23 in 2018: A Look at Les Bleus in Russia

Despite a dismal performance in the final of the recently finished European Championships, France acquitted themselves fairly well in a tough tournament. The spread of their various opponents’ levels of quality meant the hosts often had to battle against teams drilled to soak up pressure, increasing the level of persistence and mental strength required for a breakthrough, or even a quality chance. Some results were achieved through individual brilliance (the win against Romania), while others (Germany) seemed to occur despite the direction of play. But, even with their failure to become champions, France continued their ascent under Didier Deschamps, a rise that began in the wake of the team’s dismal effort in the 2010 World Cup, but gained steam more quickly under the former Marseille manager.

Throughout his time in charge of Les Bleus, Deschamps has masterfully balanced experience and youth, handing debuts to dozens of players while still keeping faith in the team’s stalwarts when necessary. However, in the wake of these Euros, he will now be faced with some very tough decisions. Patrice Evra and his fellow fullbacks Bacary Sagna and Christophe Jallet are all at or near the end of their international careers; all will be 34 or older by the time Russia 2018 comes around. Goalkeeper and midfield are also in need of some new blood, while further forward, a raft of talented young attackers will likely continue to give Deschamps selection headaches.

As the team heads toward a friendly with Italy and a qualifier against Belarus in just six weeks’ time, here is a look at how the manager may start to structure the squad heading towards a tournament that is bereft of any overwhelming favorites.  The list is comprised of 23 players, structured in the same way that Deschamps picked his team for the European Championships. There are three goalkeepers, two fullbacks on each side, four central defenders, six midfielders and six attackers. Each is listed with their current club, followed in parentheses by other players under consideration at that position. A short explanation follows each position, and while there is likely to be contention about my selections, I wholeheartedly encourage debate in the comments section.

*Despite playing a wide role in the recent matches, Moussa Sissoko is considered a midfielder for these purposes, as the FFF website lists him in that position.

Goalkeeper

Hugo Lloris, Tottenham Hotspur | Steve Mandanda, Crystal Palace | Alphonse Areola, Paris Saint-Germain | (Yoan Cardinale, OGC Nice | Paul Nardi, Stade Rennais (on loan from AS Monaco))

While a change is needed in this position, it is only for the third goalkeeper. Hugo Lloris had a fine tournament this summer, turning in arguably a Man of the Match performance against Germany and playing in an assured manner behind a back four whose flux was potentially damaging. This upcoming season will see him feature in the Champions League for the first time since leaving Lyon, and still not 30, he should continue to be France’s no. 1 at least through Euro 2020.

Steve Mandanda continues his role as a fine deputy; he captured his second consecutive Ligue 1 goalkeeper of the year award, continuing an impressive mid-career renaissance. With a level of talent that would see him starting for all but a handful of other countries, his move to Crystal Palace will see him face a higher level of opposition in England, presenting him an outside chance to unseat Lloris.

Third choice is where things get a bit more interesting. Benoit Costil was the choice this summer, but that was on the back of a relatively poor season that saw him turn in a string of poor performances as Rennes slipped from the European places. Stephane Ruffier would be an upgrade on Costil, but he refused to join the squad as third choice, and as he turns thirty in two months’ time, his brief international career is likely all but over. France continue to be a font of young talent, and the likes of Monaco’s Paul Nardi and Nice’s Yoan Cardinale both impressed, with the former earning a move to Rennes. That said, as well as the pair have played, their first team experience is still too lacking as far as Deschamps is concerned, meaning that Alphonse Areola is the easy choice.

Areola, a Paris native, spent a handful of seasons with Clairefontaine before making his move to Paris Saint-Germain. He has yet to make a meaningful impact with the first team, but has steadily moved through France’s various youth levels, winning the U-20 World Cup in 2013. His third consecutive season on loan, with Villarreal, following campaigns with Lens and Bastia, continued this progress. Moving from a Ligue 2 side, to a mid-table Ligue 1 side, to a top four side in Spain has meant that he has slowly but surely developed without the potentially damning spotlight of the Parc des Princes. Given the inconsistency shown by Kevin Trapp last season, Areola is well-positioned to be the champions’ new no. 1, and to be integrated into the national setup as Lloris’ eventual successor, a process that should start sooner rather than later.

