Never mind the actual France World Cup squad, feel the quality of the absentees. If Leroy Sane’s omission from Jogi Löw’s Germany 23 caused shock in these isles, then how good must Les Bleus be if they can leave out Karim Benzema, Aymeric Laporte, Adrien Rabiot, Alexandre Laczette, Dimitri Payet and Anthony Martial?
The answer is that nobody knows quite what version of France might turn up in Russia. Serious doubts centre on Didier Deschamps, a coach whose conservatism mirrors the defensive midfield position he occupied when France won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
Did the current crop lose its chance to emulate such forebears when they flopped so badly on home soil against Portugal in the final of Euro 2016? Deschamps was in command of an enviable arsenal of talent and yet failed to gel his team into anything coherent. Instead, each France game became a test of the nerve that eventually failed them against an opponent ready to sit and wait for its opportunity.
Football’s history, and specifically that of the World Cup itself, reveal that talent is not nearly enough for ultimate glory. Otherwise Brazil might have ten titles rather than five; Johan Cruyff may have won 1974’s final with the Netherlands, and even the poor old English could have won more than one.
But it might be readily argued that, even after allowing for the absence of a once-in-a-generation talent like Zinedine Zidane, France two decades on have far greater depth, and particularly in attack. The Zidane/Deschamps era saw a flowering of youth in the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet that has barely stopped pumping out attacking talent since.
Remember Stephane Guivarc’h, the hapless, non-scoring striker of 1998? Deschamps can instead choose from Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud, and while the latter is not to everyone’s tastes, he has 31 international goals to his name. Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembele of Barcelona, excellent in France’s warm-ups so far, new Liverpool signing Nabil Fekir and Marseille’s Florian Thauvin make up an awesome sextet of attacking talent.
Deschamps’ midfield features N’Golo Kante, the best player in both the 2015-16 and 2017-17 Premier League seasons, Blaise Matuidi, a cult hero in France coming off a title win with Juventus, Bayern Munich ingenue Corentin Tolisso and the mercurial talents of Paul Pogba.
And yet here is where the doubts set in. Kante was way short of his elemental best for Chelsea last season while Pogba is the coiffeured mystery wrapped in an enigma that neither his club nor national team manager appear able to work out.
Such was the low level of Pogba’s play against non-qualifiers Italy last week that there should be a genuine possibility he might not make the starting XI against Australia in France’s opening game. The Parisian crowd’s boos delivered a public verdict on the aspirant megastar’s performance. Deschamps, should he be brave enough, might perhaps choose to drop Tolisso into his three-man midfield rather than have to suffer Pogba’s flights of fancy and less than full dedication to tracking back, but has defended the Manchester United man by declaring him “indispensable”.
Should he not find his form, Pogba will become the latest star to enter the World Cup on the cover of magazines across the globe while dripping in endorsements to then go missing in action once a ball is required to be kicked. The likes of Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho could each tell him how that story goes.
Kante and Pogba are not the only players who travel to Russia in not exactly the finest of fettle. Goalkeeper and long-standing captain Hugo Lloris had his most mistake-ridden campaign for Tottenham last season, while Mbappe, who might just be the most talented of the lot, rather plateaued at Paris Saint-Germain, having been the sensation of the 2016-17 campaign at Monaco. Dembele’s time at Barcelona has been interrupted by injury and also the signing of Philippe Coutinho.
And while a Clasico central defensive partnership of Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane and Barcelona Samuel Umtiti looks solid and talented enough, with the absence of Deschamps favourite Laurent Koscielny allowing that duo to be set in stone, the full-back positions look far dicier, with both Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy having been injured through the 2017-18 campaign, and their back-ups, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández both young and inexperienced.
International football, where talent cannot be purchased off the shelf, gives rise to such situations, but the disciplines of man management and tactical planning remain much the same as club football. Deschamps, in getting to the quarters in 2014 and 2016’s final, is still yet to convince he can fulfil those vital functions, even when presented with as rich a talent base as any in international football.
Should France fail in Russia, then plenty of the post-mortems will centre on those he left behind. There can surely be no fourth chance; waiting in the wings as available, possible replacements are Arsene Wenger and Zinedine Zidane.