As if the internet-breaking Paul Pogba-Antoine Griezmann combination was not enough proof that France remain – the autumn wobbles aside – the prohibitive best side in the world, the win against Iceland on Monday will have offered naysayers little respite. “The party continues,” read L’Équipe’s headline, and on the evidence of this result, and the defeat of Moldova on Friday, that is not an unfair assessment.
But are France really on the same level as the side which won the World Cup? Clearly the calibre of their opposition in these two matches is a mitigating factor, but there is now a growing sentiment that Didier Deschamps’s decision to stick (largely) with the side that won in Russia is not down to nostalgia but results.
Deschamps, as he proved last summer, is as pragmatic as a manager as he was during his playing career, emphasising control, defensive solidity and maximum effort, particularly in the midfield. In playing France’s current 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, he has continued with Blaise Matuidi on the left and the Juventus man, despite missing a few chances in these two matches, proved himself an impressively ageless catalyst.
Deschamps admitted that Matuidi’s place in the starting lineup was down to injury concerns, with both Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé unavailable. But with Matuidi far more capable than either of those players of putting in a shift, France were able to maintain the same tactical flexibility and solidity that was so key to their success last summer. Matuidi is 32 this year, and while one can see him continuing through the European Championship next summer, Deschamps will need to evaluate his options in this position sooner rather than later. Houssem Aouar, Tanguy N’Dombélé, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar, and the aforementioned Coman and Dembélé are all attractive enough options, but none have the experience and sheer selflessness of Matuidi, something which has proved key to the team striking a balance between their attacking brilliance and more workmanlike elements.
On the subject of creating a balance, Pogba and N’Golo Kanté’s relationship continues to improve as well. In the summer, Deschamps was accused of misusing Pogba in a midfield two, a criticism that had its genesis in France’s run to the final of the 2016 European Championship. The crux of this (admittedly poorly reasoned) argument centres around Pogba’s role in that system being so deep as to fail to be able to significantly influence play going forward. However, with both Matuidi and the Chelsea player in the fold, Pogba is able to focus his attention on playing the creator, as his sublime pass for Griezmann on Friday aptly demonstrated. In this, then, one can plainly see why Deschamps’s reticence to move on from this summer is justified.
Pogba was not the only player embracing the creator’s role for Les Bleus, however, as Kylian Mbappé delivered a man-of-the-match performance against Iceland, scoring but also adding a pair of superb assists. It was perhaps his best display in terms of his passing acumen in a France shirt, but it was also a performance wrought from his customary continued willingness to run at the opposition, earning corners and pulling players out of position at will, no mean feat given Iceland’s massed defence.
Again, the plodding pace of the opposition’s defence surely will have done much to make Mbappé look that much more jet-heeled, but the fact that he continually placed an emphasis not on looking for his own shot but to foster opportunities for others shows an increased maturity, something that has been perhaps slightly lacking in his play to date for both club and country. More consistency in this department is surely needed but for now, if Mbappé can continue to take a more holistic approach to his play, there may be little that the world can do.
Mbappé was not the only attacking player to distinguish himself in these two matches, however, as Olivier Giroud was on the scoresheet in both games. The Chelsea striker has struggled for minutes under Maurizio Sarri but he clearly has done more than enough for Deschamps to keep faith with him, a trust that was duly rewarded with goals that placed him as France’s third all-time leading scorer. Again, yes, these sides may not have been the sternest test but Giroud’s physicality and work ethic (like that of fellow veteran Matuidi) is all but impossible to ignore, and it makes Deschamps’s decision to opt for his veteran players all the more justified.
There does remain one albatross, however, over Deschamps’s side and how he is choosing (or not) to foster a continuum of development. Hugo Lloris has had more than his share of mistakes this season for Tottenham, and while one would be right to point not only to Spurs’ place in the Champions League quarter-finals and their position in the Premier League table, he is also 33 this year and his deputy, Steve Mandanda, will be 35 by the time the European Championship finals kick off in 2020. Alphonse Areola has definitively moved ahead of Stéphane Ruffier and Benoît Costil in the pecking order for third choice, but does the position require a more holistic rethink?
Benjamin Lecomte was included in the November callups and has done little with Montpellier to suggest he is undeserving of further consideration. Lecomte is 28 next month and may not be as forward-thinking a resolution to this dilemma as one would like, but with Mandanda clearly not up to scratch this season it would behoove Deschamps to create more competition for the places behind Lloris. Lille’s Mike Maignan has had the occasional mistake but his consistent improvement has been instrumental to Les Dogues’improvement this season and is surely, given his age and form, more worthy than his Marseille counterpart of a place in the 23.
• In addition to the national side’s two wins, another story from France this week was Jean-Michel Aulas’s 70th birthday. The proudly outspoken Lyon chairman has been accused in recent years of focusing too strongly on the bottom line at the expense of potential success, particularly when it comes to his managerial appointments. Even now, though, Lyon continue to rise in Ligue 1, their defeat against Barcelona notwithstanding, and the players this summer who had seemed cut-rate alternatives to more attractive transfer targets (Moussa Dembélé, Martin Terrier, Jason Denayer) are manifesting a level of ability and consistency that could be key as Lyon chase a return to the Champions League. No stranger to criticism given his age and time in charge of the club, Aulas’s milestone birthday is one worth celebrating, the chairman being a true individual and a principled one at that; love him or loath him, he is the type of figure of which the game needs more, and not less.