Exclusive | Marcel Desailly on the future of France’s defence and the struggles at Chelsea and Marseille

Get French Football News had the opportunity to sit down with World Cup-winning defender and former France captain Marcel Desailly to talk about the country’s top defensive prospects and to run the rule over two of his former clubs – Chelsea and Marseille.

As one of France’s greatest central defenders, what do you think of Les Bleus’ current crop of centre-backs?

I think that France have great individuals on the defensive side. But it’s more linked to associations than individuality. We had the Umtiti-Varane pairing, which was fabulous.

Like you and Laurent Blanc!

Yes. The difference is that– through our clubs, over the 15 years I was in the France team – we were able to retain our level and to keep our places as indisputable starters in big clubs. And that association enabled France to benefit from a fabulous central defence. But now the page has turned. Umtiti and Varane – world champions – that’s brilliant – but it seems like they weren’t able to retain that intensity. And that’s surely one of the reasons why we are now seeing a new generation coming through. In Umtiti’s case, it wasn’t by choice, while Varane chose to take his international retirement because he saw that he no longer had the capacity to maintain his level, whether with his club or internationally. So he had to make a choice.

Now, Upamecano, and Konate – their association is fabulous. And more than that – I think that, individually, they maybe have a level above what we saw with Varane and Umtiti. But before they can express their individuality at a very high level, their association needs to be good.

Then there is the one at Arsenal too (William Saliba) – he hasn’t yet had the game time to adapt to that necessary association. I don’t believe his individual qualities to be above average. He’s at a very, very high level but not extraordinary. So before absorbing the international level, he needs to acclimatise to those associations. As things stand I don’t know how to associate him with Konate or with Upamecano so that he can excel and develop all the talent that he has in him.

Do you have an explanation as to why France struggles to find top fullbacks – to the extent that Deschamps often plays centre-backs as fullbacks?

He has a defence of four and [at right back] he had the choice between Pavard and Kounde. Kounde, without being exceptional, at least on the defensive side there is some quality. In terms of going forward, he’s not as good as Pavard. But we have four candidates for two places on each side and yes, compared to the potential of the centre-backs, there is a bit of a dip in quality when it comes to the full-backs – even if the Hernandez brothers show stability for their club and for France, guaranteeing tactical intelligence, in terms of going forward and dropping back into the defensive block. We do, however, have players of a very high level, otherwise, France wouldn’t have reached the World Cup final, albeit protected by a midfield which is dense, powerful and strong, which controls the ball and has a tactical intelligence within the team which compensates the fact that the full-backs don’t push up.

But on the left, when it’s Hernandez with Mbappe, it’s hard to take the baton from Mbappe – you can give him an option but it’s not you who is going to make the difference. Mbappe will use the option that you give him in order to make the difference. The same on the right – Griezmann’s tactical intelligence doesn’t give the option for Pavard or Kounde to express themselves – he stays wide or he takes the ball and cuts inside to create chances – so today we have fullbacks who are maybe just a little below the top, but who adapt to the philosophy and the need of this France team.

Two of the young centre-backs, Disasi and Badiashile, are at your former club Chelsea. The London club are struggling a little despite spending a billion pounds. How do you see the club right now?

It’s strange because you can’t criticise people who have succeeded professionally and who have decided to invest – they have consulted the board, they have had dozens of meetings for each player whom they bring in, to adapt them to the philosophy, to the future needs of the club in relation to the player’s potential. So it’s very hard to criticize. The only thing that I’d say though is that it is an error of communication. They are carried away by the potential that each player that they’ve bought has, because they’ve forgotten about one element, knowing that to play football at the highest level, to attain what we call in French “la culture de la gagne” – the winning mentality – you need experience – nascent talent is never enough to presume immediate performance. And that’s the only thing where I’d say they’ve made a mistake, where they keep thinking, with the coach Pochettino, “No, this year we’ll be title challengers with the team that we have”.

Right from the start of the season, you could see that they can’t be title challengers – it was obvious. But they have put together players of great potential and have positioned themselves in terms of “business” – because if they didn’t buy the players now for a little above value, they wouldn’t have been able to buy them later. So the only thing is they need to know how to educate the supporters by telling them “Hang on – we’re going to have a year or two of transition but after that – wow – we’ve built up enormous potential”.

But the fans and the media don’t want to hear that – they’ve seen the investment, they want immediate results. But that’s what I think of Chelsea’s idea – Pochettino isn’t a coach who has built up his philosophy like a Mourinho, a Tuchel – he’s a coach who needs to coach top players, top teams. And now he needs to rethink all his coaching to adapt to players who are in theory at a very high level but for whom you need to recreate the basic foundations of play.

It’s funny that you’re talking about Chelsea and the need for patience. I’ve heard you say similar about Milan. And moving on to your third big club – Marseille – I think it’s similar there – there is always an expectation, an impatience to succeed immediately. What do you think of Marseille right now?

It’s like other clubs – some of whom have more potential – in terms of hopes. I find that often the club, or rather the supporters – or the media that is affiliated to the club – the local paper La Provence and others – influence too much the idea that in the past we were always title challengers so we should be continuing in the same dynamic. In modern football all clubs invest, and all clubs have players of quality.

If you don’t have international starters in your team you can’t expect to be challenging for titles. And they deceive themselves – they start the season with “hopes”, knowing that when you look at the squad player by player, you realise that you’re more likely playing for a place in mid-table, a bit better if you can generate a positive dynamic and with a bit of luck. If those two elements come together, maybe we can challenge and finish in the top 6. But they’re doing themselves a disservice. And that’s what winds me up sometimes, similarly to what I said with Chelsea – the evidence is there and it’s the same with Marseille.

Gattuso – great – I respect him a lot – but he doesn’t have the squad. There isn’t the squad. When you look at all the positions. They all still need to learn, and there isn’t that added value – that no.10, that playmaker who can put away a free kick or make a difference at any moment. Look at players that they’ve had like the Chilean – Alexis Sanchez – who are past their best. I’m not sure if they still have that desire within them, and we place all our hopes on their ability, whereas now at Inter Milan – if he was still a great player like they claimed – he’d be a regular starter. But Sanchez’s stats since he arrived at Inter? He might not yet have started a single match. You see what I mean? So it’s lots of different things.

But the club owes it to itself to constantly expect to be a title challenger. And we’re a bit frustrated at Marseille, where we have the feeling that the owner [Frank McCourt] isn’t really invested. He has delegated to a president who is super-smart – but it’s all very well being smart – if there is no money, if there isn’t the budget to buy your first choices, you’re going to struggle. And France no longer attracts first choices. You have Italy, Spain, England – which means that it’s super hard to find that Uruguayan, that Argentinian, that player from Africa, to find that gem. It’s super hard.

Marcel Desailly was speaking on behalf of GamblingZone.

GFFN | Jeremy Smith

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