France 5-2 Iceland: five talking points from the Euro 2016 quarter-final

Neither Samuel Umtiti nor Moussa Sissoko can be sure of keeping his place for France’s semi-final against Germany but Olivier Giroud is a certain starter

1) Umtiti handles his high-pressure hurdle

Samuel Umtiti made his debut for France, having vaulted over Eliaquim Mangala in the defensive pecking order perhaps because his move from Lyon to Barcelona, confirmed last week, forced Didier Deschamps to take him seriously. Six months ago, in a television interview, the France coach pretty much laughed off the then Lyon defender’s international claims, and he only made the squad because of a calf injury sustained by Jeremy Mathieu in late May. As debuts go, this was a particularly high-profile one, Umtiti becoming the first Frenchman in half a century to make his international debut at a major competition – though Mangala has only ever appeared for France in friendlies. There were some early nerves – in the first 10 minutes he needed Blaise Matuidi to help him out with dispossessing Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – but he tracked the same player well when Iceland had a long throw flicked on, and looked more comfortable on the ball than the suspended Adil Rami, whom he replaced, and in the end misplaced only one of his 79 passes. Iceland exposed some poor marking and it was Umtiti who was trailing behind Kolbeinn Sigthorsson when Iceland scored their first goal, but Deschamps was comfortable enough with his performance to take off Laurent Koscielny in the second half.

2) Underdogs’ defence too high, too often

It was Iceland’s defence, though, that looked intrinsically imperfect. Inside the first 20 minutes each of France’s deep-lying central midfielders, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba, looped one wonderful pass over the Icelandic backline, and on both occasions it led to a goal. The first, from Matuidi, sent Olivier Giroud running clear to score; the second found Antoine Griezmann running into the penalty area and, though his attempted backheel flick was deflected behind for a corner, the set piece was emphatically headed in by Pogba, whose run from deep went unchecked while Iceland’s zonal markers stood around waiting for the ball to land on their heads. In those 90 seconds Iceland’s defensive positioning, both from open play and from set pieces, was exposed. Griezmann’s goal also came as a result of a defence that was stationed too high being caught on its heels, as a result of a Giroud touch that was so slight it was almost a dummy.

3) Iceland true to the last

Iceland became the first team to name the same starting XI in their first five games of a European Championship finals. Seven of them had finished every game as well, and one of the remaining four had only spent four minutes off the field. The surprising thing is that this team, so settled and certain in reaching this stage, started only two of their 10 qualifiers, and one of those was a goalless home draw against Kazakhstan (the other, more impressively, was an away win in Holland). All but two of the 11 players came into this game one booking from a ban (France, on the other hand, had received only six yellow cards in the entire tournament but nevertheless contrived to have two players ruled out of this game). It was hard to work out whether this affected their tackling, so rarely did they even come close to the ball until the game had effectively been decided. Birkir Bjarnason certainly did not hold back when he tripped Griezmann from behind in the opening moments, and he became the first of only two bookings 58 minutes later, thereby guaranteeing – as if the four French goals already scored had not done so already – there would be no sixth unchanged line-up.

4) From jeers to cheers for golden Giroud

It is just over a month since Olivier Giroud was being roundly and regularly booed by French fans, even while scoring in a pre-tournament friendly over Cameroon. “It is a shame,” he said then. “We want the fans to encourage us. I do not understand it much.” It looks even harder to comprehend now, with his two goals here leaving him with a record of 10 goals in nine starts for his country going back to last November. The cheers which rang around the Stade de France as he left the field in the second half told of his enhanced reputation and he was substituted only to protect him from the booking that would have ruled him out of the semi-final. Giroud’s two assists for Griezmann in this tournament further highlight his importance, even if the one here was not as good as the beautiful knock-down against the Republic of Ireland, while the same combination also played an important part in setting up Dimitri Payet’s goal, Giroud nodding down Bacary Sagna’s cross to Griezmann, who gave the ball to the scorer.

5) Sissoko leaves Deschamps with a question to answer

Having replaced the suspended N’Golo Kanté with the more attacking Moussa Sissoko for this game, Deschamps’ big call for the semi-final will be whether to retain this arrangement – in which Sissoko linked well with Giroud, Griezmann and Dimitri Payet and created better balance in both attack and midfield – or to bring Kanté back into the team. It is a battle between conservatism and optimism, between reducing the team’s chances of conceding and improving their chances of scoring, but Sissoko’s performance here was not quite enough to settle the debate in his favour. With Germany deprived of their only genuine striker, Mario Gomez, who has been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament through injury, and with three of their midfielders having already scored in France, Kanté’s qualities in closing down and tracking back may be considered the more important, at least from the start.


Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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