In a disappointment that feels all too familiar for France, the host nation has been eliminated in the quarterfinals for the second World Cup in a row — and it will come as small consolation that the loss to the United States was closer even than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. Instead, what this game has to hammer home, for France and anyone watching, is that as good as Les Bleues can be — and their best XI can and often has looked better than the Americans’ best XI — the rest of the world is still miles behind the US when it comes to depth.
A 4-1 thumping of South Korea in the opener aside, France never quite played to their potential in this tournament. Instead of the silky-smooth, fast-moving offense this team has beaten the US with in friendly play over the last few years, we’ve seen a one-dimensional attack that’s relied almost entirely on Kadidiatou Diani or Amel Majri sending crosses in to Valerie Gauvin. When that hasn’t worked, or when Diani hasn’t been available, France’s offense has been stymied, and two of their four wins in the tournament have relied on penalties — one, against Nigeria, a penalty plus a controversial VAR-mandated retake.
That close call against Nigeria wasn’t a fluke, either. With Diani and Eugenie Le Sommer both resting, the offense looked utterly flat against a team France thrashed 8-0 just over a year go. That result, as well as nervy 2-1 wins over Norway and Brazil, have been framed, not without good reason, as evidence this team has learned to win ugly, to persevere and grit out results in situations where they might have gotten frustrated and given up a few years ago. But perseverance and grit only get you so far, and there was another lesson in that Nigeria game: the difference between France’s best XI and their best XI minus even one or two key players is enormous.
That might seem like a moot point given that France’s starting lineup today has been their best XI in this World Cup. It proved relevant in two senses, though.
First, unlike the spoiled-for-choice US, the shallowness of France’s roster left them with basically no ability to adapt. The choice between Gauvin and Delphine Cascarino was the only real tactical decision to be made, given the quality of the players available, and when Corinne Diacre did make that substitution, it didn’t fundamentally change the game plan, instead simply drawing Diani centrally to act as the target for crosses from the left more often.
Second, if a Le Sommer-less France tends to look listless in the attack, a France with a not-quite-in-form Le Sommer is almost as bad. The star forward has been effectively marked out of the tournament, often looking like she hasn’t wanted to commit in one-on-one situations. Whether this is due to not quite being fully healthy after a long Champions League campaign (she sat out the pre-World Cup friendlies and at least a few training sessions early in the tournament, although Diacre insists she’s not injured) or to simply not being back in form after injury, France has suffered. This might have been a very different game if Le Sommer had really looked like a threat on the wing opposite Diani.
Finally, if there’s one coaching decision Diacre will have to answer for, it’s one made before the tournament even started — the choice to leave D1F’s leading scorer, Marie-Antoinette Katoto, at home in favor of the inexperienced Emmelyne Laurent. The decision came down to what Diacre felt was an attitude problem, as Katoto has failed to score in recent big club matches, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have been if a striker with a skill set a little more diverse than Gauvin’s had been available. The narrative around France, one Diacre clearly bought into herself, was that their biggest challenge was going to be mental toughness, but this wasn’t a psychological defeat. It was a difference in quality.
The margins, for France, were always going to be razor-thin, and outplaying the US for much of the game wasn’t enough. Jill Ellis can be criticized for her lineup choices, but at the end of the day, the American roster is by far the deepest in the world, and that makes up for a lot.
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