This article also appeared on Guardian Sport.
There hadn't been a goalless draw in 38 matches at Russia 2018 but that streak was emphatically ended by France and Denmark yesterday afternoon. While goals have been a little sparse at times and a handful of games have landed on the wrong side of uneventful, the 900 minute standoff that closed out Group C and saw both sides comfortably qualify as Peru dispatched the remaining Australian threat represented something of a nadir. Nevertheless, although Didier Deschamps France somehow managed to double down on their slow, turgid opening to the tournament, the game in Moscow managed to pose further selection questions for Les Bleus, adding to the myriad of issues surrounding Deschamps’ supremely talented yet cripplingly uninspired squad. Most notably, what to do with the only man to pose a consistent threat, Nabil Fekir.
Already assured of a last 16 berth and a point away from top spot, changes were again afoot for France. Deschamps’ plan to deploy a third markedly different 11 for the third game running had been known for some days; Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele and Steven Nzonzi would replace Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Kylian Mbappe in the midfield four while Djibril Sidibe and Presnel Kimpembe would be added to the defence, Steve Mandanda preferred to a rested Hugo Lloris in goal. Although the tired and trusted 442 remained, this was an eleven that supposedly offered more balance.
Lemar, suited to left midfield having stood out in the role for Monaco as they stormed to the title in 2017, would provide the intensity and pace opposite Ousmane Dembele that Blaise Matuidi could not against Peru. Nzonzi could both surpass Pogba for discipline and defensive coverage and release Ngolo Kante to press higher up and firefight across the midfield, much as he did so expertly alongside Danny Drinkwater at Leicester. Much needed width from full back would meanwhile come via Djibril Sidibe. However, some attacking cohesion, a proclivity to move the ball quickly and a keenness to press, absent from the Peru and Australia encounters, were again not forthcoming.
Such turnover is nothing new for Deschamps having tinkered his way through the group stages of Euro 2016 to varying success before stumbling across a setup that, for the immediate future, coalesced. A goal down to Ireland at half time in the round of 16, Deschamps switched Kante for Kingsley Coman and moved Antoine Griezmann inside to play off Olivier Giroud in a now go to 442 formation. By the hour mark Griezmann had scored twice, Giroud had an assist and France were as good as through with Shane Duffy swiftly dismissed. There was a sense leading into the Denmark game that Deschamps may be able to, having fumbled his way through the group again, discover some form in the depths of his squad once more that might drag Les Bleus through to the latter stages. From the start at least, he was out of luck.
Lemar's admittedly injury affected timid and quiet club form continued onto the international arena with a series of misplaced passes and routinely being dispossessed, Sidibe, although unusually untroubled defensively, barely made an impact on attacks while, a few nice touches aside, Dembele also faded from view. Although Kimpembe remained solid in Umtiti's stead Nzonzi proved the only starter to put genuine pressure on Deschamps decision making. Assured on the ball, imposing and physical when necessary and disciplined throughout alongside Kante means Pogba, who's previously untouchable status continues to be questioned having been booed off in the friendly against the US leading Deschamps to state he had ‘decisions’ to make as a result, is now under threat should his manager persist with this set up into the knockout stages.
Fekir's second half introduction, particularly in contrast to a third tired and wayward display from Antoine Griezmann, will now likely dominate the build up to Saturday’s knockout tie. Perhaps accentuated by the dross around him, Fekir came closest to awakening France, and the Luzhniki crowd, from their slumber. Characteristically positive and inventive, the Lyon captain again gave France a different dimension to the speed and directness of Mbappe or Dembele and Giroud’s physicality. The same could be said of previous cameo displays, particularly against Australia.
Fekir is far more comfortable, much like Griezmann, in a central role and sporadic use on the wing in the last 18 months at club level has proved largely unsuccessful, while impressing in replacing Griezmann for each of the last four France games and starting the first warm up game at the tip of a diamond. Dropping Griezmann, although not undeserved on form, seems unlikely and finding a place for both provides familiar unpalatable trade offs for Deschamps.
If Griezmann were to join Giroud in attack with Fekir slotting in behind as the tip of diamond, Mbappe and Dembele would both have to miss out while a pairing of Mbappe and Griezmann would squeeze Giroud out. Although an enticing proposition theoretically, its a scenario that never lasts long under Deschamps. The Chelsea striker’s ability to act as a focal point and use his physicality to bring other into play around him, not to mention a more than solid 31 goals in 77 games record, has made it repeatedly difficult for France to perform effectively without him. Meanwhile, a 442 with Mbappe and Fekir in wider roles would likely leave France horribly exposed in both full back and central midfield areas, despite the mobility and ferociousness of Kante and Nzonzi, not to mention issues arising from Mbappe, naturally a central striker himself, and Fekir both effectively being used out of position.
To his credit, albeit a little belatedly, Deschamps seems to have resisted the temptation to persist with cramming his best 11 players into a unwieldy team, while he has never been afraid to leave prominent players out and persist with his favourites should he deem it necessary but leaving Griezmann, Pogba and Mbappe (arguably France’s three best players) all out at once may be a step too far for Deschamps.
It seems likely however, as it did two summers ago, that the French coach will continue to experiment into the round of 16 but a familiar caveat remains. Again relying on the potentially fleeting form of Fekir or whoever may emerge to drag his side through to the later stages remains a little more than a patchy, short term solution. Despite 6 years in charge Deschamps’ France have lacked a footballing identity, the style of play floating somewhere between vague and non-existent - other than the reliance on a long list of gifted individuals. Although Deschamps on the fly tournament management may always eventually produce acceptable results, this generation of talent should, although not expected to this summer by fans at home, win a trophy soon.
Repeatedly muddling through with this last minute scattergun approach to team selection doesn't represent success nor will it produce it to the levels expected but, unfortunately for this squad's development, it might be enough for Deschamps to remain in charge tournament after tournament. Fekir might be shoehorned into the team and he might provide the spark to propel France into the last 4, which would nicely meet expectations, but if this France are to realise their potential, a philosophy, a clear direction and a coach other than Didier Deschamps will be needed.
by Adam White