UEFA Euro 2024: France can lean on their strong defense vs. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal as attack stumbles

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France are into the UEFA Euro 2024 quarterfinals and will face Portugal in the last eight on Friday in Hamburg, ahead of a potential semifinal meeting with Spain or hosts Germany in Stuttgart. Les Bleus have been far from impressive going forward with just three goals all tournament and two of those not even scored by members of head coach Didier Deschamps’ squad. Yet the French have conceded just one goal this summer — Robert Lewandowski’s retaken penalty vs. Poland — which is something that only La Roja can equal so far.

It has not been champagne soccer by any stretch of the imagination but tournament-winning runs rarely feature much of that as results-based coaching dominates. Few are better at that than France’s former World Cup and Euro-winning captain, Deschamps, who is looking to add this Euro as head coach to the one he won 24 years ago as a player. In his search for this trophy, he has put in place arguably the most impressive back line that this tournament has seen so far and their miserly form could be what carries Les Bleus to Berlin.

Antoine Griezmann summed up the French approach this summer best after the 1-0 win over Belgium on Monday by telling domestic press to stop being so critical of low-scoring wins. The victory over Austria in Group D and the success against the Belgians in the round of 16 have both come via lone own goals and the Polish group clash was headed that way too. With three clean sheets from a possible four in Germany, it is important to emphasize that settled defenses can be as valuable — if not more — than prolific attacks in a title tilt.

Following the Red Devils win, Deschamps’ men are the only team left in this Euro that has not been behind in a game for a single minute — better than even Spain’s record. That can be tempered with the fact that they are the team that has spent the most amount of time — 264 minutes to be precise — level with their opponents. However, recapturing their FIFA 2006 World Cup meanness at the back — they conceded just twice en route to their final loss to Fabio Cannavaro-inspired Italy — is impressive in its own right.

There are numerous factors which have contributed towards this sound rearguard with the main one among them William Saliba’s addition to the starting XI. For a player who was made to wait fairly long before being tested at senior international level, the Arsenal man has seized his opportunity without hesitation and has been France’s best player. Although it is rare for defenders to be singled out for praise at major international tournaments, the 23-year-old’s consistency and mature playing style has picked up where Raphael Varane left off and this step up is arguably what was keeping him out of the elite bracket until now.

Deschamps has passed on the likes of Aymeric Laporte in the past but has clearly kept tabs on Saliba’s progression since being made an integral part of Mikel Arteta’s Gunners XI. The Bondy-born stopper is already arguably the key piece in this rock solid rearguard and his role in possibly going further than the Portugal game could make him player of the tournament material. Saliba is not doing it alone, though, with Jules Kounde’s conversion into a more than adequate right-sided solution also massively important in all of this given the general dearth of quality right backs.

Right and left backs, but particularly on the right side, have been seen as Les Bleus’ potential weakness for a long time, but the Barcelona man is making light of that. This is something that Deschamps spotted and has worked on since previous international tournaments with Kounde essentially being shaped since Euro 2020. Barca’s use of the Frenchman in that same role has expedited the process, but it arguably started at international level and has since been mirrored by his club.

Kounde’s progress finally bearing fruit at the expense of Benjamin Pavard blends well with Theo Hernandez’s disciplined work on the left and Milan teammate Mike Maignan’s consistency in goal. Even if Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano still has the odd mistake in him, as we saw against Poland for the penalty, the result has been a watertight unit which Deschamps has not touched. The masterful touch which has arguably made this so effective, though, has been N’Golo Kante’s triumphant return to form in front of that defense.

Although he is now 33 and unlikely to still be involved in 2026 come the World Cup on U.S. soil, the Al-Ittihad man is doing what he has always done best, more or less as well as he has ever done it. Even if Kante drops out of the equation by the time France next challenges for an international title, the Saliba, Kounde, Hernandez and Upamecano combination will not. Aurelien Tchouameni’s regularity with Les Bleus here and moonlighting in defense with Real Madrid suggests that he could fill that void.

It might not be easy on the eye at times and Deschamps is doing little to win over the neutrals but there is a point at which you have to respect his approach. The 55-year-old is arguably as close as it comes to being the archetypal tournament specialist tactician and still commands the respect of his players which enables this sort of strategy to pay off. Do not bet against them squeezing past Portugal and exorcizing the ghosts of their Euro 2016 final loss before tackling the semifinals with a view to toppling either Spain or the German hosts.

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