France have now kept three clean sheets in the four FIFA World Cup matches they have played in Brazil so far, yet the latest—a narrow 2-0 victory over a determined Nigeria side at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha—was the least convincing of all.
Didier Deschamps’ back four of Mathieu Debuchy, Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny and Patrice Evra ultimately kept out the Super Eagles’ attack that was spearheaded by the impressive Emmanuel Emenike, but there were times when Les Bleus looked far from assured defensively. The absence of vice-captain Mamadou Sakho, through injury, was sorely felt in Brasilia.
12 - #FRA have not conceded a goal in the first half in their last 12 games. Defence.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 30, 2014
It is testament to the Liverpool man’s importance to this current French side that the only time they have conceded in Brazil so far is when he was off the pitch against Switzerland—having been substituted through injury—and his teammates came close to shipping another goal or two against Stephen Keshi’s purposeful attack.
However, Sakho’s absence against Nigeria also means that his participation against Germany in Friday’s quarter-final is now also in doubt.
On paper, Deschamps bringing Koscielny in to fill the void created by Sakho should not have been that great a problem. On face value, the score also suggests that the Arsenal man had little problem in slotting into France’s back four.
The reality though is that Les Tricolores’ defence is not the same without the man mountain Sakho there to provide the reassuring presence that he brings to the side.
Koscielny of course is not entirely culpable for the shaky defensive display—although he did play a part in one of the two goals conceded against the Swiss after coming on to replace Sakho—but the entire unit does not look the same when the French No. 5 is not there.
Perhaps this is because Sakho is more than a player for Les Bleus.
In fact, if you base the decision on technical terms, Koscielny is arguably the better player. However, when your central defensive partner is the accomplished and cerebral talent of Raphael Varane, you don’t need to be a technically adept centre-back.
48 - The centre-back partnership of Koscielny & Varane has conceded 3 goals in 143 minutes for France, that's 1 every 48 mins. Duo.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 30, 2014
What Sakho brings to the team that Koscielny cannot is a tremendous physical presence, unwavering commitment and excellent leadership skills. That last part is the most crucial factor though.
It has been clear for some time that Deschamps has been looking for a new captain, an outfield player with the potential to lead this team for the best part of a decade in the same way that he did for both club and country.
The 45-year-old is famous in France, not just for being the man that captained the French to their 1998 World Cup and 2000 UEFA European Championship successes, but also for becoming the youngest player to ever captain a UEFA Champions League-winning side when Olympique de Marseille won it back in 1993.
He wants a similarly young player to be able to do the same for this France team ahead of Euro 2016 on home soil. Sakho is currently the leading candidate for that role.
When watching the former Paris Saint-Germain star with France, it is clear to see why Deschamps rates him so highly and is desperate to play him whenever possible. The 24-year-old’s brute-like strength is unrivalled in the 23-man squad and overall, he is a more consistent performer in blue than Koscielny.
Both are capable of blunders and the odd worrying moment, but Deschamps fully trusts Sakho for his international performances ever since he took the job in 2012. Koscielny, as good as he has been at times for his country, badly let his coach down with a nightmare performance in Kiev when France lost 2-0 to Ukraine in the first leg of their World Cup play-off double header.
One performance should not define a player, but Koscielny—as he does occasionally at club level—will commit the odd glaring mistake. Sakho, although often far less spectacular than his teammate when in form, is more reliable.
He is also the player that stepped up and delivered in the second leg against Ukraine, clearing up the mess partly created by Koscielny's conceded penalty and red card in Kiev with his only two international goals to date. That, added to his excellent leadership skills and vibrant personality, has made the Liverpool player indispensable to Deschamps.
Another reason why his influence was missed against Nigeria is the balance that he gives to the back four as well. Sakho is left-footed and plays on the left side of the defence, often helping left-back Evra keep that side of the back line locked up. When Sakho is not there, Evra is more exposed because Koscielny does not have the same tendencies as his younger teammate.
Overall, there is little to choose between the two. However, the balance provided by Sakho and the leadership skills he offers to a team bereft of truly influential figures—in a positive way—is irreplaceable to Deschamps.
Should Sakho miss the last eight clash with old foes Germany, his absence may well prove to be one of the deciding factors.