With Real Madrid grabbing the Champions League crown and all of Europe’s domestic leagues over, the focus shifts to the international stage. Through friendlies and qualifiers, teams test and rotate their line-ups in an attempt to find that perfect combination for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
It takes time for teams to find their groove after the players have spent the past eight months playing with their respective clubs, despite a couple of qualifiers and friendlies in between. Some national teams are lucky enough to have squads that play together at club level, thus keeping some cohesion. These factors make managers even less reluctant to force changes and take risks in their squads. They’re often faced with securing qualification for their teams, which makes them want to play squads that have already played together. French national team manager Didier Deschamps seems especially keen on this. However, he needs to adapt and go younger if France are to go all the way next summer.
France arguably had the most talented squad during last summer’s European Championships and still do now. They disappointedly lost to a stale Portuguese side at home in the final. In addition to the squad they already have, an explosion of young French talent came out of Monaco this season.
A team mainly comprised of players in their early-20s reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and took the Ligue 1 crown from Qatari-backed powerhouse, Paris Saint-Germain. Among the standouts were 26-goal forward Kylian Mbappé, left and right-backs, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, left midfielder Thomas Lemar, and defensive midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, and they have all already been capped for France. These players are unlikely to remain at Monaco, being pried away by bigger, richer clubs this summer. It’s a testament to Monaco’s and France’s proven track record of producing great young talent.
That’s just Monaco. Winger Ousmane Dembélé burst onto the scene this year at Borussia Dortmund, winning Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Season. Central midfielder Coretin Tolisso had a stellar season with Lyon and just signed a five-year contract for German Champions Bayern Munich worth a reported €41.5 million plus add-ons. Twenty-one=year-old centre-back Presnel Kimpembe made 28 appearances for PSG last season, impressing many along the way. Keep in mind, these are young French players who are just cracking the national team.
Some of the mainstays in the squad seem older than they are because of their experience. Paul Pogba is still only 24, while vice-captain and Real Madrid star Raphaël Varane is the same age. His potential centre-back partner at next year’s World Cup is Barcelona rival Samuel Umtiti, who is only 23. Don’t forget 23-year-old Barcelona left-back Lucas Digne. Meanwhile PSG keeper Alphonse Areola and Chelsea centre-back Kurt Zouma can barely make the squad, with Areola having yet to be capped and Zouma only having been capped twice.
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It’s truly an astonishing array of young talent all over the pitch. So what should Didier Deschamps do with it? He should utilise and maximise these players, letting them loose.
France’s last two matches couldn’t have been in starker contrast, the first being a 2-1 loss away to Sweden in World Cup qualifying and the second being a 3-2 victory over England at home in a friendly.
Against Sweden, Deschamps went with a line-up almost identical to what we saw at last summer’s Euros. However, Mendy and Sidibé were inserted in their respective left and right-back positions. The captain, Hugo Lloris, started in goal; Koscienly and Varane partnered at centre-back; Blaise Matuidi and Pogba partnered in midfielder; Antonie Griezmann sat just in front of them with a front three of Moussa Sissoko, Dmitri Payet and Olivier Giroud.
Apart from Giroud’s fantastic strike, France were stale. Although at times maintaining solid possession, they didn’t create many chances. That being said, it’s hard to say that they deserved to lose the game. Lloris’s failed clearance in the last 10 seconds of the match gifted Sweden the win, however France’s overall performance was subpar. France now find themselves tied in Group A with Sweden on 13 points, but down on goal difference. They should surely be atop this group.
There are questions abound for Deschamps. Firstly, what position Pogba was playing? Was he sitting behind Matuidi in front of the back four? Was he playing box-to-box in front of Matuidi? Were they playing side by side? It was unclear. What is clear is that Pogba wasn’t being utilised properly.
He’s the fulcrum of the squad. When Pogba sits too deep, he becomes passive. He meets the centre-backs to take the ball off their feet, turn and often play horizontal passes to wide midfielders or full-backs. Pogba is at his best when he’s using his strength and athleticism to dominate the midfield. Letting him play the box-to-box role also allows him to make charging runs forward creating or finishing scoring opportunities as we saw him do at Juventus. The formation had the makings of a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1, but the tactics were unclear to many onlookers.
The front four was exactly the one that played the majority of the Euros – or at least started most matches. Deschamps likes Giroud and he’s a very effective player when used properly, so I can understand the choice. Griezmann is going to find his way into the team no matter what, but Payet and Sissoko are rather odd choices.
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Deschamps seemed to pick them out of familiarity rather than form. Both possess very opposite qualities. Payet is a skilled, creative playmaker who likes the ball at his feet and is an excellent set-piece taker. His main deficiency is his lack of defensive work and stamina, as well becoming prone to bouts of inconsistency.
Sissoko works tirelessly all match, marauding up and down the right flank. In spite of that, he doesn’t possess the technique and finishing you want from someone in that position. Payet was one of France’s best players in last summer’s tournament and Sissoko was arguably their best player in the final – but it’s not last summer anymore.
