Despite some uneven performances in the last set of friendlies, France are still among the favorites for this summer’s World Cup. They admittedly lack the collective work-rate of Germany or the brilliant cohesion of Spain, but the level of individual talent in Didier Deschamps’ side has seen his players have influential roles across all of Europe’s biggest leagues, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Samuel Umtiti paying important roles in their clubs’ success. In the domestic game, too, young players like Kylian Mbappé and his Paris Saint-Germain teammates Adrien Rabiot and Presnel Kimpembe have shone, Champions’ League disappointment notwithstanding.
But on a weekend where the race for the Champions’ League places in Ligue 1 suddenly took a turn for the dramatic, it was not Mbappé or Rabiot that proved decisive, but rather a cadre of comparative veterans. Mathieu Debuchy’s renaissance has already been covered in this space, and even if Saint-Étienne weren’t exactly convincing in coming from behind to beat Troyes, he was joined in victory at the weekend by Dimitri Payet, Nabil Fékir and Florian Thauvin, all players who have been part of the France set-up at various points, but due to form, injury, and being a poor fit tactically have found themselves, of late, to be rather less central to Deschamps’ plans.
Debuchy has found his cause helped by not only his own form but a serious injury to Djibril Sidibé, yet even as no clear path appears to be opening for any of the other three players, their play at the weekend served to underscore, what their value to France could be, even if there is not necessarily an obvious place for any of them in the starting line-up. Payet suffered through an indifferent first half to the season, but since the turn of the year, he has racked up nine assists, the latest a lovely through ball to Lucas Ocampos on Saturday. No other player in Ligue 1 has more than five in the same span, and Payet’s evolution speaks volumes of his new role within the team.
As a player expected to be the attack’s sole focal point, as he had been with West Ham, both scoring and creating, he had been decidedly underwhelming since his return to Marseille in January 2017. Last season, Bafétimbi Gomis served as the attacking fulcrum for the side, with Thauvin in support, and the pair impressed in spite of, rather than because of Payet. With Gomis’ departure to Galatasaray, Marseille’s uneven form in the beginning of the season spoke of a side that was still trying to find its identity, and Payet, was still trying to do too much, to little effect.
More recently, though, he has fully embraced his role as a creative presence, eschewing his penchant for shooting. Nominally playing through the middle but also willing to drift into wide areas, encouraging Marseille’s attack-minded full-backs by providing an additional outlet, Payet has assumed a place within the side that is far from deferential, but rather one which suits his talents to a greater degree. With Thauvin and Ocampos having a good eye for goal and Kostas Mitroglou beginning to come good after a hapless 2017, Marseille’s good form has continued, both domestically and in Europe, despite a raft of injuries that would have badly unsettled most clubs.
With Thomas Lemar badly out of sorts for Monaco, France could be bereft of a player who operates with a solely creative mindset, and one who can affect play centrally or from the flank. Given Payet’s strong performances in Euro 2016 and Deschamps’ attendant loyalties, he may thus still cling to a hope of going to Russia, even if not as a likely candidate for the starting eleven.
Thauvin has a much less impressive track record for his country; he has been prolific for his club, but as Deschamps never really plays a system that fits his talent, he has often been an unused substitute or ineffective when called upon. Nevertheless, he continued his scorching form with a brace against Lille this weekend, bringing him on to nineteen goals for the year.
While he has been admittedly poor against Marseille’s direct rivals, with many deriding him as a flat-track bully, there is perhaps something to be said for a player who can not only score but also create, even against an overwhelmingly negative opponent of the type that Marseille can sometimes face domestically. Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé are both streets ahead of Thauvin, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to make cases for the likes of Anthony Martial and Wissam Ben Yedder (neither have scored since the last international break), both members of the last squad.
Finally, to Nabil Fékir, whose relationship with Deschamps has generally been strong, even to the point of his being selected last season at points when his form and fitness made him undeserving. He missed the last squad through injury, but made an emphatic return to Lyon’s eleven, scoring a fine goal against a rather lacklustre Dijon. Like Payet, Fékir has been at his best this season when played in attacking midfield but has generally showed redoubled effort when played in a midfield three, working hard to draw defenders out of position and track his opponents’ runs. Too, his powerful build and ability on the ball are a pair of aces that Thomas Lemar is unable to call upon to the same extent.
In truth, it is hard to see Deschamps picking all three of these players, with younger and more ostensibly talented options available. However, even with that being the case, it has not stopped them from playing to the best of their abilities, hoping that their form and previous call-ups can make the difference when Deschamps makes his selections after the season. At the very least, if some, or even all of them fail to make it to Russia, the degree to which Ligue 1, rarely celebrated as a paradigm of attacking football or of competitiveness, has been enlivened as a result is something to behold.
1 | After eight games without a win, Toulouse’s 2-0 triumph over Angers proved a significant result both for Mickaël Debève’s strugglers and the relegation scrap as a whole. Form in Ligue 1’s bottom six has been unanimously abject in recent weeks with only two wins combined in the last 6 weekends, meaning victories are becoming ever crucial for a tightly packed group as games melt away. Toulouse’s win left Troyes, who led before succumbing 2-1 at Saint-Étienne, and Lille, routed by Marseille, four points adrift while Metz were unable to capitalise, drawing with Caen, still 3 points back. Caen, with one point in five games, and Strasbourg, winless in nine, remain in sight but the bottom three seem incapable of applying pressure.
2 | PSG’s transfer policy throughout the QSI era has remained unerringly top heavy. With hundreds of millions routinely thrown at celebrity forwards, defensive areas have recently been starved of investment; just €12.9m spent on goalkeepers this decade being a particularly egregious example. Neither Alphonse Areola, despite impressing at Villarreal, nor the disastrous Kevin Trapp have held the number one spot for long, flappy displays and regular mistakes quickly convincing Unai Emery to drop one for the other. 2018 has been different. Areola has finally found the confidence and assuredness seen in Spain, becoming a reliable presence while continuing to exhibit acrobatic shot-stopping; his performance last night against Bordeaux was one of the best goalkeeping displays in Ligue 1 this campaign. To Areola’s credit, if PSG don’t spend on a goalkeeper this summer, it may at last be justified.
3 | Sunday proved to be a crucial day for a congested top half clambering for 5th and 6th and next season’s Europa League, with just 6 points between 5th and 12th at the start of play. After struggling to recover from heavy summer losses, Nice have finally found some form. A 1-0 win over Montpellier edged them to the top of this mini-league and are perhaps now favourites to return to European competition for the third straight year, despite trips to Lyon and Marseille still to come. Right behind in 6th are Saint-Étienne who thanked substitute Robert Beric’s brace for eventually overcoming Troyes, an unfathomable metamorphosis following the 5-0 derby loss and Oscar Garcia’s resignation before Christmas.
Results: Nantes 1-1 Rennes, Dijon 2-5 Lyon, Marseille 5-1 Lille, Amiens 3-1 Strasbourg, Guingamp 3-1 Monaco, Metz 1-1 Caen, Toulouse 2-0 Angers, Nice 1-0 Montpellier, Bordeaux 0-1 PSG.