1 Year On: Path from World Cup Summit Brings France Stars to Crossroads

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 13, 2019

France's forward Antoine Griezmann (L) France's midfielder Paul Pogba (C) and France's forward Kylian Mbappe observes their national anthem before the friendly match between France and Bolivia at La Beaujoire stadium in Nantes, Western France on June 2, 2019. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost 12 months on from France's triumph at the 2018 World Cup, nothing has changed, and yet nothing is quite the same.

In terms of team selection, Didier Deschamps has kept faith with the players who took France to glory in Moscow, sticking as close to the starting XI that emerged during the tournament as injuries and suspensions have permitted.

But at club level, many of France's players find themselves facing critical periods in their careers. For a few, including a number of the most high-profile names in the squad, the next few weeks will be crucial. Some players are on the verge of major transfers, some have already settled on new destinations and some know that when next season eventually begins, their very status as international footballers will be on the line.

Nobody incarnates the uncertainty facing France's star players better than Antoine Griezmann. A month has now passed since the 28-year-old striker announced his decision to leave Atletico Madrid, but he remains tied to the Wanda Metropolitano for the time being. 

On Wednesday, Atletico Madrid CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin told Movistar (h/t ESPN FC) that Griezmann would join Barcelona, but the Catalan club's reported interest has yet to manifest itself, and the player admitted after France's 4-0 win over Andorra on Tuesday that he is eager for his future to be resolved quickly.

Paul Pogba, Griezmann's great friend, could also be set for a tumultuous summer.

After three largely underwhelming seasons at Manchester United, the 26-year-old midfielder must decide whether to put his faith in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's ability to revitalise the club or cut his losses and definitively turn the page on his time at Old Trafford. Zinedine Zidane, back in the dugout at Real Madrid, is a longstanding admirer, and there are also reports of interest from Pogba's former club, Juventus.

The poster boy of France's World Cup success, Kylian Mbappe does not look quite as close to the exit door at Paris Saint-Germain, but his unexpectedly pointed remarks at France's Player of the Year Awards have left him in the spotlight.

In what was interpreted as a warning to the PSG hierarchy that he wants to play through the middle and be treated as one of the team's senior figures, the 20-year-old spoke about wanting "more responsibility," be that at Parc des Princes or "maybe somewhere else with a new project." His subsequent failure to shut down rumours linking him with a move to Real Madrid suggests that, as things currently stand, he is happy for his name to appear in the transfer gossip columns.

France suffered a shock defeat to Turkey last week.
France suffered a shock defeat to Turkey last week.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

At the other end of the pitch, Raphael Varane appears destined to remain at Real Madrid, though he was linked with a shock departure earlier this year. But things are not quite so straightforward for his centre-back partner, Samuel Umtiti.

The former Lyon player has struggled with a left knee injury since before the World Cup, which prompted Barcelona to bring in Clement Lenglet as cover last summer. Lenglet successfully supplanted Umtiti in the Barcelona starting XI and is now threatening to do the same with France, having been awarded his first call-up by Deschamps during the most recent international window. If Umtiti cannot win his place back at Barca next season, he might discover that a similar fate awaits him with France.

Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, the full-backs who flanked Varane and Umtiti at the World Cup, will both begin new stages in their careers at Bayern Munich next season. Two Lyon players who have forced their way into the squad since the World Cup are also likely to be on the move. The enterprising Ferland Mendy, who has emerged as Hernandez's main rival for the left-back slot, has just joined Real Madrid, and Lyon have confirmed they are open to offers for highly regarded central midfielder Tanguy Ndombele.

With Marseille desperate to raise funds after missing out on European qualification, they are expected to try to offload Florian Thauvin, although the 26-year-old winger recently told RTL he is "in no hurry to leave" and is looking forward to working with incoming OM coach Andre Villas-Boas.

Thauvin, who scored his first international goal against Andorra, is one of several attacking players who will need to hit the ground running next season if they are to stand a chance of forcing their way into Deschamps' first XI. Kingsley Coman will hope to finally put his injury problems behind him at Bayern, and Ousmane Dembele will look to build on an encouraging second season at Barcelona.

