Xhaka and Pogba: Even the best need help

Date published: Sunday 19th June 2016 10:36

Even Dimitri Payet could not make a difference, despite his best efforts. France and Switzerland headed into their final game in Group A knowing that a draw would likely see both sides qualify for the knock-out rounds; Albania’s heroics against Romania ensured it. A 0-0 draw unfolded, but this was hardly West Germany 1-0 Austria at the 1982 World Cup. There was no controversy, no deceit, no lack of application, just a deficiency in decisive quality.

This was more Laughter of Lille than Disgrace of Gijon; the manufacturers of the Switzerland shirt will face more questions than either manager. There were more slips on the questionable playing surface than there were moments of excellence. The ball even popped at one point, such was the might of a Valon Behrami tackle. And a Payet free-kick in the closing stages found only the head of his teammate, and not its usual residence of the top corner.

It is arguable that neither side will be satisfied with this result. France may have made wholesale changes to their starting XI, but the hosts missed an opportunity to build on their momentum with the tournament’s third goalless draw. Switzerland will feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a last-minute penalty after Bacary Sagna’s premature attempts to swap shirts with Blerim Dzemaili.

There were plenty of predictable events on Sunday evening. Johan Djourou inexplicably pressed the panic button in the second half, passing to an on-rushing Antoine Griezmann. France’s sole striker struggled and was subject to a negative reaction from his own fans – only this time it was Andre-Pierre Gignac, not Olivier Giroud, cast in the role. Moussa Sissoko managed to be both superb and substandard, often at the same time. And Paul Pogba and Granit Xhaka provided the star attractions.

It has been a mixed opening week of the tournament for the former. He was substituted against Romania, his performance duly criticised; he returned with a vengeance against Albania. Yet, despite his obvious talents and reputation, he remains a divisive individual in his home country.

Against Switzerland, he was France’s engine. He forced two saves from Yann Sommer in the first half, and struck one effort off the crossbar as the hosts exerted their authority. Flowing with a renewed confidence, the 23-year-old ended the game with four shots, three key passes, four tackles, two interceptions and four clearances. He was the heartbeat of almost every sign of attacking life from Didier Deschamps’ side, at times looking like a man on a mission. With his critics, he probably was.

Only one player had more touches than the Juventus midfielder (72). Xhaka (104 touches) was once again Switzerland’s calming influence – somewhat contradictory, given his rather competitive¬†demeanour. Arsenal’s new arrival made more than twice as many passes as any other player (94), as Vladimir Petkovic’s side claimed the majority of the possession. As has been the case in their opening two games however, the considerable bark came without a hint of a bite. Breel Embolo, just like Haris Seferovic before him, struggled to lead the line.

It was difficult not to watch and wonder what the outcome would be if Pogba and Xhaka swapped sides. France and Switzerland are flawed outfits – the latter far more so than the former – but they lack more than anything what those two individuals offer to the other. In Pogba and the lesser Sissoko, France had the midfield powerhouses, but Yohan Cabaye could not assert his midfield dominance alone; their sword was sharp, but the handle unworkable. In Xhaka, Switzerland had the midfield general, but no-one to force an attack; they could wield the sword, but it was so blunt it would do no damage.

Visibly fatigued from attempting to inspire his side to victory, Pogba’s influence waned somewhat in the second half. So did France’s – they created only one chance in which he did not play a central part. Xhaka remained self-assured throughout, but, as his adversary discovered, one can only do so much alone. Few individuals should emerge from this match satisfied with their efforts, but those two certainly should.


Matt Stead


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