Following France’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil in Porto Alegre on Sunday, Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps is at a crossroads.
The former Marseille coach is now the best part of a year into his task of turning a talented but dysfunctional side into World Cup contenders. That objective is with a view to challenging more seriously for the European Championship crown on home soil two years later.
Neither, on the evidence of Sunday’s performance, looks likely currently.
Sat second in Group I behind Spain and facing the very real prospect of having to qualify for a place in Brazil next year through the play-offs, it is not out of the question that France could fail to even reach the tournament.
One of the first challenges that faced the former World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000-winning captain was to rid the squad of its unruly influences that had derailed previous campaigns.
To Deschamps’ credit he has done that without sacrificing all of the team’s potential.
Gone are some of the more disruptive members of the sides that flopped so spectacularly in South Africa and then imploded in Poland and Ukraine after a positive start.
The likes of Samir Nasri, Yann M’Vila, Hatem Ben Arfa and now even Patrice Evra are being left behind in planning for Brazil, although Nasri was called up for the Uruguay and Selecao clashes before pulling out injured.
But with that troublesome element, Deschamps has also discarded some of the team’s creative spark.
That lack of flair and unpredictability is now costing France dearly with one unimaginative performance after another being served up, with few real changes being made to the team.
Deschamps as a result has now suffered five defeats in his first 11 matches in charge; the worst ever tally of any France coach in their opening spell at the helm of the national side.
But why are France suffering when there appears to be so much talent both in terms of current ability and potential future stars?
The current generation is deceiving; while being talented and awash with big names, the current crop of players are just not that good or, as French journalist Pascal Praud roughly put it on Twitter, “a mediocre generation.”
France’s starting lineup against Brazil at the Arena do Gremio boasted a number of players with names that no longer justify their reputation, at least internationally.
It is becoming increasingly hard to accept the continued inclusion of the likes of Karim Benzema, Adil Rami, Mathieu Debuchy and Yohan Cabaye. All of them look a shadow of their club selves when they pull on the blue of the French national team.
Other players in the squad such as Lyon’s Yoann Gourcuff and Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna are also questionable inclusions.
Gourcuff’s claims are weak given the emergence of his Lyon teammate Clement Grenier (also in the squad for the recent South American double-header) this season.
Sagna’s are surprising in that he is still fancied over talented Sochaux full-back Sebastien Corchia who is attracting plenty of attention across Europe (via ESPN FC) despite not having represented France at senior level to date.
Yet Deschamps continues to persist in calling on them for fear of inviting the disruptive influences that have plague France in the past back into camp.
It leaves him with two options.
One is to recall at least some of those problematic characters to the fold and give the side a chance of achieving something should they reach the World Cup. This is something he has shown himself willing to do by recently trying to reintegrate Samir Nasri.
The second is to put his faith in youth and almost forget about the World Cup entirely, focusing solely on the Euros in 2016.
That would mean ditching the current generation and continuing to introduce the young crop of talent that includes the likes of Corchia, Grenier, Dimitri Payet, Josuha Guilavogui, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba and Geoffrey Kondogbia.
Benzema in particular has been singled out as a key problem in the current side, but that is a separate issue that is currently obscuring the bigger picture.
The Real Madrid man has been out of form internationally since last summer and has not scored a goal for France competitively or otherwise in over a year now.
But it would be unfair to lay the blame completely at his feet.
Equally the side lacks a Zinedine Zidane-like playmaker as well as a predatory striker, both of which Benzema could be, but it also misses a vocal leader with current captain Hugo Lloris stranded back in goal.
The debate over whether or not Benzema should be relegated to the bench or dropped from the squad completely is justified, but it does not explain the side’s defensive frailties or inability to create the chances that should be falling to the 25-year-old.
Only one of the former Lyon man’s touches of the ball in Porto Alegre came inside the penalty area, and that is not solely because he likes to drop back to pick up possession and create chances for his teammates.
For the first time since 2008, France conceded three goals in the game against Brazil on Sunday, and the team are now nine matches without a clean sheet. That is their worst run since 1992.
The problems are not just up top for Les Bleus. They are all over the pitch and it is something that Deschamps can only change by revolutionising his team.
It is almost certainly too late to save their World cup bid, but if the correct changes were implemented now, Euro 2016 is still an achievable goal.
The current crop of young talent on exhibition from senior level down has the makings of a golden generation. The likes of Florian Thauvin, Antoine Griezmann, Remy Cabella, Eliaquim Mangala and Lucas Digne are all surely future French international regulars.
Those talents now play regular first-team football for their clubs so have to be pushed to the front for France if they are to mature enough in time for the Euros on home soil.
All was not lost in the games against Uruguay and Brazil with Payet, Mamadou Sakho, Etienne Capoue and Mathieu Valbuena among those who still appear to have an international future. But France are in danger of wasting those rare genuine talents on an ageing and uninspiring unit who will embarrass themselves as host nation of Euro 2016 in three years’ time without radical changes.
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