Despite the fact that the UEFA Nations League is, in fact, a real competition rather than a set of money-spinning friendlies, there was expected to be something of the valedictory to France’s two most recent matches. Steve Mandanda and Hugo Lloris were unavailable through injury, but Didier Deschamps otherwise chose the same twenty-three players who had lifted the trophy in Russia some eight weeks earlier, even though the potential futures of some of those players has been called into question by some in France.
Deschamps has never been one to be swayed by media pressure, either tactically or in his selections, but there has remained, even in the wake of France’s triumphant summer, a question of how he would navigate this team’s succession going forward.
In the opening match of the World Cup, a scrappy win over Australia was recorded with Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi only featuring from the bench, the two thirty-something stalwarts looking consigned to that role for the tournament, brought along as alternatives rather than first choices. Their performances, of course, proved otherwise, with Giroud’s physicality giving France’s cadre of talented but lightweight attackers a needed physical presence and Matuidi’s versatility allowing a bizarrely lopsided tactical formation to bring the best from Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé.
Still, though, with Giroud not having started a match for Chelsea and mired in a lengthy scoreless streak for his country, his static presence and failure to have much joy against Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng meant that for much of the match against Germany, France were on the back foot, relying heavily on the industriousness of N’Golo Kanté (to say nothing of Alphonse Areola’s fine performance) to scrape a scoreless draw.
Even against the callow Matthijs de Ligt, for much of the match, Giroud struggled to impose himself on the Dutch side and the idea that Mbappé, rather than the bulky former Montpellier man, ought to be installed to lead the line with his pace, began to take firmer hold, especially with Giroud’s 32nd birthday rapidly approaching.
Matuidi remains an integral part of Juventus’ early success in the current campaign, even having contributed the winner against Parma last weekend, but for all of his bustling brilliance, the pressure has also been mounting on Deschamps to anoint a successor in midfield as well. Corentin Tolisso had started that match against Australia, and like Matuidi, is versatile enough to play multiple positions as well pose an aerial threat, while Thomas Lemar and the uncapped Houssem Aouar also look intriguing options alongside Kanté and Pogba.
However, despite a scuffling performance against Germany, yesterday’s win over the Dutch proved the value of both players, and decisively at that. Matuidi was sometimes put under undue pressure by Kenny Tete, who played a much more attacking role for his country than he does for Lyon, but his slide-rule pass for Mbappé’s opener was a thing of pure beauty, a potent reminder of the myriad of ways in which he can affect a match, beyond the industry with which he is usually so strongly associated.
Too, Matuidi was playing ninety minutes (save a brief respite against Germany) for the third time in the space of a week for club and country, and while he did show signs of fatigue, he also did much to reinforce the idea that his innate understanding of spacing, and ability to read the game will continue to be invaluable to Deschamps as France prepare to match the success of the 1998 squad in following the World Cup win with a European title.
Giroud, as a striker surrounded by so many more patently talented players, is easier to target as a source of frustration. Despite his putting in a shift against Germany, as France struggled to pull ahead after having conceded a cheap equalizer courtesy of Ryan Babel, with the likes of the in-form Ousmane Dembélé options from the bench, the suggestion that Giroud, like Matuidi, was looking and playing his age, seemed to be gaining ever-more credence.
Or, at least it was, until his incisive finish from Benjamin Mendy’s cross, nipping in front of Virgil van Dijk to prod the hosts into the lead. The Manchester City man deserves credit for the quality of the delivery, but the instinctive finish was all Giroud, and saw him move ahead of Zinedine Zidane in France’s all-time scoring charts, a reminder that for Giroud’s perceived foibles, he is far more than just a physical presence.
France return to action in a month’s time with a friendly in Guingamp against Iceland, and Deschamps will no doubt look to make some changes, especially with the Champions’ League having started in earnest at that point, further taxing many of his most important players.
However, on the evidence not only of the summer, but of last night in Paris, Matuidi and Giroud are strong favourites to be back in action for Les Bleus’ next competitive fixture, against Germany four days later. This time, however, there will be nothing valedictory about their inclusion, but rather they will be examples of Deschamps’ prosaic approach and the dividends that it has continued to pay over the last two competitive cycles.
1 | Full back has long been pinpointed as France’s as biggest (perhaps only) weakness but Didier Deschamps again showed this week that he has been able to turn that weakness into a strength. With the World Cup approaching, Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy seemed nailed on to resume their tandem assault on opposition defences that helped Monaco win the Ligue 1 title in 2017. However, with the fitness of both players reluctant to return, Deschamps was forced to reassess. Sidibé and Mendy are quintessential modern full backs, dynamic in attack but flakey defensively, especially Sidibé, and neither suit the pragmatic, stoic tactical outlook of Deschamps.
Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, their eventual understudies, are neither inherently attack-minded nor natural full-backs but they are, crucially for the French triumph in Russia, adept defensively. Minutes after replacing Hernandez against Holland, Mendy’s defensive weaknesses were again exposed as he was sucked out of position for the only goal Deschamps’ men conceded over both games. A lack of depth at full-back may be a concern but it certainly isn’t a weakness.
2 | This month could be a turning point in Alphonse Areola’s career. Despite a breakout season in Southern Spain and the sale of Salvatore Sirigu, Areola was initially unable to truly assert himself as Paris’ number 1 as he returned from Villarreal in 2016 despite the numerous chances presented to him by the calamitous Kevin Trapp. Nevertheless as last season wound down Areola at last found some consistency. Despite the arrival of Gigi Buffon, Thomas Tuchel is yet to decide on his first choice and has afforded Areola the previous two Ligue 1 games to prove himself once more while, with Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda injured, the young Frenchman was also handed his first two international caps this week.
A pair of superb saves helped PSG hold off Nîmes two Saturday’s ago, while further heroics maintained Les Bleus’ unbeaten Nations League start this weekend. Although asserting himself as the Paris and France number 1 this season will be tough, Areola is proving that he is capable of challenging his more illustrious colleagues and with Buffon 40, Lloris 31 and Mandanda 33, time remains on his side.
E.D. with A.W.