Rio2016 : France knocked out by Canada in Olympic quarter-final

Le Sommer sadness cropped

On Friday night, moving into the early hours of Saturday morning, les Bleues lost 1-0 in their Olympic quarter-final against Canada. They had gone through second in their group after wins over Colombia (4-0) and New Zealand (3-0), but it was their 1-0 loss against the USA that was characteristic and presaged the knock-out round knock-out.

That, the second group game, was the archetypal game of two halves; in the first, France had possession and made chances but failed to score. The US came out strong in the second half, dominated the ball, and scored with their first shot on target. Despite battling hard, and having twice as many shots as their opponents (14-7), the French couldn’t make it through.

So, on to Canada, whom France beat 1-0 in a recent friendly. As noted in our preview, this took a glorious freekick from Camille Abily as Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe had a very good game. In the competitive repeat, and as predicted, set-pieces looked the best chance for a goal – their first shot was a freekick half an hour in, and that and their other big first-half chance both fell to central defenders (Griedge M’Bock and Wendie Renard). France may rue some of the decisions, an early penalty shout for a foul on Eugenie Le Sommer being turned down, the whistle blowing before the final corner could be taken, but the key factor was again lack of efficiency in attack, meaning that a lapse in concentration at the back could be decisive. Again, France had twice as many shots (12-5); again, couldn’t make it through.

We’ve been banging on about this issue for a while now, and a round-up of the relevant statistics from the 2011 WWC up to the end of the 2015 WWC group stage can be found here. Subsequent to that at the World Cup, they beat South Korea 3-0 in the round of 16 in a typical display against a team of that level (currently ranked 19th) before drawing 1-1 with Germany in the quarter-final having had 24 shots to 17 – but pointedly 4 on target to 7 – and losing on penalties.

The shots stats for this tournament paint an interesting picture (click on the Rio2016 links here) – France scored seven goals from their 26 shots combined against Colombia and New Zealand, but none from their 26 shots combined against the USA and Canada; of those, 17 were on target against Colombia and New Zealand versus 9 against the USA and Canada. The level of effort against different levels of opponent is largely static, but the shots against the better sides are taken from worse positions and/or under more pressure, as you’d expect when facing a decent defence. There’s little sign of France playing differently against different opponents; they cruise in qualifying campaigns where they are the highest-ranked team in their group, but can’t change things up. Knowing this, their friendly schedule is designed to be a bigger challenge; their 2016 results being a 1-0 win over Norway (11th), a goalless draw against England (4th), and 1-0 losses to the US and Germany. After Euro qualifying was wound up, they had a 3-0 win over China (12th) and that match against Canada (10th). And then stumbled when it came to the crunch.

Post-match, Philippe Bergeroo gave a rather biting evaluation of his team, featuring the words «problèmes mentaux», and lack of «qualités psychologiques». He also commented on the rumours that he might step down : “I’m under contract until 2017. There you go. At the moment, that question doesn’t arise.” Bruno Bini said much the same thing after the 2013 Euros, which saw France lose the quarter-final on penalties to Denmark (final score 1-1 after France had 31 shots to 4, for those keeping count). He was dismissed a week later. Again, the question really should arise. Bergeroo may not be as tactically limited as Bini, and there has been an improvement in conversion rate during his reign, but he still hasn’t managed to make a wonderfully talented group of players sufficiently efficient in the matches that matter.

Bini’s modus operandi when things were going badly was to throw on as many attackers as possible, leading to players getting in each others’ way while breaking an often already fragile link between defence and attack; Bergeroo is more considered, using substitutions to nudge things forward rather than cleaving straight through the midfield, and starting Amel Majri on the wing so she could concentrate on attacking with the knowledge that Sakina Karchaoui was in the leftback position behind her. However the patience shown by the defence in playing the ball around in a reasonably high line was not continued through and into midfield, and a team that usually edges possession often relies on breaking rather than pressing in open play. At the end against Canada, it was frantic – desperate and disjointed. Even had they got to take that final corner, even had someone (Renard) headed them level, you didn’t fancy their chances in extra-time. And even then, not on penalties.

If Bergeroo does go, it will be a case of, in the words of Douglas Adams, so long and thanks for all the fish. Bergeroo seems well aware of what the problem is – “it’s the story of this group that it lacks spark at important moments. In three years, when we have gone behind, we have come back only once” (presumably a reference to the 3-1 win over Japan in the Algarve Cup 2015) – he just doesn’t know what to do about it. He continued : “what bothers me is to to have come second in the physical challenges – I don’t say in desire, because I am not here to blame the girls”.

Well, it sounds like he is a bit. And he takes part of the blame as well. France need a manager who can address these issues and get the best out of this group. If, as Bergeroo sees it, everything was working fine in training, if the build-up was good, if they had desire, if they were in the best state to have a good tournament – and then their heads dropped after conceding, well, then, part of that has to fall on the manager. France have already qualified for Euro 2017 with seven wins from seven, 21 scored and none conceded – and for WWC 2019 as hosts. If they are to make an impact at either tournament, something needs to be done.

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