Assessing France Squad Ahead of Brazil World Cup
France’s euphoric victory over Ukraine secured Les Bleus’ spot at the World Cup next summer; however, following some inadequate performances during the qualification programme, there are many questions to resolve before the finals.
This editorial aims at picking through some of those unresolved issues and imbalances, outlining, in the process, the key selection dilemmas that will need to be answered by Didier Deschamps over the coming months.
The manager has a broad talent pool to choose from; he has called up just under 50 players since Euro 2012—a number that doesn’t include internationals such as Hatem Ben Arfa, Younes Kaboul and Jeremy Toulalan, all playing at major clubs, nor talented youngsters such as Adrien Rabiot, Morgan Schneiderlin and Lucas Digne—and now has to whittle this number down to 23.
This is an area of particular strength and stability for France. Hugo Lloris is the undisputed No. 1 and remains one of the world’s finest stoppers. He has started every game but one since Euro 2012 and will start for France between the sticks unless injury befalls him.
Behind him, Steve Mandanda and Mickael Landreau barely get a look in, but both are experienced stoppers who won’t let France down should they be forced to step up.
The only other keeper to have been acknowledged by Deschamps since Euro 2012 is Saint-Etienne man Stephane Ruffier. He remains, however, firmly fourth choice.
Mamadou Sakho was favoured by Deschamps at the end of 2012, having missed out on the Euro 2012 squad. Despite being dropped for the end of the qualifiers, Laurent Koscielny’s reckless red card and poor performance in the first-leg contest with Ukraine allowed Sakho back into the starting XI.
He made the most of his opportunity and was the outstanding performer in France’s terrific 3-0 victory in Paris. Sakho’s brace has surely confirmed his spot in the squad, if not the heart of the defence.
He is likely to be partnered by either Raphael Varane or Eric Abidal.
The former made his international debut against Spain during qualifying and has looked a natural ever since. His composed performances for Real Madrid have transferred seamlessly to the national side and he looks set to be the future of Les Bleus’ defence.
Abidal, by contrast, is 34 and has endured devastating health concerns over the last few seasons. He remains a fine defender, but there are doubts that he could manage the gruelling demands of tournament football.
It remains to be seen to what extent Koscielny’s red card will affect his World Cup hopes.
In reserve, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa is improving at Newcastle and can play across the defence, which makes him a valuable commodity. He was a regular squad member at the end of 2012 but has not been called up since the Spain qualifier.
Adil Rami and Eliaquim Mangala are others who have missed out on recent squads; however, if either can have a strong showing in the Champions League post-Christmas, he might prove hard to ignore.
I fear that Younes Kaboul’s injury struggles and Tottenham’s other defensive options might see him miss out while Philippe Mexes is finished with the national side.
Michael Cox, recently writing for Freebets.org.uk, commented on the strength of France’s right-back position. Mathieu Debuchy looks the favourite to take the shirt and is a talented attacking option. His main rival comes in the shape of Arsenal man Bakary Sagna who is gently returning to prominence following a long absence from the side at the end of 2012.
Paris Saint-Germain’s stalwart Christophe Jallet has been largely usurped from his club starting XI by Gregory van der Wiel and thus is losing major ground on his rivals. Rod Fanni is a much more conservative option, but his experience and versatility (he is also competent as a centre-back) may appeal to Deschamps.
Tony Reveillere is a final option for this spot.
The experienced Patrice Evra has endured his own, well-publicised, problems in the international arena, but he remains an excellent left-back and will likely enjoy an international swansong in Brazil.
Manchester City’s Gael Clichy will almost certainly join the squad as back-up. The former Arsenal full-back has only missed one call-up since Euro 2012 and is unlikely to be overlooked at this relatively late stage.
If he is, wonderkid Lucas Digne might be an intriguing option. The proactive full-back excelled at the U-20 World Cup and has looked assured in his brief appearances for PSG to date.
