National team managers don’t have an easy job. They train their squads every few months, and are judged on a very small sample of games. Despite having just won the World Cup in 2018, Didier Deschamps may be under the most scrutiny of all. The World Cup-winning side has repeatedly been attacked in the media for being so defensively oriented. Thibaut Courtois slammed Deschamps’ side for playing “anti-football” after their semi-final 1-0 defeat. In light of this assessment, I ask, how does one criticize a team for winning the World Cup, football’s ultimate prize? To answer this, let’s take a closer look at France’s current squad, and how they’re set up for the future.
Striking a Balance
What was notable about France’s World Cup winning squad was the presence of certain older players, especially those in the starting lineup. At the time, bar captain Hugo Lloris, both Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi were over the age of 30. Some called for Mbappe to play up-top in place of Giroud, and some claimed Ousmane Dembélé should be playing instead of Matuidi. However, one of the things that made France function as a cohesive unit so effectively was this seamless balance between old guard and young pups.
On the other hand, veterans like Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda had no business being in the squad. Neither was ever going to even come close to getting a sniff of the pitch. Even more to the point, despite being in the dressing room as older leaders, what experience and know-how did they have over players like Paul Pogba and Raphaël Varane? Nevertheless, Deschamps’ choices clearly paid off, as they ended up winning the tournament, which is no random feat.
A Promising Pool of Young Players
When people discuss world talent, the first country that comes to mind is France. So many young players with talent worth discussing have French origin. The likes of Houssem Aouar, Boubakary Soumaré, Mattéo Guendouzi, and Dayot Upamecano all have a combined ZERO caps to their name. Who will step up?
The balance between young and old will need to be reconsidered in the next few years, as the entire world will pinpoint France as the team to beat. Players like Ousmane Dembélé and Jonathan Ikoné need to make an impact soon, or their time will be up. There are too many youngsters waiting in line for those positions.
Fitting the Mold
Didier Deschamps captained the French side to the 1998 World Cup as the defensive midfielder, the heartbeat of the team. This is extremely telling of the way he sets up his current-day side. He has turned a nation of elite attackers and playmakers into an impenetrable fortress, built upon a foundation of quick and versatile defenders. France doesn’t play pretty soccer. Goals come from set pieces, broken plays, and counter attacks. Someone like Dembélé won’t always fit this system, primarily geared upon defending solidly and driving the ball up the field powerfully (something Mbappé thrives upon). It is precisely for this reason that Blaise Matuidi, a defensive midfielder, aged 31 at the time, was deployed in left midfield at the World Cup.
Deschamps has showed himself to be quite pragmatic, and his regular players seem to have bought into his philosophy. Quite impressively, the man axed Karim Benzema from the national team setup (quite controversially), and came out of the next World Cup 3 years later looking like a genius. Moreover, he has impressively managed to get the best out of Paul Pogba, who (aside from international play) has looked out of form for the past two seasons. There is a part of me that thinks Deschamps is smarter than he seems when it comes to young players, many of whom may end up being wasted talents in the eyes of the FFF. For all my rambling about older players, the squad’s average age is quite young at about 25.
When analyzing a team, it is important to look at its core, through the middle. The players on the outskirts are equally as important, but it is in the middle of the park where matches are won and lost.
In goal, Hugo Lloris is 33 years of age, and while keepers tend to play longer than most other positions, the French captain has suffered a few key injuries in recent times. As a consistent standout performer ever since he took over from Gregory Coupet before 2010. Soon, someone will have to take over. My hunch is that it won’t be Aréola, as he is too error-prone. My hopes are high for Mike Maignan (24), a key figure for the Lille side that qualified for the Champions League last season.
In the center of defense, Raphaël Varane is only 26, and is already one of the best defenders on the planet. The question is who plays next to him. An obvious choice is Aymeric Laporte, but he has yet to be called up for France for “personal reasons.” Many think Laporte is too fond of himself, and Deschamps has repeatedly spoken about the importance of good character in his locker room. Since the World Cup, we’ve seen Clément Lenglet replace his Barcelona teammate Samuel Umtiti, but neither have the position locked up. Their Barcelona form doesn’t help them much, as the Catalan defense has become far more leaky in recent years. While Kimpembe is a worthy backup, Deschamps must look into his artillery of players to give a chance to players like Upamecano (21) and Zagadou (20). Both youngsters already start and have become leaders for German heavyweights Leipzig and Dortmund, respectively.
The middle of the park is the most crucial, and for this reason is simultaneously the most tricky. The pairing of Kanté and Pogba is something to behold. Both talents are borderline generational when at their best, as we saw in Russia. That being said, Kanté is 29, so he won’t be around forever. The players currently in line behind him are Tanguy N’dombélé and Corentin Tolisso, both outcasts at their clubs. Something must change. Talents such as Aouar, Guendouzi, and Soumaré must be integrated into the squad (Sidenote: don’t think for a second I’ve forgotten about Eduardo Camavinga). Replacing Kanté might seem impossible, but given France’s riches of talent, that process must start now.
Finally, the fulcrum up top. As a French Arsenal fan, I’ve enjoyed every second of Giroud’s successes leading the line for France. His partnership with Antoine Griezmann has been more potent that I could have ever imagined. Despite my affection for the pair, both are aging. Giroud, now 33, will not be around for long. The search for his replacement may be difficult, and it may require a complete system shift. While Mbappé has more than sufficient capabilities to play the role, Deschamps seems to like him more on the wing, for his surging runs on the counter. We’ve recently seen Monaco standout Ben Yedder receive game time, but the Monégasque striker/playmaker is already 29. The likes of Moussa Dembélé and Odsonne Edouard will soon be pushing for this role.
A Quest for Perfection
While mimicking Spain’s success from 2008-2012 seems impossible, the plain reality is that it isn’t. Greatness in this sport is achieved by making certain calls at the perfect time. If Deschamps slowly, but surely, integrates younger players into his side, while keeping his core starters healthy, France could remain at the top for years. However, if he fails to do so, France will begin to lag behind Germany, England, and the Netherlands, sides that have welcomed young talent with open arms. This is exactly why he has the hardest job in international football.