Right Back

Sebastien Corchia, Lille OSC | Djibril Sidibe, AS Monaco | (Mathieu Debuchy, Arsenal)

Right back was easily France’s “problem position” at the Euros, as Bacary Sagna failed to show much impetus in attack, with backup Christophe Jallet likewise off the pace after a difficult season at Lyon. With both into their mid-30s, Deschamps has stumbled here in terms of developing a plan of succession at the position, but even so, he retains interesting options. Interestingly, both have been in the frame for France in the recent past, but have yet to be capped at the senior level, and both were at Lille this season, albeit with one used out of position.

A move for Djibril Sidibe to Monaco means that both he and Sebastien Corchia can feature at their preferred position, with right back for the next few years looking to be a straight shootout between the two. Before discussing the relative merits of the pair, a word for Mathieu Debuchy is necessary. Although I don’t believe he should be included going forward due to the promise of Sidibe and Corchia, if he can find a suitable landing place and remain healthy, Deschamps’ proclivity for experience may give him the chance to displace one of his younger competitors. His loan move to Bordeaux looked promising ahead of the Euros, but missing a month with injury meant that he was seen as too much of a risk ahead of a major tournament. Still, with almost 30 caps, and only 32 in 2018, (a year younger than Sagna this summer) he presents an experienced option should Deschamps lack confidence in Sidibe or Corchia.

At present, Sidibe would appear to have the edge over Corchia, as he was named to Deschamps’ set of seven reserves, but that could easily change. Corchia, 26 in November, is vastly more experienced, having featured more than 25 times for the U-21 national team and over 200 times in Ligue 1. He has also continued to improve; his career had seemed to stall because he was struggling with coming to terms with the defensive aspects of being a right back, but this season, under the tutelage of Frederic Antontetti, has seen a marked improvement. His performances weren’t to the level of previous seasons in terms of goals and assists, but given what Deschamps has asked of Sagna, that may not necessarily be as negative as one might think.

Sidibe, seeking the opportunity to play in his preferred position, recently completed a big money move to Monaco. Playing for Lille at left back, he struggled in defence, despite showing some improvement under Antonetti, but shifting back to his natural right side and playing under Leonardo Jardim, another conservative manager, should continue his improvement. A pacy and energetic player, who is unafraid to run at opponents, Sidibe might be too error-prone to feature against the best opponents, but he is also still just 23. Given the trajectory of Corchia, it is not unreasonable to think he could continue to improve this aspect of his game. Between the two, Deschamps should view Corchia as a safe pair of hands and Sidibe as a bit more of a wild card. Playing more matches in Europe will continue to test both players this season; barring a remarkable renaissance by Debuchy, both should be given ample opportunity for the senior side.

Left Back

Lucas Digne, Barcelona | Layvin Kurzawa, Paris Saint-Germain | (Jordan Amavi, Aston Villa | Benjamin Mendy, AS Monaco)

Patrice Evra, one of the betes noires of the 2010 World Cup, has sufficiently recovered his reputation through this tournament, but, at 35, he is hardly one for the future, even if he is yet to announce his international retirement. Even if Evra continues to be picked, the matter of his understudy remains considerably complicated. Jeremy Mathieu would have played that role at the tournament, were it not for an injury, but given that he is likewise 33 in September, seems an unlikely choice to be an important piece going forward.

Lucas Digne, who did eventually arrive to deputize for Evra, enjoyed a successful season on loan with AS Roma. He was a consistent starter, featured in the Champions League, and was able to see the side safely back in the competition for the upcoming season. Having proved himself at a level higher than he had previously during his stint at Lille, it appeared that he was putting himself in good stead to return to Paris Saint-Germain, his parent club, to challenge Kurzawa and Maxwell for the starting left back berth. However, his recent move to Barcelona puts his international future in significant doubt.

