Spain-Croatia was the game of the tournament for all of an hour or so. Switzerland’s upset of France—and the twists involved—made for an unforgettable result.
An extraordinary day of football ended in the most extraordinary way, with the exit of the Euro 2020 favorite and reigning World Cup champion, France, in a penalty shootout, at the hands of Switzerland. Kylian Mbappé, charged with taking the fifth penalty to extend the shootout following a 3–3 draw through regulation and extra time, saw his effort saved by Yann Sommer, with the Swiss goalkeeper diving to his right to paw the ball away and a moment that instantly became iconic. But those are bald statements that do nothing to capture a game of incredible twists and drama. France, the most solid and pragmatic of sides, led 3–1 with nine minutes remaining in regular time, and yet it is Switzerland that advances to the quarterfinal to face Spain, whose 5–3, extra-time victory over Croatia turned out to be only the second-most ludicrous game of the day.
Didier Deschamps’s France has never been easy to work out. Its defining quality has been its capacity to win without convincing. It specializes in playing within itself, grinding out games, until it comes under pressure and suddenly comes alive to do just enough. It frustrates neutrals by seeming always to offer something more than it delivers. And Monday, it paid the price. It seemed like it had done enough and then stopped, but it turned out it had not. Granit Xhaka and Steven Zuber were brilliant and Haris Seferović and Mario Gavranović each had a goal left in them. What had looked like another slightly unsatisfactory France win became perhaps the greatest night in Switzerland’s football history.
But even by France’s standards, this was extraordinary, a game that made very little sense, that was lost and won, and tossed away again. For 55 minutes France was dreadful. The world champion was facing the exit. And then in the space of just over four minutes, Hugo Lloris saved a penalty and Karim Benzema, whose recall to the France squad was so controversial, scored twice.
The first was the result of a brilliantly imaginative touch by himself, the second involved a back-heel flick from Mbappé. The third, added 15 minutes later by Paul Pogba, might have been the best of the lot. In highlight reels, this France looks sensational; the potential is there for this side to be one of transcendent appeal. In reality, for all its success, it always feels as though it could be even better than it already is. It is a team that aspires to be boring, that often is boring, and yet keeps getting caught up in incredible games.
With both left backs injured, Deschamps opted for a back three, with Clement Lenglet coming in between Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe. Perhaps the thinking was that the wingbacks would offer the attacking width France often lacked in the group stage. They did not. France did not at this tournament rediscover the balance of the World Cup, an indication perhaps of just what a key role Blaise Matuidi, in his tucked-in left-sided role, provided in Russia three summers ago.
With Antoine Griezmann dropping deep off of a front two of Mbappé and Benzema, France still tended to direct attacks down the center, into a congested area. Switzerland, by contrast, had width, and repeatedly threatened to get in behind the French wingbacks. That was the source of the opening goal, with Zuber hanging up a cross for Seferović to outmuscle Lenglet and bury a header past Lloris—a record-equalling fourth assist of the tournament for the Eintracht Frankfurt wingback.
Every cross caused problems. The heart of France’s defense did not look at all comfortable. Benjamin Pavard looks like a center back even at a more orthodox fullback spot and all the more so higher up the pitch. Adrien Rabiot, meanwhile, never seemed comfortable either positionally or on the ball.
Switzerland, in the first half, looked weirdly comfortable. Pogba, not for the first time, was uncertain in a central midfield pair. There was a lack of pace, a lack of energy, nobody putting pressure on the ball. Lenglet was withdrawn at halftime, and Kingsley Coman was introduced, with the system shifting to a sort of 4-3-3, with Rabiot filling in at left back.
But still France looked shaky. Only a vital touch from Varane denied Xherdan Shaqiri a tap-in, and then, from a break down the other flank, a clumsy challenge from Pavard on Zuber gave Switzerland a 55th-minute penalty. Veteran Ricardo Rodriguez, though, lacked conviction, and Lloris saved it.
That was the let-off France needed, or so it appeared. Two minutes later, Benzema, stretching behind him and somehow manufacturing a forward flick, gathered an Mbappé flick and poked a finish past Sommer. Two minutes after that, he had his second, and his fourth of the tournament, nodding in at the back post after a one-two between Griezmann and Mbappé. Suddenly Pogba, back in a three-man unit, began dictating play again, and he added a stunning third with 15 minutes remaining, bending a shot into the top corner from almost 30 yards, his first goal for his country since the 2018 World Cup final.
All logic said that should have been it, but this was not a day on which logic played a huge role. Seferović powered in an 81st-minute header from Kevin Mbabu’s cross to offer a reminder of France’s defensive frailty. Gavranović had a would-be equalizer ruled out for offside, and yet still it wasn’t over. In the final minute, Pogba lost possession, Shaqiri fed Gavranović, and the substitute found the bottom corner.
France, which nearly won at the death of regulation on a sensational Coman volley, rallied in extra time. Pogba played a series of astonishing passes, one of which brought a miss that will haunt Mbappé, as he let the ball run onto his left foot and skewed it wide when a right-footed finish would have seemed more natural. This time, at last, France couldn’t simply conjure a goal when it needed one.
Mbappé looked like a player under pressure. The French penalty takers who went before him all waited, took their time, and scored. He rushed his kick, seeming duped by Sommer’s point and feint. Switzerland, whose five kickers were all successful, had never previously won a penalty shootout in a major tournament. It’ll never forget its first. France, meanwhile, is left to ponder the immediate future and wonder what it left behind—aside from a Euro 2020 bracket that has now been blown wide open following the elimination of its looming giant.
More Euro 2020 Coverage:
- Wilson: Spain Puts Its Pitfalls, Potential on Display in Thriller vs. Croatia
- Wilson: Czechs Better On the Balance in Ousting Netherlands
- Wilson: Italy Loses Some Invincibility but Answers Another Question
- Wilson: Thunderbolt and Thunderdome: How Belgium Ended Portugal’s Reign