20 years ago, France won Euro 2000, becoming only the second team to secure back-to-back Euro and World Cup triumphs after West Germany in the early 1970s.
That French team is often considered the best in the country’s history, but it is often forgotten that their road to the final was anything but comfortable or dominant.
Aside from a 3-0 opening victory against a Denmark side which lost all three of its group games, their five subsequent matches were all decided by one goal, with both the semi and the final going to extra-time.
Here we delve deeper, using Stats Perform’s unrivalled performance and historical data, to shed more light on a team that made the history books.
Defence and Attack
Using expected goals to compare France’s four major tournament victories, there are clear contrasts.
France’s success at World Cup 1998 was primarily built on a strong backline, who made key contributions both in defence and in attack, including Laurent Blanc’s golden goal against Paraguay and Lilian Thuram’s miraculous brace in the semi-finals against Croatia.
Aimé Jacquet’s men conceded a miserly 0.35 expected goals per 90, penalties excluded – the xG blueprint for defensive solidity. It means that based on chances they allowed during the tournament, France were expected to concede roughly one goal every three games. Indeed, Les Bleus never lost a single game when the back four of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu all started together – this happened on 28 occasions (22 wins, 6 draws).
It was a different story though two years later. With the same backline and Didier Deschamps acting as the shield, France became the Euro winners with the highest total of goals conceded (seven). They allowed 0.9 xG against every 90 minutes and 12 big chances over six games. Compare that to the latest World Cup victory in 2018, masterminded by none other than Deschamps himself: 0.6 xG against per 90 and four big chances conceded in seven games.
France also gave away as many penalties at Euro 2000 as they did across their three other major tournament victories, another sign that the defence was not as commanding as it was two years previously.
Further upfield, France was looking for a new leader in the middle of the park with Deschamps soon to depart the international scene. Cue Patrick Vieira. A commanding presence that could defend and attack, he made a record 21 interceptions at the tournament and was also the only French player to deliver more than one assist, including the ball for Youri Djorkaeff’s winning goal against Spain in the quarter-finals.
The French team had evolved and the dip in defensive solidity was more than compensated for by the fearsome proposition in attack.
Up front, France’s underlying performance was the most impressive of their four major tournament victories, averaging 1.75 xG every 90 minutes, driven by the duo of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, with a youthful (Trézéguet, Anelka) and experienced (Djorkaeff, Dugarry) supporting cast.
The Dynamic Duo
Zidane was named best player at two major tournaments: Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup. He was unquestionably outstanding in both. What was clear in 2000 was that, then in his late 20s, he had taken on an extra dimension.
His ability to eliminate players by skill rather than speed and to find the narrowest gaps before launching the sprinters Henry and Anelka were some of the key aspects of France’s approach. Unsurprisingly, he completed more passes in the final third of the pitch and more dribbles than any other player at the tournament.
One of the other ways to measure his influence is by looking at his attacking carries, that’s the total distance in metres a player moves the ball upfield, and thus drive his team forward. Over five games at Euro 2000, Zidane’s attacking carries totalled nearly 1 kilometre (956 metres), that’s 200 metres more than any other player (Luis Figo).
Oh, and he did score two clutch goals: a direct free-kick against Spain in the quarter-finals and the extra-time penalty against Portugal, opening the doors to the final.
He was rather more muted in the showpiece match against Italy. Dino Zoff’s men – who were teammates or opponents of Zidane’s in Serie A – contained the French playmaker. His progressive carries on the night averaged 5.8 metres – that figure was 7.9 per game during the rest of the tournament. That frustration expressed itself early on and he was lucky not to see red for a dangerously high foot in the first 20 minutes. He ended up conceding more fouls than any other French player that night (four) but, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t receive a single card in the whole tournament.
Meanwhile, Henry came into Euro 2000 on the back of his most prolific club season to-date. Re-modelled as a striker with Arsenal, he took that confidence into the tournament, scoring three goals (the top scorer for Les Bleus) but it was his speed and guile on the ball that were the most devastating. Operating mainly on the left flank, his preferred starting position, 12 of his carries ended with him shooting or creating a chance for a teammate, more than any other player at the tournament. Fouling was often the only way to stop him – he won the most free-kicks in the final third of the pitch (11).
According to our Possession Value model (PV), which measures the probability that a team will score from their possessions by aggregating positive and negative actions each player makes, Henry and Zidane increased the likelihood of France scoring the most. Unsurprisingly, they developed a certain rapport and Zidane found Henry on more occasions than any other teammate during the tournament (42 times), which included the set-up for Henry’s goal in their opening match against Denmark, a trademark diagonal run from the halfway line before beating Peter Schmeichel in the bottom right hand corner. Incredibly though, Zidane would only assist Henry on two occasions in their 57 games together with the national team, the second coming in the 2006 World Cup against Brazil.
As with Zidane, Henry’s final may have been one to forget (not the first time we would say this), but a future superstar was in the making. He would chalk up 51 goals and 27 assists for France, the most prolific player Les Bleus have ever produced.
Whilst Zidane and Henry grabbed most of the limelight, it was France’s attacking substitutes that made the difference in the final, something which we touched upon in our feature last month on Euro 2000’s forgotten tales.
Sylvain Wiltord, soon to wear the Arsenal shirt alongside Henry, was on the pitch for only three hours at the tournament but notched up two goals and one assist, an involvement every 60 minutes, better than any other French player. One could add Abel Xavier’s handball in the semi-final to Wiltord’s tally – his shot forced the Portuguese to illegally stop the ball, earning France the crucial penalty and Golden Goal that followed.
In a similar vein, David Trézéguet didn’t start a single match in the knockout stages but made the most of his cameo appearance in the showpiece match.
After 93 minutes, Trézéguet flicked on Barthez’s long ball. Fabio Cannavaro couldn’t stop the ball from reaching Wiltord, whose exquisite chest control and left foot finish sent the game to extra-time. Wiltord would never again find the net in a further 13 games at major tournaments. Timely.
With the Italians still shell-shocked, Robert Pires – the third sub that day – produced the best recovery, dribble and cut-back of his career to set up the soon-to-become Juventus hitman Trézéguet. The rest is history.
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