France are one of the four or so teams coming to Russia for whom anything less than a World Cup title will be a disappointment of sorts. I mean, look at their roster. It just oozes talent, with Champions League experience across the board and the depth necessary to fill in for anything from an unfortunate injury or, say, a superstar who can’t play for the team anymore because of his involvement in a sex tape extortion plot targeting a former Les Bleus teammate. If you’re France, you always have to account for even the most outlandish contingencies, and manager Didier Deschamps has.
The core of this team has now spent a few years together, though they haven’t managed to win anything. France hosted Euro 2016 and the home nation should have beaten Portugal in the final (Ronaldo cried his way to the bench in the 25th minute!), but they couldn’t score on 18 shots then allowed a really dumb goal in the 109th to seal their loss.
The roster has been freshened up for the 2018 World Cup, with apparent mainstays like Anthony Martial, Moussa Sissoko, and Mamadou Sakho dropped for even better players. The team had a somewhat bumpy qualification path, though their easy group should give them some time to gel before the knockout rounds. They should own Peru, Australia, and Denmark, and look good doing it.
Still, as young as Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann are, the loss at the Euros has put a great deal of pressure on France. It won’t be enough to simply make the final eight and bow out to a superior German team again, like they did in 2014. Back on that day France played Germany to a stalemate for most of the match only to lose on a once-in-a-lifetime header from Mats Hümmels, which speaks to both the luck involved in winning a high-stakes World Cup game, as well as France’s penchant for deflating on the biggest stage.
For the neutral, France have everything you’d want. The drama is fun and silly, but France will also play some of the most aggressive, stylish soccer in the tournament, rolling out a 4-3-3 with jaw-dropping talent across the board. N’Golo Kanté is the perfect cover man for Pogba, who will hopefully be given free rein to fly across the pitch however he wants. The front line is real young, but as Kylian Mbappé showed in his first year with PSG, he doesn’t need an adjustment period.
So, while France should score a ton of goals and play with panache, that’s not what they’re going to Russia for. This is a team on a mission. Their roster is so good that they should be spoken about as one of the major favorites like Brazil, Germany, and Spain. The fact that they’re not says a great deal about how France are perceived around the world. France are a team of underachieving egomaniacs who can’t play together, the skeptics say. France are more concerned with scoring cool goals than winning games, they say. France lack focus. France’s players can only do it at the club level. That’s what France are here to disprove, and it will take more than their undeniably obscene talent to make it happen.
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Benjamin Pavard (VfB Stuttgart), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Adil Rami (Marseille), Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), Lucas Hernández (Atlético Madrid), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City)
Midfielders: Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), Steven Nzonzi (Sevilla)
Forwards: Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain), Ousmane Dembélé (Barcelona), Nabil Fekir (Lyon), Florian Thauvin (Marseille)
Les Bleus (The Blues)
Antoine Griezmann, Forward
Antoine Griezmann is everything you want in a modern forward. He can run the channels, play behind a bigger target striker, ping passes out wide, make incisive passes in the box, smash in crosses, score from up close, score from far away, and, most critically, spin gold out of pure shit with startling regularity. He’s close to perfect and it’s a shame that he’s not been able to win anything meaningful (no, the Europa League doesn’t count) with Atlético Madrid.
Here are my favorite goals from Grizi this season.
This one’s from two years ago and I don’t care.
He’s going to lead the World Cup’s best forward line and kick ass doing it.
Paul Pogba, Midfielder
José Mourinho is a huge mess, Manchester United should be better than they are, Mino Raiola is a snake, and everything about Paul Pogba’s club situation is bad and dumb. However, on the pitch, he’s still a genius, and the key for France is to find a way to maximize his game-breaking talents.
Pogba has bafflingly good dribbling skills and close control for a man his size, and he pairs brilliant athleticism and stamina with aerial mastery and a nose for goal. There truly is no limit to the things he can do. If I had to pick, though, my single favorite skill of his is his passing. Specifically, his passing range. Pogba is one of the very best in the world at cross-field switches, wide crosses, sweeping long balls, diagonal Hail Maries, and assorted other types of long passes that few other players even attempt to make, let alone splash out with perfection.
Perhaps Pogba’s greatest contribution to any team he’s on is the way he shrinks the field. His running and link-up play between lines make it easy to quickly transition from defense to attack, and his big sweeping passes instantly traverse gaps that usually take three or four moves to get across. Also, he can score from a mile away and will try all the time. It’s going to be so cool watching this guy do his thing.
Here’s the rub for France. By talent, depth, and range of player profiles, France should stand alongside the Big Three of Brazil, Spain, and Germany as essentially co-favorites to win this World Cup. On paper, there’s almost nothing separating those four in the quantity, quality, and versatility of their players. What keeps France from those nations’ status more than anything else is their inability to find a way of playing that gets the best out of their best players.
