Balance is crucial for Didier Deschamps. As the 1998 World Cup winning captain surpassed Michel Hidalgo and Raymond Domenech’s record of 41 wins as Les Bleus coach with a narrow victory in Bulgaria on Saturday night, France edged to within a home win over Belarus of qualifying for Russia 2018. Although France’s inclusion in December’s group stage draw isn’t far from certain, the shape of their squad and starting 11 next summer very much is. Maintaining a healthy equilibrium in both will, as always, be Deschamps’ primary concern.
The perceived costs or benefits aside, Didier Deschamps has managed to sidestep one of international management’s more difficulty negotiated pitfalls. Despite the ludicrous levels of talent at his disposal, the former Marseille boss has avoided the temptation to desperately cram his 11 best players into his team, as Sven Goran Eriksson did during the noughties with England’s midfield, disregarding thought for position and related skillset. Admittedly, Deschamps’ use of Paul Pogba is perhaps an exception.
Persisting with Olivier Giroud and the repeated use of Moussa Sissoko, most notably during Euro 2016, are both key examples of Deschamps placing his system and its balance above simply defaulting to the pound-for-pound quality of individual players in governing his selection, despite arguably much better options often sitting on the bench. This principle also trickles down to the makeup of the wider squad.
Deschamps has repeatedly stressed that he is looking to carefully distil a varied, even and harmonious squad which sometimes facilitates the need to leave some players at home who might, is his eyes, adversely affect his group in any of these ways. The continued exile of Karim Benzema post-Valbuena sextape scandal being a case in point.
This ethos has led to repeated accusations of favouritism, with some keeping their places despite lack of domestic form or even minutes over those who, in most other national sides, would have played their way into contention. Now, however, Deschamps’ principles are under mounting pressure from multiple sources, with the brightest generation in world football developing around him and many of Les Bleus’ traditional rivals either in transition (Germany, Italy), remaining disjointed (England) or even struggling to qualify (Argentina, Holland), the expectation of success in Russia is snowballing.
Pressure to evolve is supplied by Les Bleus’ often colourless displays and the rise of a generation that simply cannot be overlooked. The 4-0 win over a meek Dutch outfit aside, France have sleepwalked through what has turned out to be a less than challenging group, with a Zlatan-less Sweden proving the most irksome of their opponents, a disastrous Hugo Lloris mistake handing Ola Toivonen an injury time winner in Stockholm.
Meanwhile, blunt attacking displays, the edgy 1-0 win in Sofia last weekend being archetypal and also evidenced in goalless draws with Luxembourg and Belarus, has led to confidence being chipped away in Deschamps’ selection strategy. This is particularly true in attack where the trailblazing Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar and others are impossible to ignore.
It is important to note that, despite Deschamps’ alleged past favouritism, there is no suggestion that he would ever marginalise the swathes of burgeoning French talent in Ligue 1 and beyond. However, eking out optimum performances out of what is now a very crowded forward line and devising it’s the most effective configuration, whilst retaining the balance of the side as a whole ahead of next summer will now define his 6-year spell as France coach.
Since Euro 2016 a variation on 4-2-4 or 4-4-2 has been Deschamps’ go-to set up, in the image of Leonardo Jardim’s Ligue 1 title winning AS Monaco side last season. There have also been occasions over the last 12 months where a 4-2-3-1 would better define Les Bleus outlook but a centre forward, typically Olivier Giroud, with a second striker as support or what the French might call a ‘9-and-a-half’, usually Antoine Griezmann and a brace of wingers has been the shape chosen by Deschamps in order to get the best out of the Arsenal man in Benzema’s absence and especially Griezmann, who has shown he is far more effective centrally.
In 2018 however, with the possible exception of Griezmann, the first name jotted down by the coach on the night before France’s opening game ought to be ‘Mbappé’. Despite his fledgling years and the colossal potential that remains yet to fulfil, the eventual €180m man is already comfortably ‘world-class’ and comparisons with Brazil’s Ronaldo are very much justified. Although his best position remains as a striker, the lightning PSG forward has shown that he can still affect games at the highest level from a wider position, just ask David Alaba.
However, Mbappé has solely been successful as a winger when part of an attacking trident, as PSG deploy, often disappearing in matches last season with AS Monaco when he was put on the left of a 4-4-2. The relative lack of space, the need to stay closer to the touchline and the increased defensive responsibilities required as a left-midfielder erode Mbappé’s ability to be constantly direct and diminish the opportunities he has to cut inside that allow him to be so devastating.
The employment of Mbappé, however, either out wide or through the middle affects the use of Griezmann. Although the Atletico Madrid talisman has unerringly demonstrated he can play as a lone striker to glorious effect at club level, he has yet to replicate this with the national side, albeit with limited opportunities. Both can clearly perform as a striker in a 4-4-2, but whether they can they play together in this formation remains a, very exciting, question.
During the win over Bulgaria, Blaise Matuidi’s early goal was enough for the points, with Mbappé and Griezmann utilised either side of a lone centre forward, in this case Alexandre Lacazette, in a 4-3-3. This a role that suits Lacazette, the Arsenal man finally winning out in his long running battle with consistency in the last 18 months or so. Although clunky at times, with Mbappé in particular struggling, the attacking troika named last weekend could be devastating if given time to develop an understanding together.
This triumvirate, whilst an enthralling prospect, would involve Deschamps finally dispensing with one his ‘favourites’ in Giroud, seemingly a simple decision, but the ex-Montpellier frontman has repaid Deschamps’s faith in the past. A run of 10 goals in 14 games before and during Euro 2016 was the standout purple patch in Giroud’s international career to date, with a better goals per game ratio for France than Karim Benzema (0.4 to 0.33).
There is another problem with Deschamps moving forward with Saturday’s front three as his attack of choice. Where would this leave €100m man Ousmane Dembélé? Deschamps could leave Lacazette out and push Mbappé or Griezmann into the centre or revert to a 4-4-2 and risk curtailing the effectiveness of both Mbappé and Dembélé in wider roles or leave the Barcelona man out entirely. Moreover, it should be noted that this also ignores strong claims from Thomas Lemar (who is very much suited to 4-42-) and Euro 2016 star performer, Dimitri Payet.
That said, a 4-3-3 in this guise would, at last, play to Paul Pogba’s strengths. Despite his gradual adaptation and improvement at Manchester United, he has struggled to replicate his bombastic Juventus form where he was deployed as a ”mezzala”, akin to a box-to-box midfielder, as part of three-man midfield. Cajoling performances from Pogba in line with those Juventus fans enjoyed in conjunction with a fully functioning Mbappé/Griezmann partnership would make France truly terrifying.
Assuming Sweden don’t better France’s result on Tuesday night, Les Bleus will fly to Russia next summer as one of, if not the, favourites. If they are to meet crushing expectations, Didier Deschamps has seven months of footballing alchemy ahead to find a way to maximise the skills of a frighteningly talented group. Whether or not the former World Cup winner can preserve his long established principles and retain the balance of a precocious forward line will likely be the decisive factor in whether or not Deschamps’ bid to be recognised as a world-class manager is successful on his terms.