France might be the most talented squad at this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Just look at who was omitted from their roster. Alexandre Lacazette, Dimitri Payet, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial all missed out. That’s truly an embarrassment of riches.
One benefit to having a loaded squad is tactical flexibility. Depending on the opponent, French coach Didier Deschamps can rotate from a 4-3-3 to a variation of a 4-4-2. But it can also become a liability because the constant rotation can hurt chemistry among the players. However, no matter who starts, the midfield is going to be absolutely crucial.
Because of the plethora of attacking talent and the different midfielders at Deschamps’s disposal, he can set up his team to control possession or to rely on rapid counter-attacks.
This is where Deschamps’s strategy will be crucial. N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba will be certain starters this summer in Russia. Corentin Tolisso is a terrific box-to-box player who will cover tons of ground, which will free up Pogba to roam forward. Blaise Matuidi can also move up and down the pitch. His passing isn’t the greatest, but with Kante and Pogba, it shouldn’t be an issue.
The dilemma Deschamps faces is whether his best players will all thrive at once. Pogba was jeered by French fans in Nice during France’s 3-1 win over Italy in a recent pre-World Cup friendly. The Manchester United midfielder wasn’t too influential, though he didn’t need to be, since the match was so frantic and fast-paced. Les Bleus consistently found open space down the flanks with Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann interchanging and wreaking havoc all game long.
Since the game was stretched, Pogba was able to drift to the left with Griezmann dropping deep into the half-spaces.
This might not be achievable at the World Cup as teams won’t be as eager to push forward and leave their defences exposed to France’s speed. With more compact back lines, Pogba and Griezmann would probably occupy the same space. This makes it easier for the opposition to close down the French attack.
But a 4-3-3 set-up, which might end up being Deschamps’s preferred formation, can still work. Ideally, a midfield three of Kante, Matuidi and Pogba offers perfect balance of defence, work rate and ball movement. Griezmann will probably be given a roaming role and won’t stick to one position, like he did against Italy.
However, it’s evident that Griezmann prefers having another striker up front with him, be it in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. Before Diego Costa returned to Atletico Madrid, Griezmann had seven goals and eight assists in 20 matches. After Costa came back, he registered 22 goals and eight assists in 29 appearances.
This is why Deschamps has a real crisis on his hands. One player has to sacrifice a key part of his game in order to accommodate the other. It could be Griezmann drifting across the frontline, or it could be Pogba playing slightly deeper, thus forcing more defensive responsibilities on his shoulders, which he’s not very comfortable doing.
With Matuidi, Tolisso, Steven N’Zonzi and many others waiting in the wings, plus the fans already voicing their displeasure, Pogba needs a strong start to the World Cup. He wasn’t the most consistent player at Euro 2016 and has been hit-and-miss with France in general. Most of that is due to the ever-changing roles.
Games are won and lost in midfield. When Pogba decides to impose himself, he can instantly change the complexion of the match.
That is why it may be Griezmann who could be reined in by Deschamps. With pressure already mounting on Pogba, and with the ability to win games, it would be in the team’s best interests to build its system around the Manchester United midfielder.
Griezmann doesn’t really have to be impactful in every game, either. If he’s not generating chances, one of the other forwards can take over.
There are many reasons why France is arguably the team to watch this summer. The Pogba-or-Griezmann debate is one of them, and it could determine the team’s final standing in Russia.