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World Cup: France in Focus

On the back of a terrible run of form and with off-field issues brewing, there are fears France’s attempt to retain their World Cup title could be set to fall flat in Qatar.

This article was originally published on 17 November 2022

With just one win from six in their Nations League campaign this year, narrowly avoiding relegation to League B, Les Bleus look a shell of the side who won the World Cup in Russia four years ago.

We analyse what is going on in the French camp, and what needs to happen in order for their World Cup hopes to be salvaged in Qatar this winter…

Injury crisis

In order to fairly assess France’s recent woes it is important to acknowledge the extent of their injury problems. Manager Didier Deschamps has had to contend with a cripplingly long injury list, with a number of his key players sidelined.

Over the past year, France have at different times been unable to call upon instrumental figures such as captain Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema. The first four of these players referenced were all integral members of France’s World Cup-winning team in Russia in 2018, with their presence in the team evidently sorely missed.

It is the injury troubles of midfielders Kante and Pogba which have perhaps hit Les Bleus hardest. Mainstays of the side which were crowned world champions in 2018, Kante and Pogba’s partnership in the middle of the park was central to the team’s success. Not only terrific readers of the game with an ability to consistently thwart opposition advances forward, the duo also possess the composure and class on the ball to allow France to control possession.

Kante, in particular, has demonstrably had an inspirational effect on teams’ success in big competitions when fit and on form. Not only a World Cup winner with France, Kante was last year awarded man-of-the-match in both legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid and the final vs Manchester City as Chelsea won the Champions League.

It is not only in midfield where injuries have had a significant impact on the structure of this French side, with a high concentration of their injuries affecting the defence.

The scale of France’s recent defensive injury issues was laid bare by the make-up of their rearguard in their 2-0 defeat to Denmark in the Nations League in Copenhagen. Without both Lucas and Theo Hernandez, Lucas Digne, Presnel Kimpembe, Jules Kounde and Ibrahima Konate through injury, and stalwart Varane rested to protect his legs after a match against Austria a few days before, Deschamps was down to the bare bones at the back.

Fielding an inexperienced three-man defence of Arsenal’s William Saliba, Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano and Benoit Badiashile of Monaco, France’s backline had a combined 16 international caps and endured a tough night against a good Denmark side who they will face again in the World Cup group stages in Qatar.

Having beaten France home and away in the Nations League, you can get odds of 3/1 for Denmark to win Group D at the World Cup in Qatar.

Deschamps dilemmas

Although France’s injury problems make it difficult to fully attribute their downturn in form to the deficiencies of coach Deschamps, it is clear the 53-year-old has struggled to successfully plug the gaps left by the key figures of the World Cup-winning team in 2018 when absent.

In midfield in particular, France could have real issues in Qatar if Pogba and Kante are unable to regain full fitness. In Real Madrid duo Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga they have two of the world’s most talented young midfielders, but they are inexperienced at international level and yet to be fully blooded into a functional setup by Deschamps.

In what is such a key area of the pitch in international football, as France themselves learned as Pogba and Kante starred on the way to World Cup glory in 2018, Deschamps’ midfield conundrum looms large ahead of their Qatar campaign. 

Although possessing the talent to do so, it seems a big ask of 22-year-old Tchouameni and 19-year-old Camavinga, who have under 20 international caps between them, to lead Les Bleus to World Cup glory from midfield just as Pogba and Kante were able to do in Russia.

France have a similar situation in defence ahead of the World Cup, with no established first-choice backline in place going into the tournament. Largely the result of injury disruptions, Deschamps’ preferred personnel in defence is at this stage unclear. In an area of the park in which familiarity and continuity can go a long way, this uncertainty at the back is far from ideal with the tournament in Qatar just around the corner.

Like in midfield, France can lay claim to having some of the best young defenders on the planet, but they lack critical experience at international level. 21-year-old Saliba has been a revelation for Arsenal in the Premier League so far this season after returning from a successful loan spell in Ligue 1 at Marseille, with other youthful defenders Upamecano, Badiashile and Kounde all also ever-improving.

With no competitive internationals left before the World Cup gets underway, France’s defensive security during the Finals will be dependent on the selected personnel seizing their moment and gelling quickly on the park.

Not short of tactical dilemmas in all areas of the pitch, another selection conundrum which could grow more and more publicised by the time the World Cup comes around pertains to the arrangement of France’s attack. With two of the best strikers in world football in their ranks, Ballon d’Or favourite Benzema and the poster-boy of French football Kylian Mbappe, the structure of the team in the final third will be crucial to the team’s success in Qatar.

