While France have attacking power that most teams at in Russia can only dream of, Les Bleus have issues in midfield. Their talisman Antoine Griezmann prefers to play in the hole behind their main striker in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation. But finding a midfield three behind Griezmann that balances attack and defence has become a dilemma. You’d think a midfield trio of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Juventus’s Blaise Matuidi would be sorted but French boss Didier Deschamps has concerns. When Paul Pogba or N’Golo Kante are missing, France struggle to play well as a team. Particularly when Kante goes quiet, the attack can become quite predictable and the team struggle to attack and defend as a unit. To solve this conundrum Deschamps dropped Pogba in a recent friendly against Colombia and instead used Kante and Matuidi as the holding midfielders in a 4-4-2 formation. However, both were more like statues than cover for the defence as Colombia’s counter attacking play over ran them and France ended up losing 3-2 after leading 2-0. In the following friendly against Russia, Deschamps made seven changes and reinstated Pogba. He showed remnants of his old self with a beautiful through ball to set up Mbappe who scored. Pogba then showed why he should be starting with a fantastically curled free kick that went into the bottom corner in a 3-1 win. It sounds like elite football team problems but against the big teams France could find the balance of their midfield a major issue.
Too many DJs and not enough bouncers as Fox Sports’ Simon Hill once said – and it describes France perfectly. Many French fans (and media pundits) feel France play pretty football and have an abundance of talent – but Les Bleus don’t always have enough mongrel in the side. France lack a player like Patrick Vieira in midfield or a devilish defender in the mould of Spain’s Sergio Ramos or even England’s John Terry.
While France is renowned for their attacking strength, their defence (even though Deschamps is known as a defensive minded coach) is a problem. With Les Bleus having a centre back pairing who play for Barcelona and Real Madrid you’d think the defence would pick itself. But it doesn’t. Pundits and fans see France’s defence as one of the crucial team selection issues of Les Bleus World Cup campaign. At the core of the problem is that Deschamps still hasn’t figured out who his best centre back pairing is. His choice is whether to go with Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane alongside one of Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti or Arsenal veteran Laurent Koscielny. But as Arsenal fans know, Koscielny is not the most reliable defender. In the game against Colombia he went with Varane and Umtiti and it was completely unimpressive, ultimately costing them a penalty. The Socceroos fans will hope confusion reigns amongst Les Bleus defenders in Russia.
THE FULL BACKS
While the centre back pairing is an issue, another problem France have in defence are the fullbacks. If Manchester City’s left back Benjamin Mendy does not recover from his knee injury in time, Les Bleus will be struggling to find a replacement that matches the 23-year-old’s quality. Barcelona’s back up left back Lucas Digne has yet to show his best playing for Les Bleus, while Paris Saint-Germain’s Layvin Kurzawa has lost the form he once displayed. He also jeopardised his future in the side by being caught on tape sledging French boss Didier Deschamps in a Paris bar last year. Issues abound when it comes to France’s right back options as well. Monaco’s Djibril Sidibe and Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard aren’t known for their defensive qualities. France’s fullback problems were on display in the recent friendly against Colombia when both Sidibe and Digne regularly left gaps in behind and the South Americans took advantage in the 3-2 loss.
Since France failed to get past the group stage at the 2002 World Cup and the squad revolted at the 2010 South African World Cup, questions will continue to be asked of Les Bleus’ team mentality at big tournaments. These psychological issues surfaced during the World Cup qualification campaign when, after beating the Netherlands, they drew 0-0 against Luxembourg. Les Bleus copped heaps of criticism for that result as they had never drawn against Luxembourg in 100 years. After blowing a two-goal lead and then losing 3-2 against Colombia in a recent friendly, French boss Didier Deschamps highlighted France’s fragile mentality. “When things are going well, we’re capable of doing very good things. When things get tense, we’re a lot more vulnerable,’’ Deschamps said. “It’s also a question of character – perhaps we are too self-satisfied, and the highest level doesn’t forgive that.’’