By MW Desk
A series of injuries, thanks to a jam-packed season this year, has resulted in a severe loss of cohesion in the midfield and attack line-up of the reigning world champions. English bookies are still placing them as the third most favourite to win the title, after Brazil and Argentina. But will they?
For France to successfully defend their World Cup title, they will need to do something that none of the European teams had done so far in the 21st century— to avoid being relegated from the group stage after winning the title four years ago. The trend was started by none but France when they were crowned as World Cup champions for the first time in 1998, but they suffered a humiliating first-round exit in the 2002 World Cup. Since then, Italy (Champions 2006), Spain (Champions 2010), and Germany (Champions 2014) have suffered a similar fate.
Can Didier Deschamps buck the trend this time and mastermind one last hurrah before the team undergoes an awaited transition? They have a deep reservoir of the talent pool, their players feature for elite teams in elite leagues, and are accustomed to soaking up the pressure of high-octane games. Beating Australia and Tunisia should be a cakewalk for them. The only real bump in the group stage seems to be Denmark.
But the same could have been said for this year’s UEFA Nations League, where they were pooled alongside Croatia, Austria, and Denmark. Theoretically, France should have qualified without much hassle, but they ended the tournament with three defeats, two draws, and just one win. The underwhelming campaign laid bare the vulnerabilities of this French team, leaving Deschamps with more questions than answers.
The high-flying team of 2018 was built more on the individual brilliance and less on the tactical acumen of Deschamps. A series of injuries, thanks to a jam-packed season, seem to have blighted that cutting edge, resulting in the severe loss of cohesion in the midfield and attack. N’Golo Kanté, who was the lynchpin of their midfield, is ruled out due to injury. Kanté put up a clinical show last time, winning 2.21 tackles and intercepting 3.33 passes per ninety minutes last year.
His commanding presence allowed Paul Pogba to prosper in the advanced role, without worrying about his defensive duties. Moreover, Pogba himself failed to recover in time, after hurting his knees at his new club Juventus before the European season began. Four years ago in Russia, Pogba was almost everywhere , covering the sprawling width of the pitch with his brawny physique and immaculate vision. Thus Deschamps will be bereft of two of his best midfielders in Qatar.
It’s not that the team lacks depth. Deschamps is blessed with a covetous talent pool, but he doesn’t yet know what the perfect blend of fresh blood and seasoned footballers would look like. Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni have already broken through at the club level, with both being identified as the future of Real Madrid in the post-Kroos Modric era. They both have complimenting attributes, similar to Pogba and Kanté. But will Deschamps take a punt on a midfield duo whose combined age is just 42?
As the adage goes, you need old heads and young legs to win the World Cup. For Deschamps, another glaring issue is that the old heads haven’t been able to put up an authoritative show in the build-up. “Raphaël Varane, the most experienced defender, hasn’t yet fully recovered from the injury he sustained last month during Manchester United’s trip to Stamford Bridg. He was not even in the squad for his club’w last game before the World Cup, against Fulham.” Presnel Kimpembe, who paired up with Varane in 2018, hasn’t had a great season with PSG. They have an array of young defenders like William Saliba of Arsenal, Ibrahima Konaté of Liverpool, and Jules Koundé of Barcelona, but none of them possesses the experience of playing on such a big stage.
There’s a lot of uncertainty around this French side. But Deschamps will still take solace in the fact that he is not the only manager who will depart to Qatar with a dizzy vision of what their final XI will look like, and in what formation they would line up. If their ill-fated UEFA Nations League campaign is anything to go by, they would likely stack themselves in a 3-4 3 or its variant, 3-5-2. The formation adds an extra layer of defence that has looked shaky in the build-up, allowing them to accommodate Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema, and Kylian Mbappé.
In this system, which promises to be incredibly lethal on the counterattack, Griezmann plays a classic No. 10 role, just behind the striking duo Benzema and Mbappé. The only problem in this formation is the lack of a natural right-wing-back. Benjamin Pavard doesn’t match the attacking ideas the position demands, forcing Deschamps to play a winger Kingsley Coman in an odd position.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Deschamps goes with the traditional 4-3-3 or a flat 4-4-2. Either way, these are just means to achieve the end. Neither the team nor fans would care if France stomps their opponents. Much of it will depend on how smartly and how quickly Deschamps comes up with solutions to the burning questions. Everything looks easy in retrospect. The real challenge would be to improvise on the go.
Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com