An important player for Lille from a young age, Digne made his senior debut for France at just nineteen, and was quickly labeled the heir apparent to Evra. However, his failure to displace Maxwell at PSG meant that he slipped down the pecking order, with Deschamps experimenting with Benoit Tremoulinas and Layvin Kurzawa. Now, with his move to Spain, he appears in danger of undoing the good work of his time in Italy, as he will likely find it hard to displace Jordi Alba. Still just 22, Digne possesses a world of potential, but may fail to realize it given his seemingly hubristic approach to his club selection.

That said, his three main competitors, Layvin Kurzawa, Jordan Amavi and Benjamin Mendy all have their own issues, meaning Digne probably is the favorite going forward, especially if he is able to feature 15-20 times for Barcelona. Kurzawa is easily the biggest talent of the quartet under consideration at present, but issues surrounding his discipline and maturity, as well as a patchy injury history have meant that he has only been called into the senior team on a handful of occasions, earning just two caps. With Maxwell another year older and a new manager (hopefully) giving Paris Saint-Germain’s squad a clean slate, the bet here is that Kurzawa has what it takes to join Digne.

Amavi and Mendy are interesting cases; Mendy has been impressive going forward but mediocre in defense, especially regarding his discipline, as he too often found himself in the referee’s notebook. Like Sidibe, there is certainly hope that the tutelage of Jardim can be to his benefit, but he still likely finds himself on the outside looking in, barring a massively impressive U-21 European Championships next summer. Amavi was brilliant for Nice two years ago, and looked a canny buy for Aston Villa, easily coping with the travails of the Premier League, but his return from a season-ending injury will be a tough one. Should he negotiate a move to a club in the Premier League or abroad, he could yet force his way into the reckoning at left back, but given the competition, he likely remains a fringe candidate.

Centre Back

Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal | Samuel Umtiti, Barcelona | Raphael Varane, Real Madrid | Kurt Zouma, Chelsea | (Aymeric Laporte, Athletic Bilbao | Mamadou Sakho, Liverpool | Eliaquim Mangala, Manchester City)

Injuries and suspensions decimated France’s options at center back prior to the European Championships, but the emergence of Umtiti proved a silver lining. The former Lyon player earned a massive move to Barcelona, where the qualities he evinced at Lyon as regards to playing with the ball at his feet and his long-range passing will surely be burnished. Already fairly adept at tackling and positioning, Umtiti and Koscielny showed enough together to be considered the first choice pairing going forward for Deschamps. The Arsenal man was easily France’s best defender in the tournament, and though he is 31 in September, he probably has enough left in his legs for another qualification cycle.

Provided they can return to full fitness quickly enough, Raphael Varane and Kurt Zouma, both of whom missed the Championships through injury, should find themselves as the preferred backups. Varane admittedly had an uneven season with Real Madrid, failing to displace Pepe in the biggest matches, but as the Portuguese is soon to be 34, the former Lens man should be afforded more of a chance this season. Likewise Zouma, whose partnership with John Terry looked impressive for Chelsea before a torn ACL ended his season in February. Long-term, the former Saint-Etienne player should partner Umtiti, but with Koscielny still impressing, he will likely find a place on the bench.

The obvious omissions here are Mamadou Sakho, who remains a cult hero in France for his double against Ukraine in World Cup Qualifying in 2013, and Eliaquim Mangala. Sakho’s energy and drive are unquestioned, but, even without the doping scandal, his positioning is seriously lacking, and played alongside of younger players who are still grasping that aspect of the game, the results could be calamitous. Should any of the aforementioned quartet fail to flourish, Sakho is a decent enough alternative, but he probably has been surpassed by the younger generation of defenders. Mangala finally started to justify the massive fee that saw him move to Manchester City from Porto in the tail end of last season, his place in the squad a fair one, but his performance in the tournament was a forgettable one, and like Sakho, he should be supplanted by the cadre of slightly younger players.