Despite scoring in a recent friendly against Bolivia, Thomas Lemar has fallen down the pecking order with France after making a slow start to his time at Atletico. Manchester United's Anthony Martial remains an enigma.

After missing almost the entirety of the 2018-19 season due to knee ligament damage, Coman's Bayern team-mate Corentin Tolisso will be targeting an injury-free campaign, as well. Injury also curtailed Presnel Kimpembe's season, but it came almost as a blessing in his case. The left-sided PSG centre-back endured a torrid end to the campaign, conceding the stoppage-time penalty against Manchester United that precipitated the French champions' elimination from the Champions League and producing a succession of disastrous individual performances. Lenglet's emergence means Kimpembe can no longer be sure of a place in the France squad.

Deschamps continues to show loyalty to Olivier Giroud. But for all his exploits in the Europa League, the 32-year-old Chelsea striker will know that another underwhelming campaign in the Premier League (a competition in which he made only seven starts last season) could put his international status under threat. Arsenal's Alexandre Lacazette and Sevilla's Wissam Ben Yedder, not to mention Mbappe, are among the players poised to take advantage.

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 25: Coach of France Didier Deschamps salutes Olivier Giroud when he's replaced during the 2020 UEFA European Championships group H qualifying match between France and Iceland at Stade de France on March 25, 2019 in Saint-Denis near P
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Faithful to his World Cup heroes he may be, but Deschamps has shown he is not afraid to wield the axe when necessary. World-champion status has not been enough to protect Adil Rami, Benjamin Mendy, Steven Nzonzi and Nabil Fekir from being eased out, and Steve Mandanda's days as automatic back-up to Hugo Lloris beneath the posts now seem to be over.

France's breezy win on Andorra's synthetic pitch was a timely tonic for their Euro 2020 qualification campaign following last weekend's 2-0 defeat against Turkey. Deschamps was only missing Hernandez and N'Golo Kante (both of whom were injured) from his World Cup XI in Turkey, but he saw his players turn in an abject performance that he succinctly described as "un non-match."

He had used similar language to explain last November's 2-0 loss to the Netherlands that fatally compromised France's hopes of qualifying for the UEFA Nations League finals.

Against minnows Andorra, he awarded a first cap to Lenglet and handed full international debuts to Chelsea centre-back Kurt Zouma, Lyon right-back Leo Dubois and Ben Yedder. With Mendy and Ndombele also starting, it was a sign that whether in possession of a World Cup winner's medal or not, none of his players can afford to rest on their laurels.

France's forward Antoine Griezmann (L) and France's midfielder Blaise Matuidi celebrate at the end of the friendly match between France and Bolivia at La Beaujoire stadium in Nantes, Western France on June 2, 2019. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP)

Blaise Matuidi remains Deschamps' first choice for the left-wing berth in Les Bleus' 4-2-3-1 system, but there is a feeling in France that, for all the balance the Juventus midfielder helps provide, the team will not be able to reach the next phase in its development without a more dynamic presence on the left flank.

"Matuidi will always do the job if we prioritise a defensive approach. But if we want to develop our attacking potential, Coman, Lemar, Dembele and Anthony Martial have everything to play for," former France left-back Bixente Lizarazu wrote in L'Equipe last week. "Whoever breaks through, or manages to confirm their status, could become the last piece of the attacking puzzle."

While Mbappe played on the left against Andorra, he has generally started on the right under Deschamps, and it is increasingly clear that his future with both PSG and France lies through the middle. In time, Deschamps will have to confront the issue of how to move his most talented player into the position for which he seems destined—and how to configure the rest of his team accordingly.

France's post-World Cup development is only just beginning, and qualification for Euro 2020 remains in the balance. But as Deschamps' players head off on their summer holidays, many of them will be contemplating matters much closer to home.

Download the B/R Football Ranks Podcast. New episodes every Wednesday. iTunesSpotify