With the World Cup fast-approaching, we take a look at five central questions for the French national team.
1 | Hugo Lloris, a worry
While Hugo Lloris will undoubtedly remain Didier Deschamps’ number one, patting Mario Balotelli’s free-kick into the path of Leonardo Bonucci for Italy’s only goal on Friday became the latest in a string of moments which range from outright calamities to weak goalkeeping. Les Bleus’ captain has been criticised ever more frequently over recent months and his continued uncertain displays equate to uncertainty over his ability to remain mistake-free throughout the World Cup.
While the minor error that led Bonucci’s strike may have been inconsequential, as was Lloris’ flapping at cross which eventually found Alvaro Morata in Spurs’ 3-1 win at Chelsea, his skewed injury time clearance that fell to Sweden’s Ola Toivonen and lost France a crucial qualifier last year certainly was not. Should the 31-year-old be put under pressure during the latter stages in Russia, a similar error could become decisive.
2 | Defensive frailties and lack of cohesion
Full-back has long been France’s only true problem position. Injury issues for Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé late in the season led to increased uncertainty, while their defensive abilities, Sidibé’s in particular, have also been a concern. Meanwhile, their competitors for a place in the eleven, Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard (both 22), remain inexperienced in the international arena despite solid displays in the win over Italy. Despite undoubted quality, centre back, although apparently clear cut in selection terms, could also prove an issue position.
Samuel Umtiti has looked increasingly tired across the run-in at Barcelona while Raphaël Varane has had a long and exhausting season with Real Madrid. To compound the issue, aside from Hugo Lloris’ fluctuating form, is the fact that whichever back four Deschamps choses, they will have had little time to develop an understanding.
Umtiti and Varane have only started together on five occasions while Mendy still only has six caps. Although it is unlikely that they will be truly tested until the knockout stages, better sides in Russia might be able to pick holes in a tired, relatively unacquainted back-line.
3 | The shape of the team remains in flux
With the host of attacking talents at Deschamps disposal, distilling the perfect formula to eek the best out from his forward line has long proved a tricky act to balance. It seemed that Deschamps had narrowed his choices down to the 4-4-2 that proved effective in Euro 2016 or a 4-3-3. Nevertheless, Deschamps has taken steps to evolve his set up further in Les Bleus’ pair of friendlies.
In the 2-0 win over Ireland, Nabil Fékir assumed the number 10 role that has seen him produce his best season to date at Lyon at the tip of a diamond, although he also had licence to drift out to the left, while Antoine Griezmann was used in a very narrow 4-3-3 as something approaching a false 9 against Italy with Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé running beyond. “We can gain in efficiency, obviously.“ admitted Deschamps after the Italy game, “My attackers swap a lot and, with their speed of movement, it hurts the opponent.”
A diamond shape, or some hybrid variant, does suit France as it buys into the ideas that Mbappé’s best position is centrally and that Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé are at their best when providing width from full-back. Nevertheless, time seems short in which to hone in on a set-up used surprisingly little over the last few seasons and might leave the flanks exposed given the lack of coverage from Mbappé and Dembélé. Worryingly, with just one friendly to go, Deschamps still seems unsure on key tactical decisions.
4 | Giroud vs Dembélé
However Deschamps choses to deploy his strikers, it seems certain that both Griezmann and Mbappé will be amongst them and, with a burgeoning proclivity to plump for a trio of midfielders, Deschamps tactical choice might come down to ‘Giroud or Dembélé?’ Configurations favouring both have been used in the two friendlies so far. Giroud was used as part of a striking pair alongside Kylian Mbappé against Ireland, while Deschamps looked to utilise Dembélé’s pace against Italy in something of an inside forward role.
Both players scored goals that their skill-sets and Deschamps varying systems were expected to produce – Giroud’s physicality, instinct and heading ability proving effective from a corner, while Dembélé‘s sublime curling effort rounded off a lightning counter. Dembélé’s understanding with Mbappé, highlighted in training videos released by the FFF last week, could count in his favour. Nevertheless, given the success of both, it’s more than possible that the two will be used where needed rather than as a matter of course but this could prove a crucial decision for Deschamps deeper into the tournament.
5 | Pogba no longer untouchable
Paul Pogba’s season has been a tumultuous one. Struggling to fit into a deeper role at Old Trafford and some below par displays were compounded by being left out of both legs of United’s Champions League last 16 tie with Sevilla, slight injuries notwithstanding. Despite improving in the latter stages of the season in Manchester having been used more consistently in a more natural role as part of a midfield trio, a horribly sliced 35 yard shoot that came close to hitting the corner flag preceded further dissatisfied fan reaction as he was booed off in Nice on Friday night.
There is a growing sense in France that Pogba’s place, much as Adrien Rabiot’s was, in now under threat after a string of, by his standards, off colour displays. Corentin Tolisso’s eye-catching performances only adds to the speculation. “Paul did not succeed and he was less active in the offensive phase but he worked for the team.” explained Deschamps after the Italy win, “He did not do everything right, but he allowed the team to be defensive.”
His teammates however were keen to defend him. “Whatever he does, you’ll always say he has to do more. We must admire the player we have,” said Mbappé. Samuel Umtiti meanwhile bemoaned, “the whistles, it spoils a little the evening. We know Paul’s qualities and he has the right to be a little less good.” Deschamps meanwhile seemed to hint at a change. “I do not have a headache but I have a choice.”