How the runner ups of 2022 build to the future with their same leader in charge…
Many of the post-2022 World Cup dominos are beginning to fall, and one of the greater questions has been answered.
France came mere kicks of the ball away from repeating as world champions. Their penalty shootout defeat to Argentina in the Final was disappointing and heartbreaking to be sure, but it was also a statement of where French football is truly at. A team riddled with injuries, including to several nailed-on starting players and notably to their best penalty-saving goalkeeper, and who dealt with a major flu outbreak in the camp on the eve of the Final came mere moments away from overcoming the seemingly-“Team of Destiny” Argentina and man of the moment Lionel Messi. They were not as good as they were in 2018, they certainly were not as solid defensively and the midfield was not as cohesive, but it almost did not matter. The ability for Les Bleus to be noticeably weaker than when they last won the World Cup but still nearly do it again solidifies France as the team to beat moving forward, the nation possibly best set to be the world power in the sport over the next decade and a half.
And, at least for the next two to four years, they will do so with their current fearless leader still at the helm.
Didier Deschamps is a, well, let’s say “polarizing figure”. The France manager and former Les Bleus captain has been the target of criticism for France’s more defensive style of play, for some of his selection choices, and certainly for his part in dealing with Karim Benzema’s previous absence from the France team and whatever happened between the two in Qatar this time around. But there is one thing that cannot be doubted: he is possibly the current king of international tournament football. France have played in five major tournaments during Deschamps’ reign with the following finishes: a quarterfinals defeat to eventual champions Germany in the 2014 World Cup, a heartbreaking extra time defeat to Portugal in the Final of Euro 2016, winners of the 2018 World Cup, a penalties defeat in the Round of 16 at Euro 2020, and a defeat on penalties to Argentina at the Final of the 2022 World Cup. Five major tournaments, three finals appearances, one World Cup, and only once failing to make the quarterfinals or later. To compare, in the previous five major tournaments before Deschamps, managed by Jacques Santini, Raymond Domenech, and Laurent Blanc, France only advanced past the quarterfinals stage once (the 2006 World Cup) and were eliminated in the Group Stage twice. Since the back-to-back victories at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, France have played in four major international finals, three of which being under Deschamps.
Love him or hate him, he is getting results.
Much of the discourse surrounding Deschamps and the France job are also framed in the manner of a choice, given it is no secret to anyone involved that France legend and multi-time Champions League winner Zinedine Zidane is also very interested in managing Les Bleus. Given some peoples’ objections to Deschamps’ style and given how beloved Zidane is among French people, the desire to appoint Zidane is very strong, and that is even ignoring the notable success Zidane has had in management previously.
I wrote after Euro 2020 saying it was time for Deschamps to go. I still sort of agree with my old logic, but the mood around his position and around the France team has completely changed. It is still important, especially with national team jobs, that you do not go one or two tournament too far with managers. Modern managers, especially in the international game, have shelf lives. Regardless of what they have done previously, they will eventually reach a point where their tenure is no longer tenable and they need to be replaced. Germany are still paying for the issues of giving Joachim Löw a few tournaments too long in that role. Given Deschamps will have been at the helm of Les Bleus for 14 years when his new contract expires, a time period that feels unprecedented at the international level in this day and age, the risk for Deschamps staying too long is certainly there.
But I cannot, however, rationalize in my mind dismissing a manager who came mere penalty kicks away from making your country back-to-back World Cup winners, something that has not been done since Pelé’s Brazil teams. Yes, I know I attempted to do this after the Euros, but the Euros really did feel much different than what the mood around Les Bleus feels like now. Deschamps has demonstrated in the past that he has the ability to get the most out of players, to transition generations over a period of time, and to put players in positions to succeed. He understands exactly how to succeed in tournament football, and given France’s ridiculous wealth of talent in the player pool, they will not be short on talent over the next four years. France are in need of a transition, and it does not seem like as daunting of a task as envisioned after the Euros, mainly because that generational transition is already happening. Only six of France’s starters in the Final against Argentina were on the plane to Russia in 2018, and none of the six substitutes who came in were on the team in 2018. The average age of the 11 players on the pitch for the penalty shootout in that 2022 Final is a little over 24 years old, and that is heavily weighted by the presence of 36-year-old France captain Hugo Lloris, who has since retired from the National Team. And they still came moments away from winning it again.
And honestly, the style of play arguments are kind of dull at this point, right? Sure, I made those arguments after the Euros. Sure, I also still believe there is another level for this France team to reach, another gear at which they can play, which certainly must be a terrifying thought for other national team coaches. But genuinely, name me the last national team that played an objectively beautiful style of football and won a World Cup doing so.
