AWhen kicking off against Tunisia, France were a team of opposites. On the pitch, they produced an authoritative 4-1 win over Australia in their opener and then edged out a Danish side who reached the semi-finals of the Euros last summer. Far from these assured performances, however, confusion has reigned in the French camp for some time.
Their third group game was indeed a meaningless draw but, full time in their chaotic 1-0 loss to Tunisia, that confusion had started to seep onto the pitch for the first time in Qatar. Even though Didier Deschamps chose an experimental XI, the game revealed the coach’s two main problems: he doesn’t know his best team and France are worryingly dependent on Kylian Mbappé. Deschamps’ side enter their round of 16 against Poland on Saturday afternoon unsettled and uncertain.
Deschamps seemed undecided for a while. Even though he had deployed full-backs and a trio of centre-backs for much of the last two years, when his squad was announced for the World Cup, Deschamps surprisingly said he would return to a back-to-back defense. four – although it has no warm-up – games before the tournament to test the setup. It was assumed this meant France would revert to the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 formation that served them so well at the World Cup in 2018. However, Deschamps opted for a 4-2-3-1 more traditional against Australia and Denmark, with Ousmane Dembélé operating on the right and Kylian Mbappé on the left.
The director seems to waver from one idea to another. Initially, he picked just 25 players for his squad – one less than everyone else – before adding Marcus Thuram a few days later, seemingly at random. The coach insisted he had planned the move from the start and wanted to see how the final round of domestic fixtures would go. Yet when Karim Benzema was finally ruled out with injury, he then declined the opportunity to bring in another striker.
His decision to snub Marseille winger Jonathan Clauss also looks like a curious call. Clauss is perfectly suited to the 3-5-2 system Deschamps used and his absence deprived the manager of the chance to return to the simple tactical change to a three-man defense, a formation the team are used to, if any. needed. do it.
Despite now using a four-man defence, Deschamps has made the odd decision to omit the natural full-backs. Despite being a coach renowned for his pragmatism, Deschamps has only named one true left-back – the genius Theo Hernandez – to his squad. The two full-backs from the side that won the World Cup in 2018, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, are still in the squad, but they naturally look more like centre-backs. Lucas Hernandez’s injury then exposed Deschamps’ mistake. Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga played at left-back against Tunisia and looked lost, making Deschamps’ decision not to call up Ferland Mendy – Madrid’s starting left-back – all the more baffling .
The team has, to its credit, coped well without Benzema. Olivier Giroud adds balance to the squad in his absence and it has been reported that the team are happier as a group now that the Ballon d’Or winner is gone. The attack now seems settled but Giroud is one of only five outfielders sure to play – along with Raphaël Varane, Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Aurélien Tchouaméni.
Deschamps could return to the asymmetrical system previously used by France when they won the World Cup four years ago. Although this move is familiar, it is also risky. Deschamps still has seven of the players who started the final in 2018, but is missing four key elements. France have plenty of young talent at centre-back, but the composure offered by Samuel Umtiti in 2018 has yet to be replaced at this level.
They are also missing a successor to Blaise Matuidi in the central left midfield role. Attempts to experiment with Adrien Rabiot in a similar position have been disappointing, although Deschamps has apparently anointed the Juventus midfielder – who refused to be included on the reserve list in 2018 – as his preferred choice. Matteo Guendouzi also struggled in a similar role against Tunisia. The absence of the midfield dynamism offered by Paul Pogba – who is regularly excellent for France – and N’Golo Kanté could also affect the power of this system.
Despite the mess, France have undeniable quality and they have won both games with their first-choice XI, so they are among the favourites, alongside Spain, England, Brazil and possibly Portugal. Portugal. However, it is difficult to judge their effectiveness given their small group. Having looked so strong ahead of the tournament, even beating France twice earlier this year, strikerless Denmark have horribly underperformed; Australia’s passionate but professional squad includes eight A-League players and nine others based in Scotland or lower English leagues – hardly the top tier; and Tunisia, though bolder than in previous tournaments, could beat neither Denmark nor Australia.
Meanwhile, Mbappé, the best player in the world at the moment, has largely carried France through these two games. And his absence was glaring against Tunisia as a scrappy reserve team suffered from out-of-position players and those playing more natural roles seemingly unsure of their role.
Deschamps ended the group stage less sure of his team’s effectiveness than he was at the start. Neither Pavard nor Jules Koundé look solid as a right-back; Varane lacks a reliable centre-back partner; and Youssouf Fofana, who had been seen as a potential starter in midfield, squandered his chances with a disastrous display against Tunisia. It also remains to be seen whether Deschamps really trusts Rabiot and Ousmane Dembélé in truly competitive matches deeper in the tournament.
All of these factors have allowed Wahbi Khazri – a player whose quality has often been overlooked by the French media during his spells at Saint-Étienne, Rennes, Bordeaux and now Montpellier – to slalom through France’s soft center and score the winner for Tunisia. The victory was not enough to take them to the round of 16, but it should serve as a wake-up call for Deschamps.
France flirted with implosion for weeks, with alleged blackmail scandals, a slew of injuries and tactical uncertainty. Another chaotic exit – similar to their penalty shootout loss to Switzerland in last year’s Euros round of 16 – looks increasingly likely. Deschamps needs more of a plan than just relying on Mbappe’s genius.