There are a handful of other candidates to be included, amongst players capped in the recent past. However, most of them aren’t feasible because of age (Mathieu, Loic Perrin) or past performances (Adil Rami, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa). To wit, while there is admittedly some risk in placing trust in such a young set of defenders, if Deschamps gets this aspect of things right, France are potentially building a team to contend for the next ten years.

Midfield

Corentin Tolisso, Olympique Lyonnais | Paul Pogba, Juventus | N’Golo Kante, Chelsea | Yohan Cabaye, Crystal Palace | Moussa Sissoko, Newcastle United | Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain | (Morgan Sanson, Montpellier | Maxime Gonalons, Olympique Lyonnais | Morgan Schneiderlin, Manchester United | Blaise Matuidi, Paris Saint-Germain | Lassana Diarra, Olympique de Marseille)

This set of players is likely to be the most controversial, due to a certain omission, but the idea here is to create a squad that is forward-looking. Three of the six midfielders picked this summer are still relatively young and had good enough tournaments to make their continued inclusion all but a given. Paul Pogba wasn’t as impressive as some would have hoped, but a constant shift in tactics was no aid in that regard, and he will continue to play at a high level of football with his club, regardless of whether he stays with Juventus or not.

N’Golo Kante capped his meteoric rise with a solid set of matches in the tournament. A suspension for accumulated yellow cards was less than ideal, but he also showed he can operate further forward, playing in central midfield alongside Paul Pogba in the friendly victory over Russia. Moussa Sissoko was probably the biggest surprise, as the Newcastle man went from being regarded as an undeserved inclusion by many (including this writer) to being perhaps France’s most consistent player in the knockout stages. His energy and consistency were hugely impressive, and even if his passing could leave a bit to be desired, his ability with the ball at his feet more than made up for it. Given his tournament, it is unlikely he will follow Newcastle into the Championship, and should he be able to find consistent first team football, he will continue to be one of Deschamps’ first picks.

It is at this juncture that things begin to get a bit contentious. Yohan Cabaye retains his place among the 23; his performance in the match against Switzerland, having come in for Kante, was tremendous. His tackling, range of passing and ability to generally facilitate the attack from a deep-lying role are all qualities undiminished by Crystal Palace’s stumbling second half. Able to play a variety of passes, his versatility will also continue to be an asset as Deschamps sorts through the various tactical options available to him.

Playing similar roles, but offering more physicality and involvement in the attack are Adrien Rabiot and Corentin Tolisso. Dropping out, in this instance, are Blaise Matuidi and Morgan Schneiderlin. Schneiderlin never looked to have the confidence of Louis van Gaal, or Deschamps for that matter, struggling for form throughout Manchester United’s season. His plodding, prosaic approach to midfield was decidedly less electric and decisive than the manic Kante, only being recalled due to an injury to Lassana Diarra. Diarra himself deserves some mention here, his recalls having been a fine reward for a strong season with struggling Marseille, but unless he can find an improved club situation, given his age (33 in 2018), Deschamps would be wise to push through his younger alternatives.

Matuidi being dropped, then, will likely generate the biggest controversy. Is he a hardworking, team-first player? Undoubtedly. Does he require any ego-stroking or tactical rethinks to perform his role, unlike some of his teammates with club and country? Decidedly not. Does he look exhausted, worn out from 11 seasons giving his all in Ligue 1, the five most recent including lengthy European and cup campaigns? Without a doubt. Is he tactically limited, a situation masked by Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc? Unfortunately, yes, and for this writer, it is time to pull the plug on Matuidi’s international career.

Matuidi broke through with Troyes, becoming a first team regular at the tender age of 18, and through moves to Saint-Etienne and Paris Saint-Germain, he has always played a high number of matches, his energetic style giving his play efficacy through sheer force of will. However, in addition to looking simply worn out this summer, approaching his 30th birthday, Matuidi also revealed his tactical limitations. A box-to-box midfielder in the purest sense of the world, he looked confused playing with Paul Pogba in a double pivot in the tournament’s latter stages, and even when he and Pogba swapped places in a 4-3-3, to benefit the Juventus player, he seemed at sea. Matuidi is massively effective when deployed on the left as one of the two central midfielders in that formation, but given the abilities of the likes of Pogba, Payet, Griezmann and others, in no way should he be privileged in any formation.

