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Just a few of the forwards who start for France at the World Cup next summer. Composite: Getty Images. Courtesy Photo.

Who Should Play up Front for France? It's Time for Didier Deschamps to Decide

Deschamps has to pick a balanced team while juggling the talents of Mbappé, Giroud, Dembélé, Griezmann, Lacazette, Payet and Martial – among others
posted onOctober 10, 2017
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France’s narrow victory over Bulgaria on Saturday night means Didier Deschamps has won more games as the Les Blues manager than anyone else, edging above Michel Hidalgo and Raymond Domenech’s record of 41 wins. The 1-0 win in Sofia also means France can guarantee their place at the World Cup next summer by beating Belarus at home on Tuesday night.

Sitting one point clear of Sweden before the final fixtures, France are almost certain to be in the draw for the group stage come December, but Deschamps is still far from sure about the squad and starting 11 he will employ in Russia.

Balance has always been crucial for Deschamps. Despite the ludicrous levels of talent at his disposal, he has avoided the temptation of desperately cramming his best players into his team, as Sven-Göran Eriksson did with his midfielders while in charge of England. Deschamps’ use of Paul Pogba is perhaps an exception to that rule, but he tends to prioritise his system and the balance of the team above defaulting to the pound-for-pound quality of individual players. A good example of this is the way he has persisted with Olivier Giroud and Moussa Sissoko, most notably during Euro 2016.

This principle also trickles down to the makeup of the wider squad. Deschamps has repeatedly stressed that he wants a varied, even and harmonious group of players. He will leave superstars at home if he thinks their inclusion would adversely affect his squad. The continued exile of Karim Benzema after the Mathieu Valbuena sextape scandal is a case in point.

This approach has led to Deschamps being accused of favouritism, with some players keeping their places despite their lack of domestic form or even minutes on the pitch. With many of their traditional rivals either in transition (Germany and Italy), remaining disjointed (England) or even struggling to qualify (Argentina and Holland), expectation is snowballing in France and Deschamps’ principles are coming under mounting pressure.

Deschamps’ team have put in some colourless displays in the campaign, which look especially egregious given the manager could call upon an exceptionally generation who are so talented they can no longer be overlooked. Asides from a 4-0 win over a meek Holland team, France have sleepwalked through what has turned out to be a less than challenging group, with a Zlatan-less Sweden proving the most irksome of their opponents.

France have only lost one of their nine qualifiers so far – when a disastrous Hugo Lloris mistake handed Ola Toivonen an injury time winner in Stockholm – but they have not been entirely convincing either. Blunt attacking displays – such as the edgy 1-0 win over Bulgaria at the weekend and the goalless draws with Luxembourg and Belarus – have led to questions about the manager’s selection strategy.

This is particularly true in attack, where Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar and others are impossible to ignore. Deschamps’ ability to eke out optimum performances from a very crowded forward line while still keeping the team balanced will define his six-year spell as coach.

His preferred set-up since Euro 2016 has been a variation on 4-2-4 or 4-4-2, in the image of what Leonardo Jardim used for Monaco last season. There have also been occasions over the last 12 months when France have used a 4-2-3-1 to get the most out of their centre-forward, typically Olivier Giroud, who has played in front of a second striker or what the French might call a “nine-and-a-half”, usually Antoine Griezmann, who has shown he is far more effective centrally.
 
However, with the possible exception of Griezmann, the first name jotted down on the teamsheet before France’s opening game next summer ought to be “Mbappé”. Despite his fledgling years, the eventual €180m man is already justifying comparisons with Brazil’s Ronaldo. Although his best position remains as a striker, the Paris Saint-Germain forward has shown he can still affect games from a wider position – just ask David Alaba.
 
However, Mbappé has only been successful as a winger when part of an attacking trident, as Paris Saint-Germain deploy. He often disappeared last season when he was put on the left of a 4-4-2 for Monaco. The relative lack of space, the need to stay closer to the touchline and the increased defensive responsibilities required as a left-sided midfielder make him less effective. He cannot be as direct and has fewer opportunities to cut inside and be so devastating.
 
How Mbappé is employed, either out wide or through the middle, affects Griezmann. Although he has unerringly demonstrated he can play as a lone striker for Atlético Madrid, he has yet to replicate this form with the national side, albeit with limited opportunities. Both players can clearly perform as strikers in a 4-4-2, but whether they can they play together in this formation remains a very exciting question.
 
During the win over Bulgaria, Mbappé and Griezmann played either side of a lone striker, in this case Alexandre Lacazette, in a 4-3-3. This a role that suits Lacazette, the Arsenal man finally winning out in his long-running battle with consistency in the last 18 months or so. Although clunky at times, with Mbappé in particular struggling, this attacking trio could be devastating if given time to develop an understanding together.
 
This triumvirate, while an enthralling prospect, would mean Deschamps would finally have to dispense with one his “favourites” in Giroud. That may look like a simple decision, but he has repaid Deschamps’ faith in the past. He put together a run of 10 goals in 14 games before and during Euro 2016 and has a better goals per game ratio for France than Karim Benzema (0.4 to 0.33). Giroud has scored 27 goals for his country – the same number as Benzema – but he has taken just 67 games while Benzema needed 81.
 
There is another problem with a front three of Mbappé, Griezmann and Lacazette: where would this leave €100m man Ousmane Dembélé? Deschamps could drop Lacazette and push Mbappé or Griezmann into the centre; he could revert to a 4-4-2 and risk curtailing the effectiveness of both Mbappé and Dembélé in wider roles; or he could leave the Barcelona man out entirely. And that is before you consider strong claims from Thomas Lemar,who is very much suited to 4-4-2, and Dimitri Payet, the star performer at Euro 2016.
 
A 4-3-3 in this guise would at last play to Paul Pogba’s strengths. Despite his gradual adaptation and improvement at Manchester United, he has struggled to replicate his bombastic Juventus form, where he was deployed as a “mezzala”, akin to a box-to-box midfielder in a three-man midfield. If Pogba hits his Juventus form and Deschamps finds a fully functioning partnership between Mbappé and Griezmann, France would be truly terrifying.
 
Assuming Sweden don’t better France’s result on Tuesday night, Les Bleus will fly to Russia next summer as one of the favourites – if not the favourite. Deschamps has eight months to find a way of maximising the skills of a frighteningly talented group. Whether or not he is successful at preserving his long established principles while also getting the most from his precocious forward line will decide whether or not he becomes a World Cup-winning manager or just remains a World Cup-winning captain.

Source: the Guardian

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