France travel to Brazil for the FIFA World Cup buoyed with optimism after an 8-0 hammering of Jamaica last Sunday.
Didier Deschamps’ men take on Honduras in Porto Alegre this Sunday in their opening Group E clash and will be confident that they have more than enough ability to overcome their group-stage rivals and make a deep run in this summer’s tournament.
But like almost every team in South America over the next four weeks, Les Bleus have their main strength and a potentially fatal weakness.
Deschamps will be confident that his key weapon has what it takes to propel the team far this summer, but will also be wary that he still needs to find ways to make France’s Achilles' heel less obvious.
If he can find a way to do that, then the French could prove to be more than just dark horses for the World Cup title at this stage.
France’s key weapon at the World Cup is their rock-solid three-man midfield unit.
While players such as Olympique de Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema might be the main talents in this current side, it is the midfield trio that really makes them tick in the 4-3-3 formation that Deschamps now champions.
Paris Saint-Germain duo Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye are joined by Juventus’ Paul Pogba in what is arguably the most talented midfield in the entire tournament.
Perhaps not possessing a creative maestro like Spain’s Xavi or the metronomic presence of an Andrea Pirlo, Matuidi, Cabaye and Pogba’s value seemingly far exceeds the sum of their parts.
That is because the three are all multi-talented and extremely combative.
Not only do Matuidi, Cabaye and Pogba all possess fantastic technical ability and distribution skills, they also boast great stamina, a willingness to break up play and an excellent physical presence.
Matuidi is an irrepressible all-round talent, while Cabaye is the brains behind the three, using his excellent vision to create from his deep-lying position that is shielded by the former and Pogba. The Juventus man is the flourish of genuine world-class talent and combines important defensive and attacking elements.
Together, they are a formidable trio, and it is impressive how little time it has taken for the three of them to adapt to each other and strike up a strong understanding.
Matuidi and Cabaye playing together at the club level has arguably helped that.
If the French have an Achilles' heel, though, it is certainly their defence.
Mathieu Debuchy, Patrice Evra, Mamadou Sakho and Raphael Varane started the 8-0 thumping of Jamaica, and those four players may very well be Deschamps’ starting back four against Honduras, as he looks to reward the spine of the team that overcame Ukraine 3-0 to qualify for Brazil back in November.
However, any combination of the defenders available to Deschamps at present would not be exempt from scrutiny.
Koscielny has enjoyed an excellent season with the Gunners, but badly let his coach down—along with a number of others—in the first leg against Ukraine in Kiev by conceding a penalty and getting himself sent off.
Liverpool’s Sakho has not enjoyed as strong a domestic campaign as his international teammate—often struggling with injury—but he has not failed Deschamps when called upon.
The 1998 World Cup and 2000 UEFA European Championship-winning captain has shown that he has great faith in the 24-year-old former PSG star by making him captain in the recent 4-0 win over Norway in the absence of untouchable goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
That suggests that the French No. 6’s position in the team is secure.
This also suggests, then, that the final central defensive berth is between Real Madrid’s Varane and Koscielny.
While the latter certainly has a greater level of experience thanks to his seven-year advantage over Varane, the talented youngster is a phenomenally skilled player and oozes a maturity that belies his tender 21 years of age.
The biggest problem for him at present is fitness, and that could be the key to Deschamps’ decision.
Based on ability alone, Varane is already arguably the most talented central defender available to his coach. Not only that, he is almost certain to be one of the two starting centre-backs in two years’ time when France host the 2016 European Championship on home soil.
The combination of Varane and Sakho has the perfect blend of brains and brawn, but while the former’s fitness is not certain, the latter also often looks shaky when on the international stage.
All three have strong cases to be one of Les Bleus’ two starting central defenders in Brazil, but Varane and Sakho may well be given the nod ultimately because they are a partnership that can work now and in 2016.
The debate between Debuchy and Sagna at right-back is not so intense, with both also possessing strong cases to be Deschamps’ starter in the position at the tournament. But while both are arguably of a similar calibre, Debuchy offers more of a threat going forward, and that is key in the current 4-3-3 formation.
As for Evra and Lucas Digne at left-back, there is no question that the Manchester United man beats the PSG star with his experience.
Come 2016, though, the 20-year-old will have likely made the starting position his own—such is his talent.
The success of Deschamps in masking France’s defensive deficiencies until the latter stages of the World Cup depends completely on the three-man midfield continuing to exert the same level of authority on games that they have enjoyed in the buildup to the tournament.
Like PSG in Ligue 1, the trio offers Les Bleus the chances to gain control of the ball and start to dictate the pace of the game.
If the French have the ball in their possession, then most of the time the defence will not be exposed.
Also, controlling the ball allows Debuchy and Evra to get forward on either side instead of exposing their defensive deficiencies.
If Matuidi, Cabaye and Pogba can control games at the World Cup, then France will go far and it will take teams longer to expose and exploit their Achilles' heel.