AAny attempt to draw conclusions from this month’s international matches comes with the obvious caveat that the players are simply exhausted. A grotesque saturation of matches, fueled by the football authorities’ endless appetite for competition and their utter disregard for the health of footballers, has led to an abysmal drop in the quality of the game at all levels. With next season’s 11-month non-stop football extravaganza looming, players can be forgiven for taking a break.
In France’s case, however, there are other factors responsible for what was Didier Deschamps’ worst international break of a decade. Their defense was shaky, their construction game was soporific and their finishing touch was non-existent. Deschamps has chosen new faces and experimental selections but, just five months from the World Cup, France are no closer to knowing how they will line up.
Four games in the Nations League without a win, including losses to Denmark and Croatia, have reignited problems that were bubbling beneath the surface, often masked by moments of individual brilliance. From tactical uncertainty to a laborious staff reshuffle, this month’s games have brought more questions than answers for the world champions, who are now battling to avoid relegation to second tier in the Nations League.
The successive injuries hardly facilitated the task. Kylian Mbappé’s knee problem, Raphaël Varane’s thigh situation and N’Golo Kanté’s recurring form problems are the scars of an arduous campaign. Several players have passed their break points.
Events off the pitch also took their toll. Deschamps lost his father earlier this month and missed the opener. On his return he was typically stoic but after the game against Croatia he revealed, understandably, that he didn’t have ‘the usual strength and energy’ to give his players.
For Deschamps, team cohesion has always taken precedence over individual talents. Although often ridiculed for picking his ostensible favourites, his approach paid off except for the Euros fiasco last summer, when France were knocked out by Switzerland in the round of 16. However, his constant switching between different tactical setups over the past two weeks suggests he’s unsure how to get the most out of his ultra-talented squad.
Finding a way for Karim Benzema and Mbappé to combine effectively is the major challenge for Deschamps. They have been the two best strikers in the world this season – Mbappé has scored or set up 47 goals for PSG, more than any player in Europe, and Benzema has been the top scorer in the Champions League and La Liga – it would therefore be unthinkable to leave one of them on the bench.
However, given how regularly they have come to play side-by-side in Spain, with Benzema openly urging Mbappé to join him in Madrid, this month’s lukewarm liaison is somewhat confusing. They had tough seasons, so a drop in intensity was inevitable, but their isolation on the pitch – from each other and from the French midfield – contributed greatly to the team’s lack of incisiveness.
As tempting as it is to think of the next World Cup as the final act of a generation synonymous with Deschamps’ reign – Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Raphaël Varane have spent or are approaching a century of caps – the news generation really needs to give life to a struggling team.
This state of affairs is particularly alarming for Griezmann, who has gone 20 games without a goal for club and country. International breaks have often served as moments of respite during difficult periods in his club form, but now his drought spell with Atlético Madrid has crept into his hitherto talismanic status at the national team. With Christopher Nkunku and Moussa Diaby emerging as credible starters, a changing of the guard may not be too far off. The basics of the past decade are on the verge of leaving – with Olivier Giroud one of the first to go despite a winning season with Milan.
A few players have come out of the last fortnight with some credit – Mike Maignan, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Ibrahima Konaté all brought something to the table. Boubacar Kamara, fresh off a stellar season at Marseille and a somewhat confusing move to Aston Villa, seized the opportunity against Austria, only to crash out in the next match.
Given the various mitigating factors at play this month, it would be difficult to pass judgment on France’s performance. That said, pre-existing issues have been exacerbated and highlighted. Deschamps will hope his last two Nations League games in September will offer a clean slate after a well-earned break, but with relegation to League B to avoid.
France continued their unfortunate tradition of crashing at the first hurdle when trying to defend an international title. If they want to change this trend at the World Cup, they will have to find a system that releases Benzema and Mbappé while providing a more assured defensive line. While tactical malleability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the reactionary nature of Deschamps’ changes, as well as the team’s results, point to a deeper problem than simply finding a plan B.
The 3-4-3 formation, first deployed in their loss to Switzerland at the Euros but used to great effect ever since, was set to continue. The loss to Denmark at the Stade de France led Deschamps to rethink his positions, opting instead for a 4-4-2 in the next two games. France’s loss to Croatia was a microcosm of this tactical turmoil: after starting with a faltering 4-3-3, the coach then reverted to a 4-4-2, which strengthened the defense but blunted any offensive initiative.
Deschamps’ future is also uncertain. After a decade in charge, his contract expires at the end of the year, with Zinedine Zidane waiting in the wings. A post-World Cup handover wouldn’t necessarily signal a major shift in approach – the remaining focus on a respected man-manager as an ex-pro, rather than a tactician – but it would serve as a clean break to usher in a new era, as the pillars are gradually removed in favor of a new generation of young players. That is, unless Zidane takes the PSG job first. In that case, Deschamps’ potential extension would likely depend heavily on how far France have come at the World Cup, while the long-elusive prospect of Arsene Wenger finally taking charge could also enter the realm of possibility.