Any attempt at drawing conclusions from this month’s international games comes with the obvious caveat that the players are quite simply exhausted. A grotesque saturation of games, fuelled by the footballing authorities’ never-ending appetite for competition and their complete disregard for footballers’ health, has resulted in an abysmal dip in the quality of play across the board. With next season’s non-stop 11-month football extravaganza looming large, the players can be forgiven for taking a breather.
In France’s case, though, there are other factors responsible for what was the worst international break of Didier Deschamps’ decade in charge. Their defence was shaky, their build-up play was soporific and their finishing touch was non-existent. Deschamps picked some new faces and experimental selections but, just five months before the World Cup, France are no closer to knowing how they will line up.
Four matches in the Nations League without a win, including defeats to Denmark and Croatia, have revived issues that were bubbling under the surface, often masked by moments of individual brilliance. From tactical uncertainty to a laborious reshuffle in personnel, the games this month have brought more questions than answers for the world champions, who are now fighting to avoid relegation to the second tier of the Nations League.
Successive injuries hardly made the task easier. Kylian Mbappé’s knee issue, Raphaël Varane’s thigh situation and N’Golo Kanté’s recurring fitness problems are the battle scars of an arduous campaign. Several players have passed their breaking points.
Events off the pitch have also taken their toll. Deschamps lost his father at the start of the month and missed the first match. On his return, he was characteristically stoic but after the Croatia game he revealed, understandably, that he did not have the “usual strength and energy” to give to his players.
For Deschamps, squad cohesion has always taken precedence over the talents of individuals. Although often derided for picking his ostensible favourites, his approach has brought results, barring the fiasco at the Euros last summer, when France were knocked out by Switzerland at the last-16 stage. However, his constant switching between different tactical setups in the last two weeks suggests he is uncertain about how to bring the best out of his ultra-talented squad.
Finding a way for Karim Benzema and Mbappé to combine effectively is the major challenge for Deschamps. They have been the best two forwards in the world this season – Mbappé scored or set up 47 goals for PSG, more than any player in Europe, and Benzema was the top scorer in the Champions League and La Liga – so it would be unthinkable to leave either of them on the bench.
However, given how close they came to playing alongside each other on a regular basis in Spain, with Benzema openly exhorting Mbappé to join him in Madrid, this month’s tepid link-up is somewhat puzzling. They had gruelling seasons, so a drop in intensity was inevitable, but their isolation on the pitch – from each other and from the France midfield – contributed heavily to the team’s lack of incisiveness.
As tempting as it is to think of the upcoming World Cup as the final act of a generation synonymous with Deschamps’ reign – Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Raphaël Varane have passed or are approaching a century of caps – the new generation is sorely needed to breathe life into a flailing team.
This state of affairs is particularly alarming for Griezmann, who has gone 20 games without a goal for club and country. International breaks have often served as moments of respite during difficult spells in his club form but now, his dry spell with Atlético Madrid has crept into his hitherto talismanic status in the national team. With Christopher Nkunku and Moussa Diaby emerging as credible starters, a changing of the guard may not be too far away. The core players from the last decade are on their way out – with Olivier Giroud one of the first to go despite a title-winning season with Milan.
A few players have emerged from the last fortnight with some credit – Mike Maignan, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Ibrahima Konaté all brought something to the table. Boubacar Kamara, fresh from an outstanding season at Marseille and a somewhat perplexing move to Aston Villa, rose to the occasion against Austria, before completely falling away in the next match.
Given the various mitigating factors at play this month, it would be harsh to pass judgement on France’s performances. That said, pre-existing issues have been exacerbated and brought to the fore. Deschamps will be hoping their two final Nations League games in September will offer a clean slate after a much-needed break, albeit with relegation to League B to stave off.
France have continued their unfortunate tradition of crashing out at the first hurdle when trying to defend an international title. If they are to change that trend at the World Cup, they will need to find a system that frees up Benzema and Mbappé while also providing a more assured defensive line. Although tactical malleability is not necessarily a bad thing, the reactionary nature of Deschamps’ changes, along with the team’s results, point to a deeper issue than simply looking for a plan B.
The 3-4-3 formation, first rolled out in their defeat to Switzerland at the Euros but used to great effect since, was expected to continue. The defeat to Denmark at the Stade de France led to Deschamps rethinking his positions, instead opting for a 4-4-2 in the following two games. France’s defeat to Croatia was a microcosm of this tactical restlessness: having begun with a malfunctioning 4-3-3, the coach then switched back to a 4-4-2, which shored up the defence but blunted any attacking initiative.
There is also uncertainty about Deschamps’ future. After a decade in charge, his contract expires at the end of the year, with Zinedine Zidane waiting in the wings. A post-World Cup handover would not necessarily signal a major change in approach – the focus remaining on a man-manager respected as an ex-pro, rather than as a tactician – but it would serve as a clean break to usher in a new era, as the mainstays are phased out in favour of a new generation of younger players. That is, unless Zidane accepts the PSG job first. In that case, Deschamps’ potential extension would presumably depend heavily on how far France go at the World Cup, while the long-elusive prospect of Arsène Wenger finally taking charge could also enter the realm of possibility.