Going into this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, Didier Deschamps has a few decisions to make regarding his 23-man squad. Yesterday, March 26th, he announced that a 30-man shortlist will be named on May 13. The majority of the squad will already be decided, with just a few positions up for grabs. One of France’s long-standing problematic positions has been at left-back, and Deschamps’ decision could have a lasting effect on the future of the France defence.
To the delight of some of France’s most vocal critics, the sun is setting on the international career of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. To some, the 32-year-old should count himself lucky that he got to wear the famous blue jersey after the World Cup in South Africa. His involvement in the Knysna stand-off led many to believe that it should have spelled the end of his France career.
However, for both Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, Evra has played an important role for France, both on and off the pitch. It comes as little surprise that he is due to line up on the field come France’s opening World Cup fixture against Honduras.
His performances for France over the last couple of years have not been without criticism. People have not just questioned his ability and desire, some even questioning whether he actually cared about representing France at international level.
At Manchester United, Evra has made over 260 appearances for the club. The majority of those coming under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager who famously is not one to suffer fools gladly. If there was any doubt in Fergie’s mind about the quality of Evra’s play, the French international would have been quickly replaced and left out to pasture.
Part of the problem with his performances at United has been their lack of a suitable back-up and thus asking Evra to play more games than he probably should. Pressure and fatigue have more to do with his decline than his actual ability.
For every pro-Evra comment, some France fans will give you three anti-Evra rebuttals, but it was against Belarus in the World Cup qualifying campaign that the left-back silenced some of his doubters. Starting the game on the bench, Evra never played a minute of the match in Gomel, but he did provide the inspiration that sparked France’s come-from-behind victory.
With an eerie silence filling the French locker room, the story, told by Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, recalls that Evra stood up and gave a rousing half-time speech. Firing up the troops and helping France overcome their opponents in a 4-2 victory.
The win gave France three crucially vital points as they fought their way to World Cup qualification. It’s hard to doubt someone’s desire to play for their country when they, no matter if they are playing or not, stand up and lead their country into battle.
It would have been very easy for Evra to have sat in silence, accept his position as substitute and let the events pass him by. Coach Deschamps and captain Hugo Lloris were silent during the interval, and Evra took it upon himself to be the senior player that took the responsibility.
It is far too easy to criticise a player like Evra as off the pitch he doesn’t help himself. Too often he says the wrong thing, or doesn’t do anything to adhere himself to the French public. However, the critics of Evra never have a solution to the current left-back problem. It’s more focused on removing him from the side, rather than anointing a replacement.
Near enough every time there has been a squad announcement recently, there have been calls for Evra to be removed from the France squad. After his recently, poorly timed, scandalous comments to Telefoot, there was a call for Deschamps to leave Evra’s name off the list. The problem for France has been the lack of a quality replacement ready to fill his experiences boots.
Now, Didier Deschamps has three names to choose from and whoever he picks will have a huge impact on the future of the left-back position. Manchester City’s Gael Clichy, Monaco’s Layvin Kurzawa and Paris Saint-Germain’s Lucas Digne are the three names in the frame. Deschamps has a tough task to pick just one out of the three.
France host the European Championships in 2016, and without competitive games to look forward to, there should be one eye on the future as Deschamps makes his pick.
This season, Clichy has struggled to make the left-back position his own at City, falling behind Serbian Aleksandar Kolarov in the pecking order. He was often been given his chance for Les Bleus, without ever really challenging Evra for the position. Barring injury, it is tough to justify his role in the squad.
Digne and Kurzawa are the future of the left-back role, and both players give French fans great reason to be terribly excited by the qualities they possess. Digne has graduated through the French youth sides. He is an Under-20 World Champion—he then impressed for the Under-21s and made a bright debut for the national team in the friendly win over Netherlands at the start of March.
Monaco’s return to Ligue 1 has been spectacular, and the play of Kurzawa has been a huge factor in their success. All of the focus in Monte Carlo has been on the millions spent on Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, but it has been the play of youth product Kurzawa that has earned the plaudits. Using his background as a striker, the left-back has bombed forward at ease, providing assists and goals as Monaco march towards next season’s Champions League.
Due to his lack of experience, Kurzawa has looked defensively naive at times, but that will develop as he gets older. He continued his development in the Under-21 win over Belarus, and his time will come, but for now, Digne has to be in the 23-man squad going to Brazil.
The 20-year-old defender broke through in the Lille first team when he was just 18 years old. His goal against FC Copenhagen fired Les Dogues into the Champions League group stage in 2012, propelling him to hero status amongst the Lille support. His swashbuckling style, his determination to attack and defend in equal measure and his fantastic delivery from the left flank made him one of the stars of Rudi Garcia’s side.
There is little doubt he deserved a call-up to the France squad before he left for PSG last summer, but Deschamps continued with Clichy as Evra’s back-up, leaving Digne to progress in the youth sides.
Making the €15 million move to Paris, Digne has seen his career stall just a little. His playing time in Ligue 1 has significantly decreased. Playing back-up to Brazilian defender Maxwell, the young Frenchman has only made nine starts this season, compared to the 31 starts he made for Lille during the 2012/13 season. However the chance to train with some of the best players in the world can only be of benefit to Digne’s career. Not once has he aired his concerns, even coming out at times to defend his decision and his position at PSG.
The maturity that Digne has shown during his first seven months in Paris has been exemplary. And it is his personality as well as his ability that should make him a definite pick for Deschamps squad.
Back in 1994, Brazil named a young striker called Ronaldo in their 23-man squad—the 17-year-old didn’t play a single minute during the tournament as Brazil lifted the FIFA World Cup trophy. Four years later in France, Ronaldo was the biggest name in football. His experience in the United States four years earlier was crucial in his career development, and it could be a similar story for Digne if Deschamps takes him to Brazil this summer.
The inclusion of Digne will not only be a great move for this current France squad, but it can only benefit the team as they host the 2016 Euros in their own backyard. By that time, you will have a more experienced 22-year-old Digne and a vibrant Kurzawa ready to fight for the left-back role. With the French staff able to put their trust in two excellent players, they can solve a problem in a position that has seemed to trouble Les Bleus ever since the retirement of Bixente Lizarazu.
The future is definitely bright for France in the defensive area, but for now the old lights need to continue to shine and help bring through the new dawn. Patrice Evra will be France’s starting left-back in Brazil, but his experience and guidance will be crucial to help lead Lucas Digne become France’s next defensive great.