Don’t worry, I will wait.
You said Spain, didn’t you? Sure, I will admit they are to a certain extent a counter point, but I contend it for two reasons. One: the vast majority of that Spain team played for one of two teams, and many of the key players all played for the same team: Barcelona. It is easy to be more complex and expressive when you have that much shared chemistry as teammates, which is not something the vast majority of national teams have. Two: it is also very revisionist regarding the 2010 World Cup, where Spain scored eight (yes, eight) goals throughout the entire tournament, four of them coming in the Knockout Stages in four consecutive 1-0 victories, and those eight goals being scored by three people (David Villa, Andres Iniesta, and Carles Puyol). For comparison, France scored 14 goals in 2018 (with six different goalscorers) and 16 goals in 2022 (again, with six different goalscorers). Which one of those teams is the boring one?
And I am not even trying to demonstrate “boring” as a title of inferiority here. The Spain team from 2008 to 2012 is one of the best in the history of international football. If anything, France’s success has only served as a reminder of the main feature that separates international football from club football. Since there is no transfer market, since you have a limited pool of players to choose from, since you have very little time to actually train with a group of players who do not have good chemistry together, and since the nature of your work solely revolves around knockout competitions, international managers are put in a situation where pragmatic, defensive football is always going to win. It is simply the way of the world in this part of the game. Sure, there are times where being too pragmatic will cost you (unless you are Portugal in 2016, then you still somehow succeed), but finding that balance is a very important and difficult thing to achieve. France have found that balance, and really the only time they majorly underperformed under Deschamps was at Euro 2020, where they went away from the pragmatic set up from 2018 in an attempt to be more attacking and free-flowing in a system that clearly did not function.
While, again, I do believe there is another gear for this France team to hit, I would not go as far as to say that Deschamps is actively holding them back from reaching that, and I am not certain that replacing him with Zidane would be what is needed in order to reach that level. It is also not the end of this opportunity. According to reporting on the subject, Zidane was apparently very understanding of the decision to extend Deschamps, and he has certainly left the door open to returning to take over from Deschamps whenever he decides to call it quits. Should French Federation President Noël Le Graët fully resign (which yes, he should, but that is for a different article), the one main roadblock against Zidane’s appointment would be gone, meaning the door would be open for him to take the job whenever he feels it is the right time.
But what has happened has happened, and France now know who their manager will be going into the European Championships in 2024. There are several outstanding questions on the squad, however, which need to be addressed. Hugo Lloris’ and Steve Mandanda’s retirements leave a hole at the goalkeeper position, one that we will need to see if Mike Maignan can fully fill. The emergence of Brice Samba and re-emergence of Alban Lafont also offer alternatives in goal, allowing France to have a strong selection in that position. Center back is also not fully a locked-down position, though France certainly do not lack options there either. But who is going to play right back? Jules Koundé did not quite convince in that position in Qatar. Who is the third midfielder to eventually replace N’Golo Kanté? Is it Camavinga or someone else? Are Christopher Nkunku or Randal Kolo Muani solutions to the potential holes at right wing and striker?
Who is France’s next captain? And should it be Mbappé?
A good amount of questions with varying levels of clarity in their answers. There will be a good deal of changing for Les Bleus over the next few years. My one massive remaining concern with Deschamps feeds into this need: he has been very hesitant to bring in substantive changes since the core of this team was formed in 2018. The snubbing of Aymeric Laporte and near-snubbing of Theo Hernández are prime examples of this. Either for reasons of health or age, France are going to need to bring in new players in the team to fill needs or replace players who were crucial in Russia eight years ago. This might require changing the system or style of play to suit new profiles of players, and France have not exactly been great at that over the last four years. The trust in younger players during France’s run in Qatar is one thing, but there will need to be some rethinking in order to figure out how to formulate the best possible team to go to the Euros. Kolo Muani is certainly a candidate to be France’s striker of the future, for example, but the coach would need to figure out how to adapt the system and attack to a player who has a very different skillset to Olivier Giroud. Does the deficiency at right back encourage a return to a three-back system to bring in a more attacking right back (ex: Jonathan Clauss, Malo Gusto, etc.), or is there a need to stick with the traditional four man defense and play a natural defender at right back (ex: Koundé, Pierre Kalulu, etc.).
I could go on with this all day, but I will spare you from it, dear reader. Point of it all: Didier Deschamps, who was the width of Emi Martinez’s leg away from being a two-time world champion manager, will retain his position with France for the next four years. Love him or hate him, he has been incredibly good at his job, and while there are significant questions for the French manager to figure out about his team, I have much less doubt about his ability to maintain France as a contender for the coming years.
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