Despite their frightening attacking arsenal, doubts remain over their full-backs and Didier Deschamps’s ability to mould individual talent into a cohesive collective unit
Since reaching the final of Euro 2016, France have not taken the next step as expected. Their potential in attack is clearly superior today with the addition of the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar and Ousmane Dembélé, they have more options in midfield with, for example, Corentin Tolisso, while the younger players have gained more experience during the qualifying phase. But as a unit they still lack the consistency, personality and control to make them a great team and natural favourites for the World Cup, and their style remains difficult to define.
This season’s matches have sent contradictory signals, especially the 3-2 defeat at home to Colombia in March that comprised half an hour of attacking flair followed by an hour of sheer defensive embarrassment.
This left many questions unanswered in the full-back area. How tough defensively and inventive with the ball can France be in the wide positions without their two best full-backs, Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy, who have been injured for most of the season? They were included in Didier Deschamps 23-man squad but if they are not fit to start, how will Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández cope as back-ups?
Deschamps favours a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, depending on the opposition, the nature of the game, the balance he wishes to bring to his midfield or the type of players he wants on both flanks. But whether he knows exactly his best team at the moment remains unclear.
Zinedine Zidane aside, the French teams who made it to the World Cup finals of 1998 and 2006 relied mostly on their defensive solidity, physical power and ability to win back the ball quickly. Deschamps’s side are quite different: they have more speed up front, a bigger emphasis on the counterattack and more individual solutions than collective ones.
In 2014 and 2016, Deschamps entered the last two major tournaments with a 4-3-3, meaning he could start again with a classic three-man midfield of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi with Tolisso as a possible alternative to the latter. Otherwise, a 4-4-2 formation would allow for an Antoine Griezmann-Olivier Giroud partnership in attack and leave Matuidi on the bench.
Probable starting XI
Sidibé Varane Umtiti B.Mendy
Griezmann Mbappé Lemar
Which France player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Kylian Mbappé. Even if France don’t go all the way, he could well be one of the biggest stars, just as Thierry Henry was at the age of 20 during the 1998 World Cup, and end up as France’s best goalscorer at the tournament. Just as there was with Pelé in 1958, Diego Maradona in 1982, Ronaldo in 1994 or Lionel Messi in 2006 when all these legends of the game took their first steps at the World Cup, there is already an expectation to deliver despite the fact Mbappé is still a teenager.
Who is likely to disappoint ?
Paul Pogba. Too many below-par performances on big occasions have cast a shadow on his ability to turn the tables in tough matches. He is not a better player now than when he left Juventus for Man United two years ago and too often looks on the fringes of things. After a disappointing season in the Premier League, he could even lose his place in the starting line-up if he does not show the right attitude, raise his standards and keep his game simple.
What is the realistic aim for France and why?
The semi-finals. Anything less than the last showing in Brazil, when France were knocked out in a 1-0 defeat in the quarter-finals to the eventual champions Germany, would be considered a major underachievement. And it would call into question the future of Deschamps, whose renewed contract runs now until 2020.