Tears (to rhyme with airs). Tears (to rhyme with fears). Both words so alike and yet just a little different. It was the same with the French line-up against Switzerland. So alike – the same structure, the same back-line – and yet with Payet, Giroud and Kante a notable trio of absentees.
There was also much that was torn. Five, by my count, Swiss shirts (Mehmedi, Dzemaili, Xhaka, Embolo, and Xhaka again), Puma clearly accidentally showcasing their shirts-for-strippers version of the kit. You Can Leave Your Xhak On, if you will.
The ball, too, suffered a tear early into the second half, a rip right down the seam. The air came out – pufffft – in a sudden cloud of opaque white mist.
In science-fiction, a sudden tear is likely to happen to the fabric of space-time, leading to some kind of anarchy. As France were so drawn to tears, it was no surprise that Deschamps did the same to his side in desperation to win.
It was not an obvious tear. Not one that causes immediate explosions and warning lights and sirens; more one that puts into action a slow-burning implosion instead, as things become confused and break down.
For much of the match, France’s midfield had been structured in an understandable way. Cabaye and Sissoko altered between being the deep-lying point of the three-man central midfield, the other joining Pogba in more advanced positions. Coman largely kept some width in attack, while Griezmann at times mirrored this on the other flank, at times coming in more centrally. Gignac offered the point of the attack up-front.
This structure is not to say that France had been effective, but then the universe doesn’t have to be effective for it to be missed in the case of a reality-threatening implosion of all meaning. Their most regular mode of attack seemed to be to either drive through the Swiss midfield or to play a long pass and win the second ball (which proved to be more reliable than it sounds).
Then came the tear in the form of man of tears (as in fears this time) himself, Dimitri Payet. Payet, rested and a yellow card away from suspension in the next match, entered with just under a half hour to go. Immediately, the fabric of the French midfield was sucked slowly towards it’s inevitable and increasingly dense doom. (NB: I may, for purposes of livening up a 0-0 draw, be exaggerating).
With Payet and Griezmann on either flank, both players who prefer to drift centrally from their wide positions, the structure vanished. Immediately after the substitution, France had the ball just inside the Switzerland half in the left halfspace, but had Payet, Sissoko, Pogba, and Cabaye all operating in similar space, with Griezmann not far away either. With the two ‘wingers’ so often drifting centrally or to the opposite flank, it was left to Pogba and Sissoko (generally) to fill in gaps in positions they were not naturals in.
Perhaps Coman was better at balancing France’s midfield, perhaps Payet had come on with some “play how you want” instruction with Deschamps, but France had reverted almost completely to the relatively toothless entity they had been in the first two group games. Yes, Payet hit the bar, but this was from a break by Sissoko down the right – another tear, a tearaway, of a different kind this time.
Switzerland would not be threatening to cause France any tears, they offered so little going forwards they may as well have been neutral. While the French (possible lack of) defensive system allowed them a fair share of possession and territory in the French half, the Swiss could do little with it. France, who had pressured off the ball in the first half but dropped off almost completely in the second, seemed content to just let Switzerland edge forwards and wait for them to, well, quietly implode themselves.
No tears – whether from Payet or the crowd – at Lille, but through shirts, ball, and implosion of structure, plenty of tears.
FT: Switzerland 0 – France 0