With the World Cup less than a year away, the countdown to Russia is very much on.
International football, generally considered an irritating interruption of the domestic season, is once again, a serious matter.
At the business end of qualification teams are under pressure to secure their place at next summer’s tournament, with the insignificant matter of a nation’s pride being at stake.
What’s more, with fewer and fewer games left to judge teams upon, pundits, bookies and fans are crystallising their opinions about which nations are going to be the sides to look out for come June.
With that in mind, it feels like the perfectly premature time to analyse some of the nations expected to make a big splash next summer.
Up first is France, a side which over the past few years has developed a genuinely staggering crop of talent. Despite currently sitting 10th in the current FIFA world rankings, they are already 3rd favourites to with the World Cup, behind only Germany and Brazil.
Furthermore, no doubt still hurting from their second place finish on home soil at Euro 2016, France have every incentive to announce that they are once more, at the pinnacle of World football.
All that’s left to ask is: are France going to win the World Cup?
To put it quite simply, France’s squad is an absolute madness.
France could field a 3rd choice XI and it would still be better than England’s 1st choice XI. Even their exile XI has Karim Benzema upfront.
With players like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, Les Blues are awash with some of Europe’s best talents and to make matters worse, most of them of under 25.
In the side’s recent World Cup Qualifier against the Netherlands, in spite of Antoine Griezmann’s well taken opener, France struggled to turn their dominance into goals.
But then a little thing called Thomas Lemar happened. The man Arsenal nearly paid £92m for was hanging on the edge of the box when the ball dropped to him. The 21 year old swept his left leg like a scythe, sending the ball arching into the Netherlands net.
It was the kind of goal that gets uploaded onto adult websites. Lemar added another to his tally, presumably just to dig the knife into Arsenal football club, before Kylian Mbappe, PSG’s soon to be £166m man, joined in on the scoring rounding out a 4-0 victory.
When France last reigned supreme in world football their success was driven by young starlets set to carve their names in the footballing annals. The same is happening right now, but rather than Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka the players carrying the gauntlet are Mbappe, Lemar and Barcelona’s £135m recruit, Ousmane Dembele.
Even more annoyingly, France’s squad has actually improved since their extra time loss to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final.
At the Euros, 3 of France’s 4 full-back births were filled by players 32 or older in Christophe Jallet, Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna. However, this time around with the emergence of Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe, 23 and 25 respectively, the side has two of Europe’s most imposing and energetic fullbacks at its disposal.
France is in the kind of cycle which Spain enjoyed between 2008 and 2014 and on the back of which, they won three major tournaments in a row.
There is no weak point in France’s first XI, second XI or, to be honest, third XI and ultimately, the only question facing manager Didier Deschamps is how to get the best out of his embarrassment of riches.
At the Euros it felt as if France were constantly on the brink of an excellence they didn’t know how to unlock.
Despite a 5-2 and 2-0 victories against Iceland and Germany respectively, France rarely asserted the omnipotent dominance their quality promised and their World Cup qualifying campaign it has been much the same story.
With a draw away to Belarus kicking off their campaign France haven’t exactly made light work of their group, also losing to Sweden following a Hugo Lloris howler.
Even the eventual 4-0 victory against the Netherlands glosses over the fact that at 1-0 and with their opponents down to 10 men, France were struggling to close the game out and afforded Arjen Robben a gilt-edged chance to level the score.
Furthermore, despite their plethora of attacking prowess, the side has only scored 15 goals in 7 games, hardly a noteworthy return. There is a general frustration amongst onlookers that too many of France’s best players, Paul Pogba being one of those singled out, fail to give their best performances when playing for their national side.
The hope is of course that France don’t do an England and waste their golden generation on quarter final penalty shoot out exits, and that hope rests very much on Didier Deschamps’ ability to develop a system which gets the best of as many players as possible.
Currently Deschamps favours a 4-2-3-1 in which Antoine Griezmann operates behind Olivier Giroud, with the Arsenal man providing a focal point for the attack. Deschamps also has a very effective plan B, being able to deploy Mbappe in place of Giroud to enable a more fluid and pacey attack, as was used in the final minutes against the Netherlands.
The main drawback of the system is that it requires Paul Pogba to play a holding role alongside N’Golo Kante.
Playing a similar role to the one operated in last year for Manchester United promises to offer a similar result: underwhelming performances full of promise and light on delivery. With Pogba thriving in a freer role for United this season perhaps he will be able to transfer his performances when he representing France.
Alternatively, Deschamps may be tempted to tweak his set up in order to get the best out of a player who has the ability to be one of the World’s best midfielders.
The final question to ask, and it is always a particularly pertinent question to ask of France in particular, is, are they going to shoot themselves in the foot?
There is something about the French psyche which yearns for a spontaneous combustion. The World Cup Final in 2006 famously ended with captain and talisman Zinedine Zidane head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi and having to walk off past the trophy he may very well have lifted had he just not head-butted someone.
Even worse, in 2010 the French squad actually began a mutiny, refusing to train after Nicolas Anelka was expelled from the squad for verbally abusing manager Raymond Domenech. It was one of the most embarrassing things ever to have happened to France, and let’s not forget they surrendered to the Germans in WWII.
Fortunately for French fans, there is no sign as yet, of any similar occurrence taking place. In fact Didier Deschamps, has actively sought to maintain an air of tranquility within the dressing room by firmly ostracising potentially negative influences.
Most notably, he has refused to reintroduce Karim Benzema to the squad following his insignificant legal quibbles with blackmail and before that, underage prostitution.
Instead, Deschamps has cultivated a squad bristling with confidence and self belief, but which is also seemingly united and single-minded in its ambition to return France to the pinnacle of World football.
As a player Deschamps was nicknamed ‘the water carrier’ for they way in which his quiet, efficient and non-flashy style enabled France’s attack to shine so brightly. Replicating his playing style as a manager may enable the current French side to avoid the mistakes of the past and reach their full potential.
France should have won Euro 2016 and they nearly did.
Since then their side has only gotten better in terms of quality, which stands Les Blues in good stead to go one step further at next summer’s World Cup. Unfortunately, they still haven’t truly clicked.
However, in international football it is extremely difficult to replicate the synchronicity of a club side. One of the few sides to do so, Spain, benefitted from having so many of their players represent either Real Madrid or Barcelona.
In contrast, France’s players ply their trade all over Europe. As such, it may well be that France never truly hit top form.
Nonetheless, even playing at 80% of their potential France has more than enough quality to beat anyone. Make no mistake though, should they find top form at Russia, there won’t be anyone who can stop them.
Written by Scott Pope
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