Sometimes the best teams are not the best teams. Sometimes the best teams are the hardest teams to beat. This is a point the French national team echoed at the World Cup months ago. Les Bleus weren’t the most exciting team in Russia, not the most swashbuckling, but the hardest to beat, as Didier Deschamps’ side won a second World Cup title. Despite their lavish of talented star names, the equation was simple; Functional France = Successful France. Despite the high calibre parts they had, France looked to be most lucrative when made to look greater than the sum of those parts.
Deschamps received quite an amount of criticism for – cynically speaking – being able to mould such a star-studded squad into an unexciting unit, but in Russia they never looked in danger of losing any game. Some attributed this tactic of Deschamps’ as not leaving anything to chance, as when chaos ensued, the team’s calm would pull through, the manager had been under pressure since losing the European Championship final on home soil back in 2016, so this was most about winning, not how you won, and in the end, the means hardly mattered when a second star was added under that cockerel.
But for those who thought Deschamps deployed those tactics as a result of pressure, the expectation would be that once that monkey was off their backs, a more free-flowing French team would come into play. Well, if they thought so, so far they’ve been wrong. France have looked the same unit that prioritises function over flair, the sense of the collective is still primary, occasional moments of high-octane play would come, but that’s when they’d come; occasionally. It looked so in the friendly against Iceland in October, when they had to come from two down to rescue a draw, and the same in that same month, when they came from behind to beat Germany in the Nations League.
But one feature has also prevailed in that time, one in which you wouldn’t associate with this compact French side. For the first time in a while, Les Bleus have looked defensively chaotic, all over the place, almost like they’re trying their hardest to concede but don’t want it to come as an own goal. This disorganisation in defence was present against Iceland, was present against Germany, and was also there to be seen against the Netherlands this month, except they would find no reprieve against the Dutch.
In the Nations League defeat at De Kuip, France were once again architects of their own misfortunes, losing a 2-0 in a game which they could have conceded a lot more but for skipper and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Lloris was also the bright spark in the stalemate against Iceland, and it says so much about France’s current state that they continue to be bailed out by a goalkeeper who’s had major problems at club level this season, and sometimes he hasn’t been enough.
Perhaps this lack of organisation at the back has been as a result of the changes to the squad; Samuel Umtiti has been unavailable, hence the constant use of Presnel Kimpembe who, in truth, hasn’t impressed in a France shirt of late. Or maybe this is a result of deploying the wrong choices at the back; Deschamps continues to ignore Aymeric Laporte despite the centre-backs’ top-class form for Manchester City this season. Or maybe it’s a combination of both.
You could point at the continued absence of Umtiti and the underwhelming performances of Kimpembe, but isn’t this supposed to be a France team who’s reportedly become greater than the sum of its parts? Shouldn’t the unit Deschamps has fostered be able to mask the flaws of individuals, and create consistency and sturdiness?
Maybe the French are in transition, probably moving to a more attacking style, and are facing problems, and whatever happens, the World Cup win will mean this blip at the back gets overlooked, if not overlooked, dismissed, and if not dismissed, the success in Russia will give the manager quite sufficient time, and this may all prove to be nothing more than a glitch. But isn’t the point of Deschamps’ leave-nothing-to-chance system to eliminate glitches?