Comments from the outspoken Mbappe following the latest round of internationals suggested he relishes the opportunity to play alongside Olivier Giroud in the French attack. 36-year-old Giroud, who is just two goals away from becoming the national team’s all-time top scorer, can be observed to represent an effective foil for Mbappe with his physicality and hold-up play complementing the PSG’s game perfectly.

Such remarks have been interpreted by some as a subtle dig at fellow French striker Benzema, with growing suggestions Mbappe and the Real Madrid hero are not easily compatible in the same team and tend to trip over each other’s toes by making the same runs.

The two have demonstrated an ability to combine fruitfully for the national side, though, as evidenced during France’s successful Nations League campaign last year. Mbappe and Benzema each scored in both the semi-final and final against Belgium and Spain respectively as Deschamps’ charges ran out winners of the competition.

Deployed together in a front two, it is the reintroduction of Benzema into the international fold last year which appears to have prompted Deschamps to move away from the World Cup-winning 4-2-3-1 setup of 2018 in favour of a three-man defence, in order to accommodate the five-time Champions League winner alongside Mbappe in attack.

Given the uncertainty regarding the make-up of the French defence and their lack of familiarity in this system for the national side, the merits of this formation appear dubious. To this degree, it seems like Deschamps will have his work cut out to assemble a well-balanced tactical framework with the lack of preparation time afforded to him ahead of the World Cup kicking off.

With pressure already on the shoulders of France’s World Cup-winning captain in 1998 in light of the national team’s struggles post-Russia in 2018, and his former teammate and fellow Les Bleus icon Zinedine Zidane still out of a job, Deschamps’ stewardship will certainly be under the microscope in Qatar.

You can get odds of 9/1 for Mbappe to come away with the Golden Boot at the World Cup, with teammate Benzema priced at 12/1.

If you are backing Deschamps and France to get things right in Qatar, you can back them to win the World Cup at 6/1.

Off-field fiascos

It is not only on-field matters which will have been keeping Deschamps up at night in recent months, with French football rocked by a series of off-field disputes and scandals.

Star player Kylian Mbappe has been at loggerheads with the French Football Federation over player image rights, boycotting sponsorship commitments for the national team before eventually reaching a resolution.

Perhaps most potentially fractious in relation to the national team squad itself is the ongoing legal case involving midfielder Paul Pogba, with his brother Mathias and other childhood friends in police custody for alleged extortion attempts against the Juventus star.

Mathias Pogba has claimed his brother Paul, 29, is guilty of using witchcraft on France teammate and national team star Kylian Mbappe. Paul Pogba has denied this allegation, with Mbappe siding with the former Manchester United player.

Married together, these highly-publicised sagas related to French football have contributed to what France manager Deschamps has himself acknowledged as a tense atmosphere surrounding the national game.

This is far from ideal ahead of France’s bid to defend their World Cup title in Qatar, with manager Deschamps tasked with maintaining a level of calm and harmony within the camp. Everybody associated with football in France will have the events of the 2010 World Cup still firmly  entrenched in their memories, with the national team eliminated in the group stages amidst a player mutiny.

There is no suggestion of any internal discord within the French squad leading into the Qatar World Cup, however, with manager Deschamps’ tenure characterised by a conspicuous team spirit and togetherness within the national team. The ex-Juventus man will be responsible for ensuring things stay this way during the tournament.

Winners’ curse?

Amidst the context of poor form on the pitch and lingering tensions off the field, onlookers could be justified in anticipating trouble ahead for Les Bleus at the World Cup in Qatar in what could be considered a perfect storm.

Indeed, France would not be the first World Cup winners to encounter problems at the subsequent tournament. In fact, four of the last five winners, including the French themselves in 2002, have been eliminated in the group stage of the following Finals. 

This fate was suffered by the holders in each of the past three tournaments consecutively, with Italy, Spain and Germany all falling at the first hurdle in what has been labelled as the ‘winners’ curse'.

With France’s preparations for Qatar appearing unsettled to say the least, there are fears Deschamps’ men could be the latest team to suffer the ignominy of early elimination as the competition’s holders.

Such a scenario seems unlikely though, irrespective of any instability surrounding the French camp, with the two-time winners drawn in a favourable group alongside Denmark, Australia and Tunisia. It would take a severe underperformance for France to fail to finish in the top two considering the quality at their disposal, although the same was said for previous holders.

You can get odds of 6/1 for the winners’ curse to continue in Qatar, and France to be eliminated at the group stage.

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