At kick-off against Tunisia, France were a team of opposites. On the pitch, they had produced an authoritative 4-1 win over Australia in their opening game and then edged past a Denmark team that had reached the semi-finals of the Euros last summer. Away from those assured performances, however, confusion has reigned in the France camp for some time.
Their third group match was effectively a meaningless dead rubber but, by full-time in their chaotic 1-0 defeat to Tunisia, that confusion had started to seep on to the pitch for the first time in Qatar. Even though Didier Deschamps picked an experimental XI, the game showed up the coach’s two main problems: he does not know his best team and France are worryingly reliant on Kylian Mbappé. Deschamps’ side go into their last-16 match against Poland on Saturday afternoon unsettled and uncertain.
Deschamps has looked indecisive for some time. Even though he had deployed wing-backs and a trio of centre-backs for much of the last two year, when announcing his World Cup squad, Deschamps surprisingly said he would switch back to a four-man defence – despite not having any warm-up games before the tournament to test the set-up. It was assumed this meant France would be returning to the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 formation that served them so well at the World Cup in 2018. However, Deschamps opted for a more traditional 4-2-3-1 against Australia and Denmark, with Ousmane Dembélé operating on the right and Kylian Mbappé on the left.
The manager seems to be lurching from one idea to the next. Initially, he picked just 25 players in his squad – one fewer than everyone else – before adding Marcus Thuram a few days later, seemingly at random. The coach insisted he had planned the move all along and had wanted to see how the final round of domestic fixtures would play out. Yet, when Karim Benzema was eventually ruled out with injury, he then declined the opportunity to bring in another striker.
His decision to snub the Marseille wing-back Jonathan Clauss also looks like a curious call. Clauss is perfectly suited to the 3-5-2 system Deschamps was using and his absence has denied the manager the chance to make the simple tactical switch back to a three-man defence, a formation the squad is used to, should he need to do so.
Even though he is now using a four-man defence, Deschamps made the odd decision to omit natural full-backs. Although a famously pragmatic coach, Deschamps has only named one true left-back – the gung-ho Théo Hernandez – in his squad. The two full-backs from the team that won the World Cup in 2018, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, are still in the squad, but they are naturally more like centre-backs. Lucas Hernandez’s injury has subsequently exposed Deschamps’ mistake. Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga played at left-back against Tunisia and looked lost, making Deschamps’ decision not to call up Ferland Mendy – Madrid’s starting left-back – all the more bewildering.
The team has, to their credit, coped well without Benzema. Olivier Giroud adds balance to the team in his absence and there have been reports that the squad is happier as a group now that the Ballon d’Or winner has left. The attack now looks settled but Giroud is one of only five outfielders sure to play – along with Raphaël Varane, Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Aurélien Tchouaméni.
Deschamps could return to the previously successful asymmetrical system France used when they won the World Cup four years ago. Although, while that move would be familiar, it is also risky. Deschamps still has seven of the players who started the final in 2018, but four key parts are missing. France have plenty of youthful talent at centre-back, but the calmness offered by Samuel Umtiti in 2018 has not yet been replaced at this level.
They also lack a successor to Blaise Matuidi in the pivotal left-midfield role. Tentative experiments with Adrien Rabiot in a similar position have underwhelmed, despite Deschamps seemingly anointing the Juventus midfielder – who famously refused to be included on the stand-by list in 2018 – as his preferred choice. Matteo Guendouzi also struggled in a similar role against Tunisia. The absence of the midfield dynamism offered by Paul Pogba – who is routinely excellent for France – and N’Golo Kanté could also affect that system’s potency.
Despite the disorder, France have undeniable quality and they won both games with their first-choice XI, so are among the favourites, alongside Spain, England, Brazil and maybe Portugal. However, it is hard to judge their effectiveness given their weak group. Having looked so strong before the tournament, even beating France twice earlier this year, strikerless Denmark underperformed horribly; Australia’s passionate but workmanlike squad includes eight A-League players and nine more based in Scotland or lower English leagues – hardly the highest standard; and Tunisia, although bolder than in previous tournaments, could not beat either Denmark or Australia.
Meanwhile, Mbappé, the best player in the world right now, largely carried France through those two games. And his absence was glaring against Tunisia as a disjointed reserve team suffered through out-of-position players and those in more natural roles seemingly unsure of their roles.
Deschamps has ended the group stage less certain of his team’s effectiveness than he was at the start. Neither Pavard nor Jules Koundé looks solid at right-back; Varane lacks a reliable centre-back partner; and Youssouf Fofana, who had been seen as a potential starter in midfield, damaged his chances with a disastrous display against Tunisia. It also remains to be seen whether Deschamps really trusts Rabiot and Ousmane Dembélé in truly competitive fixtures deeper in the tournament.
All those factors allowed Wahbi Khazri – a player whose quality has often been overlooked by the French media during his spells with Saint-Étienne, Rennes, Bordeaux and now Montpellier – to slalom through France’s soft centre and score the winner for Tunisia. The win was not enough to take them to the last 16 but it should serve as a wake-up for Deschamps.
France have flirted with implosion for weeks, with alleged blackmail scandals, a host of injuries and tactical uncertainty. Another chaotic exit – akin to their penalty shootout defeat to Switzerland at the last-16 stage of the Euros last year – seems ever more likely. Deschamps needs more of a plan than simply relying on Mbappé’s brilliance.