Jeremy Mathieu, of Valencia, and Dynamo Kyiv’s Benoit Tremoulinas have also featured in the last 12 months, while Sakho and Abidal can also both operate in this position.
Didier Deschamps looks to have settled on a 4-3-3-cum-4-5-1 formation, which works well with the personnel available to him.
It’s a fairly safe bet at this stage to say that Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye will be the starting triumvirate, particularly following their excellent performance in the second leg against Ukraine. The trio provide an excellent blend of power, energy and creativity, and they could well be the platform upon which France impress in Brazil.
Fortunately, France are blessed with talented central-midfielders, and several players could challenge these three.
Moussa Sissoko is a favourite of Deschamps and regularly enters the fray as a substitute to add defensive muscle or attacking drive. He continues to grow into the Premier League, where his talents appear to make him a natural fit, and he is likely to head to Brazil.
This potentially leaves two seats on the plane and a whole clutch of midfielders vying for that spot. If Etienne Capoue can complete his return to fitness at White Hart Lane and impose himself in the Spurs midfield, then his versatility and dynamism would make him an appealing candidate.
Rio Mavuba made his international debut in 2004 but has never made the cut for a tournament squad—the Lille star is an energetic and disciplined performer who could provide a calm head to close down tight contests. Joshua Guilavogui and Geoffrey Kondogbia have both been given opportunities to impress in 2013, but I suspect their key impact may come in the years to come.
Alsace-born Morgan Schneiderlin was the Premier League’s outstanding defensive midfielder last term and has continued his form as part of an excellent Southampton team this season. I have little doubt that he would be an asset to Deschamps’ 23.
Elsewhere, Maxime Gonalons was a regular squad member until the Spain friendly, after which his luck seemed to run out. Samir Nasri was recalled after that Spain clash and has featured sporadically but was a weak link in the first leg against Ukraine. Deschamps may now finally be convinced that the Manchester City is more trouble than he is worth.
In his absence, Marvin Martin or even Yoann Gourcuff could be recalled to act as creative support for Cabaye. Clement Grenier is an intriguing prospect who brings an array of exciting attacking weaponry.
Lassana Diarra and Jeremy Toulalan have become, firmly, the forgotten men of French football, and both should feel free to book their holidays next summer.
I don’t intent to insult anyone’s intelligence by mentioning permanently stricken Abou Diaby, but wonderkid Florian Thauvin could be capable of making a late charge into the squad.
Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena will certainly travel and head to Brazil as two of the nation’s key players, both with aspirations of making a mark on the global stage. Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud will vie for the central striker’s spot. The pair have only started together on five occasions since Euro 2012, and it now seems certain that one will have to settle for a spot among the substitutes.
The two other replacement forwards will likely be decided by form and fitness as the season draws to a close, with a number of capable options.
Loic Remy looks best-placed to claim a squad spot at the moment. He has struggled to make an impact as a starter for Les Bleus but as an impact substitute could play the Sylvain Wiltord role to perfection.
Two Ligue 1 attackers, Jeremy Menez and Dimitri Payet may well contest the final spots; the latter is consistently selected by Deschamps but has rarely looked international class. Menez, however, has been out of the frame since the summer.
Bafetimbi Gomis has also fallen from grace recently, but his career has been littered with purple patches, and if he hits another, it could provide muscle from the bench. Andre-Pierre Gignac, who recently scored an exceptional goal against Ajaccio, could fulfill a similar role but is very much out of fashion.
Romain Alessandrini, Alex Lacazette and Jimmy Briand have all enjoyed a brief moment in the sun since the summer of 2012 but are unlikely to get a look-in. The uncapped Remy Cabella and Romain Hamouma might be much more popular options.
Antoine Griezmann, currently tasting the Champions League with Real Sociedad, has long looked like an enticing option for the left wing, as Ribery’s cover, as yet, however, he remains overlooked.