His two potential replacements, Corentin Tolisso and Adrien Rabiot, offer what Matuidi can’t, and in spades. Tolisso has been hugely important to Lyon’s renaissance over the past two seasons, playing the type of box-to-box role favored by Matuidi, but contributing considerably more in terms of guile. Still only 21, the Lyon academy product came through as a right back, and now looks to be a complete central midfielder, contributing goals and assists (5 and 6 in only 28 starts last season) as well as being able to do a job in front of a back four. Given his attacking nous and positional and tactical versatility, (remember that Bruno Genesio’s appointment at Lyon coincided with a move from a diamond 4-4-2 to an orthodox 4-3-3) Tolisso needs to at least be given a chance in the next set of games, giving him the chance to develop into an important player in the next two years.

Rabiot’s development has been more halting, but it is important to remember that he is only just 21. Laurent Blanc encouraged his development this year, playing him in a variety of positions in his 4-3-3. For some, his discipline is a sticking point, but aside from his two dismissals against Lille (in the season’s opening match and in the Coupe de la Ligue Final), both for two bookings, his discipline was fine indeed; those matches garnered more publicity and likewise exercised undue influence on the perception of his play. This was especially true on the biggest stages, as he recorded only a solitary booking, compared to three goals, in more than 500 minutes in the Champions League. While his scoring form in Ligue 1 has been nothing to write home about, his goals against Manchester City and Chelsea in Europe demonstrated the kind of player Rabiot can be with a bit more license to roam. Granted, his role with Paris Saint-Germain for this upcoming season is a matter of some doubt owing to the arrival of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Emery’s proclivity for 4-2-3-1, but with Marco Verratti’s injury history and the sheer number of games the capital club play, there will likely continue to be ample opportunities.

Before concluding this section, a word is necessary on Maxime Gonalons and Morgan Sanson. Gonalons has eight caps for the national team, but has too often (especially in the last eighteen months) found himself left out for the likes of Joshua Guilavogui and Geoffrey Kondogbia. More prosaic than either of his younger countrymen, who can often be found rampaging forward at will, versatility and reliability are instead Gonalons’ bywords. Having been successfully deployed in any number of tactical systems at Lyon, (4-4-2 diamond, 4-4-2 double pivot, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1) Gonalons’ focus, tackling and positioning are near-immaculate. Even if he doesn’t offer any great range of vision vis-a-vis his passing, or goal-scoring, his consistency amongst a maelstrom of change for his club makes him a reliable option. Sanson is a bit more of a question mark given his recent injury history, but his box-to-box play, counterattacking prowess and more than admirable goal-scoring record make him an intriguing wildcard should his recovery continue apace.

Attackers

Nabil Fekir, Olympique Lyonnais | Ousmane Dembele, Borussia Dortmund | Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich | Dimitri Payet, West Ham United | Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid | Alexandre Lacazette, Olympique Lyonnais | (Anthony Martial, Manchester United | Olivier Giroud, Arsenal | Hatem Ben Arfa, Paris Saint-Germain | Karim Benzema, Real Madrid)

This brings us on to the attacking group, and a few choices are once again apparent to no small degree. Antoine Griezmann was a deserved enough winner of the Golden Ball, while Dimitri Payet, should he remain at West Ham, will continue to flourish. Kingsley Coman also had a fine tournament, as most of his struggles centered around being played out of position due to Deschamps’ tinkering. The trio’s combination of age, club situation and past performance make them all but guaranteed to be a part of France’s plans going forward.

