 with a limited squad.

For Ireland, the circumstances of Robbie Brady's goal against Italy and the joy that ensued were memorable moments.

Overall, we have found something that works, a cadre of young players like Brady, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick who can pass the ball and play with a bit of traditional Irish style. Neat, clever football laced with passion. Here's hoping this can be maintained on a regular basis.

As he admitted at the start of his tenure, Martin O'Neill would have discovered that international football is a different kettle of fish.

Until this summer, it has been a lengthy experimental time in terms of style, system and personnel.

A lot of his preconceptions have been swept away. It took the searing, white-hot intensity of tournament play to allow a different new team to emerge, one that might have a brighter future.

And it was great to see many Irish supporters throng to France, especially those from an ecumenical background.

I saw so many GAA and rugby rucksacks; I hope they're all converted.

Tomorrow night, we will finish where we started with France in Paris. But can they become champions?

Doubts about their defence, the ageing Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, the sometimes flaky Laurent Koscielny lacking a reliable partner, have been mainly overcome. The goals conceded to Iceland could be put down to a lack of concentration.

But the number of chances Germany spurned from crosses in the second half are likely to be punished by Ronaldo and Nani if that aerial uncertainty is repeated,

However, they showed a resilience personified by the new boy Samuel Umtiti that screamed a determination to lift the nation.

Didier Deschamps (left) has a massive decision to make again whether to start N'Golo Kante or stick with Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi who were completely outplayed in the semi-final.

The latter partnership allows him to use Griezmann where he is more effective behind Olivier Giroud. His five goals in two-and-a-half games since his half-time move against Ireland are a proof of the pudding.

Shored

But Kante's arrival shored up the French midfield. So does he plump for the three midfielders and Griezmann forced to the right? I think not.

I doubt Deschamps is overly concerned about the Portuguese midfield four. It is solid and neat in possession but only the 18-year-old Renato Sanchez shows attacking intent. They play narrowly with João Mario, Silva and Pereira protecting the defence.

The width and crossing supply comes from the impressive Cedric and Raphael Guerreiro.

Portugal have been involved in some fairly dull games since they scrambled to third in a group behind Hungary and Iceland, and the dullest of all the last 16 ties against Croatia where neither team had a shot on target.

Read More: Antoine Griezmann is the toast of France as his brace sends Germany crashing out

After just beating Poland, their performance against Wales was impressive. Once again Ronaldo was the glory boy, scoring one brilliant header and creating Nani's second.

Those two give Portugal a chance. Their pace and directness on the counter will be the ploy.

That's if Ronaldo is really in the humour to be the saviour. Some days he can be anonymous, some days a game-changer.

He can be cast as a villain, like after his comments about Iceland and his over-reaction to his own defenders' deficiencies against Hungary.

All will be forgiven if he drags a proud football nation to gold at last.

Portugal have lost ten in a row against France and the depth of squad and options give France the edge.

Only eight months since the Stade de France was bathed in shocking terror, a home victory, and a crowd swathed in defiant victory, would be a truly fitting conclusion.

Irish Independent

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