Please Didier – let them off the leash
The end-of-season tournament-less internationals, traditionally a less than successful time for France, are over for another year or two with some highs and lows to look back on and lessons to be learned.
France’s three-match schedule comprised two home friendlies against Paraguay and England, with a World Cup qualifier in Sweden sandwiched between the two.
Of the first match of the three there is little to be said, France rolling over a poor South American side 5-0. The only real talking point of the match was that Olivier Giroud contributed a hat-trick – a first by a France international since David Trezeguet against a FIFA XI in 2000 (does that count?) or Dominique Rocheteau against Luxembourg in 1985 (if it doesn’t). Giroud’s hat-trick, allied to his fantastic curling volley against Sweden, puts him joint eighth on France’s all-time list, with 27 goals, alongside a certain Karim Benzema – but Giroud having done it in 18 fewer matches. He also contributed to France’s first goal against England, winning the free kick from which his powerful header was palmed into Samuel Umtiti’s path. It is Giroud’s lot that people will always question his place in the team, but his workrate, dedication, contribution to team spirit and – bottom line – goalscoring rate – cannot be questioned. Unlike for others…
Only other point to note vs Paraguay was an impressive cameo appearance by Alexandre Lacazette, who unselfishly laid on goal number four for Moussa Sissoko (more on him in a second) and whose pressurising of the defence led to Griezmann’s number five.
On to the most disappointing of the three matches, it being the only defeat and in the one match that counted for something. In a low-key match which France perhaps sneaked on the balance of play, Giroud’s wonder-strike was quickly cancelled out by Toulouse’s Jimmy Durmaz, before les Bleus were sucker-punched by Hugo Lloris’ awful clearance, which Toulouse’s Ola Toivonen lobbed into the net.
First the World Cup picture – whereas France should be sitting pretty, they are now level on points with, but behind, Sweden. One would still expect France to come through, particularly with three of their remaining four games at home. But then the pessimistic omen-seekers among us may remember that the 1993 qualifying campaign ended with two straightforward looking home ties to get out of a group which included both Sweden and Bulgaria…
Secondly the France state of play picture. Didier Deschamps has never been the most attack-minded of coaches, but his almost unparalleled record as a winner, as player and coach, has earned him patience – more than he has received in general (including strange criticism for reaching the final of a major competition last year). However, the Sweden match has raised inevitable questions.
If he was aiming for a draw – certainly not the worst of results in view of the qualifying group context – then his relatively conservative line-up was not the worst decision in the world. After all, he would have secured the point if not for Lloris’ rush of blood to the head. However, a team of France’s talent should arguably be going all-out for wins match in and match out, irrespective of opponent or context.
Unsurprisingly, much of the debate has centred around Deschamps’ chouchou, Moussa Sissoko. In his defence, he has almost always performed well for France, is a usefully versatile squad player – and was the only Bleu who bothered turning up for the Euro final. For these reasons he deserves perhaps a little more support than he is generally receiving. However, the level of support that Deschamps is giving him seems far too much. With the wealth of attacking talent that France has waiting in the wings (excuse the pun), starting with the Spurs benchwarmer sends out a poor signal to France’s opponents, who no doubt exhale with relief at the prospect of handling him rather than, say, Ousmane Dembele.
Sissoko’s place is certainly not the only one that should be under threat. No one has ever doubted the effort that Blaise Matuidi pours into every match that he plays. But the shockingly one-footed midfielder often seems a step or two behind his talented team-mates when it comes to attacking moves and it is hard to argue that any one of Ngolo Kante, Adrien Rabiot, Corentin Tolisso or the rarely-mentioned Morgan Sanson could not provide more guile in an attacking sense and just as much support defensively.
Talking of defensive support… Dimitri Payet. Fantastic set piece delivery. Fantastic dribbling and shooting skills. Non-existent back-tracking, which has been a consistent problem and remains so, even now that he has a proper left back rather than a panda impersonator playing behind him.
All issues to ponder going into the final match against England where, it being a friendly, DD went for a big overhaul and started with young stars Dembele, Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappe, as well as bringing in Kante for Matuidi.
And what a difference! Again, the friendly context should not be ignored. But the gulf between the performances of the two France teams was staggering. Here was a young, dynamic, lightning fast team which frightened the England defence every time it bombed forward, all contributing to a thrilling win, despite playing nigh on a full half with 10 men.
Paul Pogba had one of his sporadic world class France games – hopefully because he relished taking on more responsibility as a (relatively) older statesman, rather than because of l’Equipe’s post-Sweden criticism of him. Kante’s inclusion also gave him more freedom to roam forward, knowing that the English Player of the Year had his back. Kante showed as much dynamism as Matuidi, but with more purpose, always running to the right place instead of down blind alleys. Thomas Lemar, despite losing his Monaco ally Benjamin Mendy to injury very early on, was as ever a joy to watch, his delivery setting up the first goal, constantly involved (only Pogba and Sidibe touched the ball more), his searching left footed balls testing England throughout – and his defensive effort putting Payet to shame – only Kante won the ball back more often than Lemar – who was playing his 60th match of the season!
Ousmane Dembele frustrated a couple of times early on, spurning a great chance when Pogba and Mbappe combined to send him clear, and shooting with others better placed. But he terrorised England all evening with his speed and skill, his feint in the lead-up to France’s second humiliating John Stones and his calm finish late on securing the win. Showing almost as much speed and even more intelligence was Mbappe, whose clever running stretched the defence constantly, who laid on two great chances for Dembele and who forced excellent saves on a couple of occasions. One show of skill on the wing made the whole Stade de France gasp. Arguably his only poor moment was when he hit the bar when his own excellent footwork had cleared the way to a gaping goal.
The one-goal margin of victory should really have been wider and that it was not was again due to France’s defence, which looks too often shaky. Arguably Djibril Sidibe epitomises the whole French team – exhilarating going forward, contributing assists and goals – but found very lacking when it comes to defending.
They say that attack is the best form of defence and that has never felt truer than for this France team. Ditch Sissoko, Matuidi and even Payet. Give the ball to Dembele, Lemar, Pogba and Mbappe (not forgetting Lacazette, Thauvin, Martial and Coman who could potentially come in) and watch the opposition tremble.
This young France team has the potential to be world beaters. We saw in the final last year that anything can happen on any given day and that major trophies are never guaranteed. But the potential of Mbappe et al seems boundless. Please Didier – let them off the leash and, whatever happens, they – and we – could have a hell of a lot of fun!