Take the French front line. They have one superstar-level striker in Antoine Griezmann. They have the most talented young player the world’s seen since the teenaged Messi in Kylian Mbappé. They have a superb target man in Olivier Giroud. They have fast and creative players to tear up the wing in Ousmane Dembélé, Thomas Lemar, Nabil Fekir, and Florian Thauvin. It’s probably the best holistic collection of forward talent in the whole competition, and while playing in multiple different formations and personnel groupings, the French forward line has excelled. So why does it feel like they still don’t get the best out of this group?
Judging from France’s recent friendlies, it seems like manager Didier Deschamps has settled on a 4-3-3 formation that features Griezmann in the middle flanked on either side by Dembélé and Mbappé. It’s a terrifying attack, and yet the only of those forwards playing in his ideal role is Dembélé, the least talented (but still insanely talented) of the trio.
Griezmann and Mbappé are natural second strikers who do their best when playing off of a target man. Ideally for them, the big guy does the grunt work like bodying up on the opponent’s center backs and snagging and keeping hold of high balls lumped up to him so his teammates can join in on the attack, while Griezmann/Mbappé buzzes around looking for gaps in the defense to exploit by running in behind or pulling out wide or dropping deep, going anywhere and doing anything to disrupt the opposite team’s defensive structure.
Without that target man, Griezmann has to spend time doing things he’s not particularly great at (hold up play, physically wrangling with center backs, fighting for headers) at the expense of his natural instincts and gifts. By putting Mbappé out wide, and especially wide right, you greatly limit the influence he has in the center of the pitch where he’s most dangerous, instead requiring him do things like track back in defense and zip down the wing and hoof in crosses. Both players are so stupidly talented that setting them up like this is nowhere near a fatal flaw, but it still undermines their abilities by making it harder for them to do what they do best.
It’s basically the same story in midfield. The issue there starts with Deschamps’s insistence on playing N’Golo Kanté as the deepest midfielder. Kanté is an amazing defensive midfielder, but one of a very specific type. At his best he’s a chaos agent who follows after the ball like a cat chasing a mouse, often leaving his starting position to sprint higher or lower or wider to pester whichever opponent is currently on the ball. These are great traits to have, but not so much as the sole defensive midfielder in a midfield trio in a team that looks to dominate possession.
A player in that role is better off being more of a Sergio Busquets type, one who will stick to his central position more often than not, will defend more by blocking space than by charging for the ball itself, and, during the majority of the game while the team has possesion, will prove an expert at quickly and accurately circulating the ball to get it to the more advanced players as quickly as possible so that they can destabilize the opposing defense. Those are roles Kanté is able to fulfill admirably, but again, it’s not his natural game.
Playing Kanté’s in that position reverberates to his fellow midfielders—who will probably be Paul Pogba and Corentin Tolisso—as well. Kanté’s adventuring from deep, coupled with Tolisso’s love of getting forward in attack, lead Pogba to compensate for their movements by playing a more conservative role. Which, if you know anything about Pogba, even if it’s just from the videos above, you’ll recognize isn’t the best use of his skills. He is the best central midfielder France have, and so in an ideal world he should be the one free to play his own, attack-loving game while his midfield teammates compensate for him. Pogba can certainly perform the more cautious midfield duties he’ll often be asked to do, but like his displays doing the same for Manchester United, doing so will be something lesser than what he’s capable of.
There are no easy solutions here. Play Giroud as a target man in a 4-3-3 and you shunt Griezmann out wide, doubling the same problems you get with Mbappé on the wings. Play a 4-4-2 with Giroud and Griezmann or Mbappé in support and you’re dropping a match-winning star in favor of a role player and causing even more structural problems in the midfield behind them. France actually do have the perfect center forward to couple with Griezmann and Mbappé, but it’s the aforementioned sex tape blackmailer, Karim Benzema, who was left home for obvious reasons. You can plan for contingencies, but you still lose something in the process.
The most sensible thing would appear to involve keeping the 4-3-3, preserving the forward line as it already is (though start Mbappé from the left so he can cut inside), push Kanté up a little so he can play alongside Pogba, and use Steven Nzonzi as the specialist deep-lying playmaker. That at least would fix the midfield by improving France’s possession game with Nzonzi’s passing ability, allowing Kanté to aggressively defend all over, and granting Pogba ultimate freedom to wander wherever he pleases, content with the knowledge that there are two other midfielders behind him to clean up any mess.
Deschamps seems pretty locked into his current ideas and personnel, though, so it’s not very likely France line up like this or any other way that would better serve the talents of the best players on the pitch. It’s a shame that that’s the case and that France aren’t working at maximum capacity, but only a minor one. With the ridiculous talent and versatility this group has, it would shock no one if they fucked around and won the World Cup despite Deschamps’s limiting tactics.
All times Eastern
June 16, 6 a.m.: France vs. Australia at Kazan Arena
June 21, 11 a.m.: France vs. Peru at Ekaterinburg Arena
June 26, 10 a.m.: France vs. Denmark at Luzhniki Stadium