This article also appeared on Guardian Sport.
If you happened to flick through French sports daily L’equipe on Thursday morning you would reach page 15 before finding anything over than France and Peru. Les Bleu’s opener with Australia has been picked over in minute detail on a daily basis since Saturday's unconvincing 2-1 win and, according to L’equipe, the consensus is that there were ‘four major deficiencies’: ‘a lack of physical freshness, no attacking cohesion, not moving the ball quickly enough and the absence of a consistent press.’ That assessment will be a familiar one. Both for Didier Deschamps’ France and, for those on the other side of the channel, England under Sven Goran Eriksson. Deschamps’ incarnation of France are in danger of failing in the same way as parallels between the two become ever clearer.
Distilling the most effective formula from an ample pool of talent, much a it was for Eriksson, has long been Deschamps central issue. The narrow 1-0 win over Peru was largely achieved by returning to the comfort blanket of the only set up that has consistently produced results in recent times, if not fluid performances. The midfield diamond of the warm up games, which morphed into a narrow 433 with Antoine Griezmann as a false 9 for against Australia, was dispensed with in a move back to an effective if uninspiring 442. Ousmane Dembele and Corentin Tolisso were dropped in favour of Deschamps favourites Olivier Giroud and, doing his best Moussa Sissoko impression, Blaise Matuidi on the left.
Not unaccustomed to the role, Matuidi largely nullified the marauding Luis Advincula, despite offering little offensively. Giroud meanwhile, with Griezmann as a second striker and the lightning Kylian Mbappe on the right in support, created space for others and, although he was unable to add to a creditable 31 goals in 76 games at international level, provided a much needed focal point. Although, as Samuel Umtiti was keen to stress this week, this is just start of a long tournament there is a sense that if France are to have a true impact on this world cup, performances of key players need to improve, Antoine Griezmann in particular. Deschamps would seem to agree.
For ‘Scholes on the left’, ‘Gerrard on the left’ and ‘a diamond midfield’ read ‘Griezmann out wide’, ‘Griezmann off Giroud’ and ‘Griezmann as a false 9’. Despite his six goals which won Euro 16s golden boot, much of the debate over the national side (and Deschamps tinkering) since has been focused on eeking out Griezmann’s club form in a blue shirt. Although clearly more comfortable centrally, Griezmann has proved largely a passive presence for Les Bleus in Russia so far and changing that could well be the difference between another a meek quarter final exit (sound familiar?) and threatening the final.
However, it may already be too late - the team seemingly not ready for sweeping changes. Having switched between his 442 and occasionally a more orthodox 433 in qualifying, attempts to alter the side across three warm up friendlies smacked of indecisiveness and even panic. While a diamond theoretically suits the team Deschamps tried to shoehorn Griezmann into tip of that diamond as something resembling a false 9 which left Mbappe, Dembele and the Atletico Madrid man all trying to fill largely the same spaces. A narrow effect was compounded by the absence of width from full back usually provided by the unfit Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe.
Despite marginal gains, the meeting with Peru posed similar questions for France. Although Ricardo Gareca’s charges imposed themselves to start with in Ekaterinburg, as the first half wore on Les Bleus began to feel their way into the game; their superior quality and the familiarity of Deschamps 442 aiding rhythm. Kylian Mbappe’s close range finish for the game’s only goal after Giroud’s shot had luckily deflected over Pedro Gallese in the Peru goal and into the PSG forwards path hardly felt undeserved. As they did against Australia, bizarre hand balls aside, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane were proving solid at centre back while the ubiquitous Ngolo Kante continued to impress alongside an unusually prominent Paul Pogba. Nevertheless, as Eriksson’s England often did, France faded in the second period, returning to slow and lacklustre with Griezmann again underwhelming.
Both French displays so far have drawn stark parallels with Eriksson’s (and Fabio Capello’s) England in tournament football. Timid, turgid and no impetus, posting tired, glacial performances against weaker opposition as they fumble their way out of the group with key players underperforming. For France however, this is nothing new. Although les Bleus made the final of Euro 16 as hosts and produced a superb counterattacking semi final win over Germany, their displays largely echoed more recent ones. It took an outstanding Dimitri Payet and a late winner to see off a weak Romania before now familiar unconvincing outings against Albania and Switzerland. Deschamps’ side trailed Ireland at half time in the round of 16 before a easily dispensing with the weakest quarter final opponents in Iceland.
Nevertheless, although a quarter final exit to Portugal on penalties remains a distinct possibility, hope endures for Les Bleu on a number of fronts where Eriksson’s England suffered. Firstly, the discourse surrounding the national team differs greatly on each side of the channel. Where English footballing pessimism is relatively fresh, the unbridled pre-tournament optimism of Eriksson’s reign extinguished by a succession of exits ranging from underwhelming to excruciating, the French naturally hold a more skeptical view. Where others may look at France's obscene levels of talent and see obvious World Cup winners, French predictions have been much more conservative. A quarter final exit would be far from unexpected while a semi final berth, FFF president Noel Le Graet’s stated target, would be seen as largely successful. Of course they are capable of winning it all but aren't necessarily expected to.
In comparison, France also benefit from a long standing French proclivity to dissect and examine football in great detail. While this is now more prevalent in relation to England, the more ladish tabloid culture surrounding Eriksson’s team at the turn of the century often boiled down, in simple terms, to ‘wanting it more’ and showing ‘desire’ and ‘pride in the shirt’, leading to a sense that success would somehow be forthcoming if only the team would try harder. Considering softened Galic expectations and a more thoughtful discourse in the media, the pressure, although still immense, isn't quite as prohibitive. Helpfully meanwhile, that discussion often boardly equates to one choice: winning or playing well. The feeling being that it's extremely difficult to achieve both at the same time. As such should results remain positive and performances solid, admittedly displays in Russia haven’t quite reach such a standard yet, there will be murmurings of discontent but the mood will remain relatively buoyant. England under Eriksson however were often expected to win comfortably playing what the French might call ‘champagne football’ without much thought on how they might achieve such results.
Despite the unconvincing displays, issues surrounding his premier performers and a lack of identity, Deschamps’ outlook could yet prove crucial for France. Where Eriksson stubbornly attempted to force his best players into a variety of unbalanced systems, Deschamps is capable of ignoring the pressure to somehow fit his top 11 players into an unwieldy team, underlined by a persistence with Moussa Sissoko at Euro 16, his exclusion of Adrien Rabiot, Alex Lacazette and co this summer and the reinstating of the once heavily criticized but now widely accepted Olivier Giroud for the win over Peru in favour of a balance Erkisson’s England team never had. Although Deschamps lack of direction will likely be his undoing in the longer term, for now, keeping faith with his favourites might be the only way to avoid mirroring Eriksson and a repeat of 2014’s lifeless quarter final exit.
by Adam White