The other three players found to be deserving require a bit more argument, though. Alexandre Lacazette, like his club teammate Gonalons, has been capped several times for France, but has thus far failed to truly establish himself at senior level, despite a remarkable goal-scoring rate for Lyon. At only 5′ 9″, Lacazette doesn’t fit the mold of a big, strong center forward as well as the likes of Olivier Giroud or Karim Benzema, but much like Griezmann at Atletico, his workrate and ability to work in tight spaces or to stretch play by moving to the flanks makes him a headache for most defenses. Rumors have consistently linked him with moves away from Lyon, but even failing that, Lacazette will have another opportunity to make his mark in the Champions League, categorically proving his quality at a high level.

Dembele, still just 19, has much to prove with his move to Borussia Dortmund, arriving as the nominal replacement for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. However, if early reports from the Schwarzgelben’s friendlies are to be believed, the youngster, late of Rennes, is fitting in just fine. Of course, sterner opposition awaits in the Bundesliga and in European competition, but the potential for Dembele to become France’s best attacking player in the next ten years is clearly a possibility. Deschamps has thus far been loath to heighten expectations surrounding the youngster, but should his form for Dortmund rival what he showed in Brittany, the manager may have no choice.

The final player who should be part of France’s intentions is another player who like our young center backs is recovering from a serious injury. Nabil Fekir took Ligue 1 by storm in 2014-15, handily winning the division’s award for best young player and prompting Deschamps to use an experimental 4-3-1-2 to privilege the Lyon player. Of course, that plan was short-lived as Fekir tore his ACL and missed much of Lyon’s season, ending any hopes he had of competing in Euro 2016. Even so, that Deschamps would attempt such a radical change speaks volumes about how highly the manager regards Fekir. The belief here is that a motivated Fekir can hit the ground running, making himself a potential focal point for France’s attack, thereby regaining Deschamps’ confidence in his considerable ability.

If these are the six players with whom France should move forward, there remain some notable omissions, including Olivier Giroud and Anthony Martial, both members of the squad this summer. Martial is a fine player, but the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the well-documented indifference of Jose Mourinho towards young players give the former Monaco man a challenging season ahead. Additionally, while Martial has played on the wing for both United and at Monaco, his forays there with the national side have been, to be charitable, less than fruitful. Deschamps, perhaps with the exception of Giroud, has a clear preference for attacking players who can drift into different positions, stretching the defense in the process. Granted, Martial’s pace would seem to make him a natural fit in this regard, but he has struggled badly when deployed in wide areas for Les Bleus.

Giroud likewise had a rather uneven tournament, and his inconsistent finishing and slow-footedness make him, for this writer, a poor fit, even as a “Plan B.” Even with Giroud out of the picture, two more potential elephants in the room remain. The first, obviously, is Karim Benzema. Despite the Real Madrid man’s obvious gifts, his record for France is mediocre, and Deschamps appears in no rush to bring him back. He may harbor some hopes of returning to the fold should Deschamps depart, but one would be unwise to hold one’s breath on this matter.

To conclude, then, we have Hatem Ben Arfa, who has signed for Paris Saint-Germain. As previously stated, Unai Emery prefers to play with a 4-2-3-1, which, given the calibre of wide players at the club (Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore) would seem to mean that Ben Arfa would operate as a no.10. However, the former Sevilla manager isn’t inflexible in his formation, as Ever Banega would often drop deeper when needed, changing the tactic to a 4-3-3. I have my doubts about Ben Arfa’s suitability to this role, but should he become a regular for the capital club, he could yet force his way into Deschamps’ reckoning.

To conclude, I realize that in writing this piece, I may have raised a few hackles, for which I take full responsibility. Football is a sport of opinions, and with France potentially on the cusp of yet another “Golden Generation,” in selecting this squad of the future, I purposefully took up an exceedingly forward-looking frame of mind. Many of these players are unproven; some may never become regulars with the national team, and some may never even earn a cap. However, fortune favors the bold, and France have every opportunity to reap the rewards of faith in youth in two years’ time, should Deschamps have the gumption to do so. Again, please feel free to comment and respond; I look forward to hearing your thoughts.