It was a strike Dimitri Payet will tell his grandchildren about.
When it appeared that the France hype machine was approaching an unexpected halt, a moment of sheer individual brilliance left the Stade de France crowd in jubilation. What many believed would be a forthright result turned into a physical battle against a resilient Romanian side that were minutes away from a valuable point.
Didier Deschamps opted for Payet’s creativity over youngster Anthony Martial, and the West Ham midfielder justified the French manager’s selection by creating the opener, and scoring the late winner. Opening matches of tournaments are usually the toughest, and despite France’s positive performance on the night, Deschamps’ men didn’t meet their peak form, which in fairness shouldn’t be a surprise.
France maintained their traditional 4-3-3 formation throughout, but at times it appeared to be a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann playing close to striker Olivier Giroud. When Griezmann was caught in advanced zones, Paul Pogba would drift to the right flank to ensure the French maintained a solid shape out of possession. But for all the promise regarding a possible partnership, they rarely formed combinations that pestered the Romanian defence.
Apart from a few scares defending set-pieces – French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a key save within the opening two minutes – Deschamps’ men imposed their territorial dominance throughout the first half. The surprise, however, involved Romanian coach, Anghel Iordănescu’s, decision to have his side play further away from their 18-yard box to compress space in midfield.
Deschamps may have anticipated the Romanians would congest space around the 18-yard box by employing a low defensive block, but limiting space in midfield was a logical approach by Iordănescu considering the personnel included in the French XI. While Deschamps’ side is filled with several direct ball-carriers, Martial’s dribbling and willingness to run beyond the defence may have posed a greater threat, as France rarely charged beyond the opposing defence.
Nevertheless, despite France’s misfortunes in the opening half, they demonstrated natural balance across the pitch. Pogba dropped deeper on the right to spread play towards the flanks, while Payet received license to drift centrally to create space for Blaise Matuidi and Patrice Evra to charge into on the left. Yet, for all of France’s midfield players floating around central zones, the hosts’ main attacking threat surprisingly stemmed from wide areas. Payet’s crossing from both flanks saw Giroud and Griezmann direct efforts inches wide of the goal, while the latter also nodded a loose ball off the post following a Bacary Sagna cross.
Similar to the fit opening half, Romania enjoyed a dynamic start to the second, but still struggled to spark quick counter-attacks when they regained possession. Romania striker, Florin Andone’s tireless work rate and strength flustered France’s back-line, but he lacked pace and proper holdup play to enable his teammates to join the attack.
The scrappy nature of the second half witnessed a combative Romanian side spending more time in France’s half, but they unfortunately lacked the quality to test Hugo Lloris from open play, despite that Bogdan Stancu coolly converting a penalty following Patrice Evra’s clumsy tackle on Nicolae Stanciu. But even though Romania’s threat in the final third was scarce, France couldn’t afford to push multiple bodies forward without conceding space for Iordănescu’s men to exploit on the counter-attack.
Where Romania persisted to push forward and fluster France out of possession, the hosts relied on Payet’s crossing to create chances. Payet was the most active player in the final third and once again crosses from both flanks created Giroud’s opener and a Pogba volley that resulted in a remarkable Ciprian Tătăruşanu save.
Deschamps attempt to win the match saw Kingsley Coman replace Griezmann and Pogba sacrificed for Martial. France transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1 with Coman and Martial in wide positions, and although neither substitute significantly influenced the match, the tactical alteration positioned Payet in a central role. In fairness, the pivotal aspect of Deschamps’ formation swap solely rests on Payet receiving the ball between the lines seconds prior to scoring the winner, but had he persisted with his initial approach, the Frenchman would likely be positioned on either flank.
Payet will rightly receive plaudits for his overall display, which equally signifies the lack of creative ball-players included in the XI. Although France’s general play was positive for large portions of the match, it’s slightly worrying that Payet’s crossing was their sole method of attack. France don’t necessarily need to tinker with the current XI, but an array of offensive combinations in the final third will be required as the tournament progresses.