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.
Source: the Guardian