France’s scoreless draw with Luxembourg, played out in Toulouse on Sunday evening, is a confounding result, and also one with no easy answers. The hosts, by all rights, should have thumped one of UEFA’s smallest countries, even in the absences of Ousmane Dembélé and Benjamin Mendy.
The disparities between shots, possession, saves made, pass completion percentages, and even more contemporary metrics such as expected goals clearly pointed to a home win, but it wasn’t to be. France remain top of their group, but only by a single point, and their remaining fixtures, away to Bulgaria and at home to Belarus, could be deceptively tricky.
Bulgaria are no longer the force they once were, but have beaten the Netherlands and Sweden in the group; had they not lost to Belarus, they might even harbour a hope of qualifying. Belarus, while never too impressive, had also held France to a scoreless draw a year ago; neither match should be considered an easy contest, especially in light of Sunday’s result. While the road ahead looks difficult, but likely manageable, there is perhaps more to be gained by an autopsy of the draw in Toulouse than there is by projecting future results.
Before delving into this analysis, it would be remiss not to laud Luxembourg for a compact performance. They had given France a surprising amount of trouble the last time the two sides had met, in the spring, and were a similarly hard case to crack on Sunday as well. Veteran goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert, by far the oldest player on what is largely a very young side, made a host of superb saves, and the defenders, notably Metz’s Chris Philipps, were similarly superb. Qualification is mathematically impossible, but given the successes of so-called minnows in qualifying for last year’s European Championships, manager Luc Holtz could yet have something to build upon starting in a year’s time.
France, as previously mentioned, were without Mendy, only just coming back into fitness and Dembélé, who failed to feature for Dortmund as he forced through a move to Barcelona. The performances of the two players who replaced them, Layvin Kurzawa and Kylian Mbappé, were poor, and mark a good starting point.
Mbappé, however, is perhaps deserving of some sympathy. He barely featured for Monaco before completing his loan move to Paris Saint-Germain, and he was also asked to play out of position, on the right flank, as Kingsley Coman similarly lacked match fitness, his start in the win over the Dutch on Thursday his first of the season for club or country save a German Cup match against amateur opposition.
Coman plays as an orthodox, and very adept winger, crossing the ball and beating his man, and while he struggled with injury last season, he is a capable player, albeit one very dissimilar to Mbappé. The highly-touted younger player scored a cracking goal on Thursday, which may have had an undue influence on Didier Deschamps’ decision to start him, but he has always played as either a second striker or as a left-sided inverted winger. Deschamps is well-known for having a bizarre adherence to players’ “footedness” and being that Mbappé is right-footed, and may play on that flank for his new club, the manager may have thought him worth a gamble in an unfamiliar position, particularly against such lightly-regarded opposition.
As it was, though, Mbappé frequently took up a more central role, and he did do well to link play with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. However, he also left France with a dearth of width on the right flank as a result of his inclinations to play more centrally. Djibril Sidibé did his best to make up the deficit, but, much like Griezmann, Paul Pogba, and Thomas Lemar, the way that Mbappé continually took these positions played rather neatly into the hands of Luxembourg’s low block.
Still, though, while Mbappé’s positional discipline could be improved upon, perhaps more blame in this regard lies with Deschamps, especially with Florian Thauvin, a natural right winger, in reserve, and Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette also experienced in that position. Even so, Deschamps would have likely been labeled a killjoy had he not found some way to start Mbappé. It’s not a manager’s job to please a side’s fans, per sé, but in a carnival atmosphere away from the usual venue of the Stade de France, he could perhaps be forgiven for this tactic.
Defensible as Mbappé’s performance can be, Layvin Kurzawa’s was beyond the pale. The left back, a day ahead of his 25th birthday, was asked to start ahead of Barcelona’s Lucas Digne with Mendy unfit. He is never a similar player to the Manchester City man, being much more physical, direct, and pace-reliant. Yet on this occasion, perhaps wishing to put himself in Deschamps’ good graces, he offered his best impression of his compatriot, albeit a very poor impression.
Mendy’s play and recent success has come as a result of an improved work ethic, good pace and a sublime ability to cross the ball. With Giroud playing as a target man, France have profited immensely from this approach, with Giroud’s second goal against the same opponent in March the product of a pearl of cross by the then-Monaco left back. Kurzawa, despite being afforded plenty of space and time on the ball, was as poor as one could have hoped for. L’Équipe noted that he lost the ball, either through an aimless cross, a lazy through ball, or an overly ambitious dribble, a total of 41 times during the match, a stunning figure no matter the circumstances.
Giroud, in particular, was visibly frustrated by Kurzawa, who delivered 17 crosses, none of which found their intended target. Again, Luxembourg’s aerial prowess deserves some of the credit here, but Kurzawa’s bizarre insistence on playing in crosses when this is never his normal style of play was particularly maddening.
He was also guilty of a poor first touch when receiving a ball into the flat, with a raking ball by Pogba into a dangerous position mis-controlled ahead of the interval. Digne will have only been encouraged by this performance, but it might conceivably see Kurzawa left out when France reconvenes in a month’s time.
This analysis of these two players fails to tell the whole, story, of course. Pogba was nearly as culpable as Kurzawa, shooting as often as he pleased from range, and despite drawing a fine diving save late in the first half from Joubert, he rarely seriously looked like troubling the back of the net.
Opposite Mbappé, Lemar, so irrepressible on Thursday, looked dull as he added to the congestion in midfield by cutting inside and forcing Kurzawa wide, while the normally reliable Laurent Koscielny nearly gifted the visitors what would have been an even more shocking win late in the match, only for Luxembourg substitute Gerson Rodrigues to hit the post on the counter.
Even the normally unassailable Griezmann snatched at a few chances, and despite hitting the bar, failed to deliver the sort of performance that saw France impress last summer. Griezmann wasn’t the only player to lament his misfortune, as Lacazette saw a curling effort cleared off the line and Pogba also hit the woodwork late on with a looping header at a corner. In reality, France did create enough chances to win the match, but when bad luck is combined with performances as poor as those of Kurzawa and many of his teammates, the blame has to be shifted to the players’ lack of quality and effort.
The returns of Mendy and Dembélé will be a welcome tonic for France come October, but this match should rightfully cast a long shadow on Les Bleus in the intervening weeks. For a side as talented as France patently are, they too often, as they did on Sunday, look like a team of individuals, over-reliant on skill rather than invention and tactical discipline to batter mediocre opponents. As this result, the draw in Belarus and the loss to Sweden showed, football can be a game of fine margins. Without a necessary injection of tactical coherence and cooperation, this supremely talented group of players could well find themselves disappointed come next summer should they not heed Sunday’s warning.