The two also had strange club seasons. Sissoko’s Newcastle were relegated at the end of the 2015/16 Premier League season, and subsequently signed a five-year deal with Tottenham for €35 million. It was a telling signing, representative of the inflated prices for players during major international tournaments. Sissoko hadn’t exactly lit it up for Newcastle, although his form for France was much better.
At Tottenham, he hasn’t been a part of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s plans at all, with the manager even admitting “he has failed to live up to expectations”, while also hinting at his lack of work ethic on the training ground. As he career stalls at club level, why does Deschamps continues to pick him for France?
After an incredible 2015/16 campaign for West Ham, Payet fully earned his place in the French squad for the Euros. West Ham started the 2016/17 season poorly. He signed a big extension with the Londoners before refusing to play, disrespectfully in the opinion of many He held out until a deal was struck with former club Marseille, returning him to France. Payet set the league on fire his first season, only to completely sputter out in the next. It’s impossible to know what happened behind the scenes, but the optics were bad.
Both of their previous campaigns say a lot about these players, so why did Deschamps start them against Sweden? Familiarity, trust and complacency.
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Sissoko offered next to nothing going forward. His usual work rate was there but creativity was absent. Is that surprising considering he barely featured for Tottenham all season? Payet had some nice moments in the final third, including his usual quality set-piece delivery, however, for Sweden’s first goal, he was caught out on the back post leaving his man wide open to finish past Hugo Lloris. The game was a very clear picture of both players’ deficiencies and why France should start their younger players.
Against England, Deschamps made changes. He was able to afford the risk as it was a friendly. The line-up was much closer to the direction I’d like to see Les Bleus take for next summer. The captain, Lloris, kept his place in goal; Varane and Umtiti paired at centre-back with Sidibé and Mendy as the right and left-backs; Dembélé slotted into right midfield with Thomas Lemar on the left; Pogba and reigning PFA Player of the Year N’golo Kanté occupied the central midfield; Giroud kept his place up top, partnered with Kylian Mbappé. It was essentially a 4-4-2.
I was shocked to not see Kanté in the line-up against Sweden. He’s coming off back-to-back Premier League titles, where he was a key man in both victories. More importantly, he allows Pogba to flourish. In the Matuidi-Pogba midfield, their roles overlap. When Kanté comes into the side, he sits in front of the back four, buzzing around, making challenges, mopping up loose balls and providing a lot of stability. This gives Pogba the freedom to roam around, without having to worry about staying central and deeper.
Immediately, France’s play was different. It was more fluid and the ball was zipping around quickly. Players like Mbappé and Dembélé not only have a direct, attacking desire in their play, but they also have the desire to prove themselves as young players on the international stage. France should be aggressive – they have the players to do it.
Although the defence wasn’t airtight, with Harry Kane opening the scoring for England, it’s still great experience for the back four. Mbappé played Dembélé in shortly after with a wonderful ball, almost levelling the score. Ten minutes later Umtiti fired in a rebound from a Giroud header off a Lemar free-kick and France were level. Sidibé put France ahead, slotting in another rebound after a wonderful piece of skill from Dembélé who should have scored.
Just before the break, Varane took down Dele Alli in the box. England were awarded a penalty and Varane was shown a straight red. Kane stepped up and equalised for England. Funnily enough, France played even better with 10 men. The attack was more threatening and there was more urgency in their play, which was completely lacking against Sweden.
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Mbappé was threatening throughout the second half. He should have put France ahead after a poor turnover by England. After dropping his defender nicely, he smashed his shot off the crossbar, but France wouldn’t be denied. In the 78th minute, Pogba combined with Mbappé, who played in Dembélé. The Dortmund winger slotted the balllow towards the far post then ran off to celebrate with Mbappé.
It was quite the sight seeing these two young players celebrate together, their free-flowing attacking talents on full display. It was a quick flash of when they can do when given the opportunity.
It’s hard to make concrete decisions after two matches and France’s eventual line-up for next summer’s World Cup still remains completely in the balance. Deschamps can’t really leave out these youngsters, though, if they keep performing at club and international level. There’s too much talent, too much youth and vigour to do such a thing. Deschamps has to be brave and move forward. The Sissoko days should be numbered. The England game showed everything France could be. Can you imagine this team firing on all cylinders? Defenders would be terrified.
It’s difficult to find the perfect combination with such an array of talent, with France having the potential to send two world-class squads to the finals in Russia, but surely it’s a good problem to have. For these young players to eventually make the World Cup squad, it will depend upon how their 2017/18 domestic campaigns pan out.
However, Deschamps should continue to give them opportunities as the team looks better with more energy and flair. Not only should France build upon these players, they are better with them right now. We saw the differences between the Sweden and England matches; they were two completely different performances.
If France want to win the World Cup next summer – which they absolutely can – Deschamps needs to draw a line in the sand, and sooner rather than later to build experience. For Les Bleus’ sake, hopefully that means going all with the most promising era of French talent since in the late 1990s. Is he ready? Je ne sais pas. Are they? Absolument
By Kyle Keenan @kyleskeenan