Ever the arch pragmatist, France manager Didier Deschamps will earn no plaudits for aesthetics in the wake of Les Bleus‘ 1-0 win over Belgium, playing with a packed midfield and a low defensive block. But, as his ethos has been to date in this tournament, it was devastatingly effective. That effectiveness has always been there, but one has to feel that France as a stodgy counterattacking team were never going to progress, so it was down for Deschamps to drawn upon his considerable resources to make this France side strike the right balance.
Belgium, as had Argentina and Uruguay, certainly played into France’s hands in lacking a clear tactical approach. Roberto Martinez had been called to task before the tournament for selecting only one specialist full-back, Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Meunier. Without the suspended Meunier against France, Martinez’s decision to play a back four with Jan Vertonghen and Nacer Chadli in that position, as opposed to a back three which had been effective to that point only looks more bizarre with each passing moment. So, too, was his decision to drop Dries Mertens and play Kevin de Bruyne on the right, a move which saw the Manchester City man struggle to affect play against a determined Blaise Matuidi.
Everton and Wigan fans will be all too painfully familiar with Martinez’s failings, but again, Deschamps deserves more credit than his counterpart does blame. Six years into his spell in charge of France and following on from a somewhat mixed spell in club management, the former midfielder well and truly made this team in his own image. Nor only that, but he has exhibited the self-belief to put his ideas into action on the pitch, something which had previously been lacking, particularly at major tournaments, where France had often flattered to deceive, despite reaching the knockout rounds.
A handful of players in the squad predate Deschamps’ appointment (Matuidi, Hugo Lloris, Olivier Giroud), but in leaving out the likes of Karim Benzema and Dimitri Payet, the latter’s injury notwithstanding, the manager has selected a squad that may not be the most talented group of 23 players but is a selection wholly devoted to working for each other and for their manager. There were certainly shades of this in the European Championships two years ago, but no one would confuse Payet’s proclivity for flair at the expense of playing a complete match or the lackadaisical defending of Patrice Evra or Bacary Sagna for the dogged performances of current full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard.
Too, in constructing this squad, Deschamps has relied not on past glories whilst turning out for Les Bleus (Mamadou Sakho), his own past loyalties (Moussa Sissoko) or the fact that a player plays for a major club (Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette). This is again not only a reflection of Deschamps’ pragmatism, in basing his selection on not only talent, but how France can function as a team and also of his own evolution, as the Deschamps of the recent past, at least in prior to 2016, would never have left out the experience of Sakho, Benzema or Mathieu Debuchy for the untested likes of Pavard or Presnel Kimpembe.
He has still made the odd tactical mis-step, such as in the first match against Australia, when his decision to employ a collection of scurrying, clever forwards at the expense of Giroud left France with serious spacing issues in attack. However, tactics have never been Deschamps’ strong suit, even as he seems to have sprung upon a rather ingenious solution at present with his current lop-sided 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid. The irony, though, is that rather than be reliant on his tactical nous (or lack thereof, which many have seen as France’s undoing and indeed, Deschamps’ major fallibility), Deschamps has become a manager, rather than a figurehead.
Absolutely, the electric presence of Kylian Mbappé and the occasional flashes of brilliance from Pogba and Griezmann have had their part in affecting France’s run through this tournament, but what has made them successful in their current iteration is a togetherness and a doggedness. This sense of unity has been forged in the crucible of harmony which had its genesis in Deschamps’ insistence on having a young, bordering on the untested side at the expense of more established players. Again, there are those excluded who may have been more proven internationally but would not necessarily be likely to buy into Deschamps’ planning in quite the same way.
Reflecting as well on the way in which France have played for each other, Les Bleus, despite their manifest attacking talent have been, almost to a man, willing to sublimate their own individuality for the good of the team. One would scarcely have imagined this from the likes of Pogba or Griezmann in the recent past; not only are they two proven talents, but they are also hugely popular figures globally to the point that their prowess on the pitch has strong links to their commercial and/or earning potential.
Not only have they steered away from the odd ill-advised attacking move, but they have also worked hard to press from the front in the case of Griezmann, and to drop deeper as needed in midfield in Pogba’s case. More important than that, however, is how Deschamps has convinced these two to not only sublimate their own impressive talents for the good of the side, but he has convinced that the one role in the side free of much defensive responsibility go to the squad’s youngest member, Mbappé.
Again, this is Deschamps at his best; sensing that Mbappé’s struggles since moving to Paris Saint-Germain were due to the rigidity of Unai Emery and to his not being able to express himself with much of a degree of freedom, the manager decided that, in much the same way as he had upon breaking through at Monaco, Mbappé be allowed to play a free role. This may have caused some consternation for Pogba and Griezmann, but neither has shown any ill-will or lack of belief in the teenager, something that is once again not only a testament to Deschamps’ man-management, but also to his ability to understand the superb talent that Mbappé is and to facilitate that talent through his tactics.
Thus, Deschamps, in changing the way he approaches this France side, has shown immense growth, not only as a man-manager, but also in imparting his ideals to this team. France in the last two years have now fully evolved from a sometimes-ragged collection of individuals to a team approaching each match with a sense of total unity. It may not always be pretty, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue with Deschamps’ methods and the lessons he has learned during his time in charge.