In a normal World Cup year, Didier Deschamps would have spent the early summer working hard with his squad at Clairefontaine and preparing for the competition in a tight window. Instead, because of the winter World Cup in Qatar, the France head coach had to navigate four UEFA Nations League fixtures on the back of a busy season.
Now, he has taken some holidays with little positivity after some pretty poor recent performances. His mind is definitely not on vacation, as all he can think about is a tournament, that starts for Les Bleus against Australia on Nov. 22, that could be his last. If they have an average World Cup -- let's say elimination before the semifinals -- he is out of the job. A run to the semis or final or, obviously, a second straight World Cup win, and he stays for at least another two years.
So Deschamps has some work to do, and loads of it.
France's games in June -- two draws against Croatia and Austria, two losses against Denmark and Croatia in their UEFA Nations League group -- were not good enough on any level, whether defensively, offensively, tactically or mentally. Pretty much everything went wrong from injuries (Raphael Varane, Kylian Mbappe, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, to name just a few) to silly mistakes (yes you, Theo Hernandez!), from out-of-form stars (where have you gone, Antoine Griezmann?) to tactical uncertainty (does Deschamps prefer three or four at the back?). It was a difficult watch and tough to understand.
Deschamps' father passed away at the start of the international break, so he was not on the bench for the Denmark defeat, and he was arguably only there in person the other three games with his mind elsewhere. After losing 1-0 at home to Croatia in the last game, Deschamps admitted he didn't bring enough energy to his team, and you could understand where he was coming from. He was clearly off it, and it had a big impact on an already exhausted squad.
The French did not really fancy these four games, and it was obvious. As such, Les Bleus are now out of Nations League contention after winning it last time out, and they will even have to fight to avoid relegation to League B for the next tournament.
One of the key things Deschamps told his players, however, was to forget about June and to look forward. The World Cup will arrive quickly. France are the defending champions, and we know what has been happening to defending champions lately. Four of the past five World Cup winners before the French in 2018 (France in 1998, Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014) all went out in the group stage four years later. And no team since Brazil in 1962 have retained the trophy.
Deschamps had retired from international football as a player after the triumph of winning the World Cup in 1998 and Euros in 2000, which meant he didn't experience the debacle of 2002 when the France team imploded. But he knows too well what happened there -- a stunning defeat in the tournament opener against Senegal, followed by a scoreless draw with Uruguay and a defeat to Denmark -- and will do everything to avoid a similar disappointment.
To do so, he will have to sort out a few things -- most importantly, the defence. Why? Because you win a World Cup with your defence, and the French have been all over the place for a while.
Deschamps believed that a back three would suit his team well. The back four that won the 2018 World Cup was made of four centre-backs (Benjamin Pavard, Varane, Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Hernandez). They were perfect for what Deschamps wanted and what that team needed. He might be tempted to do it again (with someone else over the out-of-form Umtiti) because at the moment, it's not working. In response, he keeps changing his centre-backs and none of his combinations has been sufficiently convincing. Varane remains the key member, but Jules Kounde or Hernandez have looked fragile as his partner, while Presnel Kimpembe is still too inconsistent for the rigors of tournament play. Then there are the young stars -- William Saliba, Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano, Wesley Fofana -- and maybe the spark will come from one of them.
Ahead of the defence, Kante and Pogba have been too far removed from their best form to have a positive impact on the team right now. Both still have time to recover their best for Qatar, but the amount of games they have missed at the club level for Chelsea and Man United, respectively, since 2018 is worrying. Kante's also dealing with a Chelsea squad in flux, while Pogba will be hoping that his United exit and prospective return to Juventus offers him the inspiration and positive environment in which to play to his best.
The idea behind switching to a back three in defence was also to be able to play Griezmann, Mbappe and Karim Benzema together in the same team, with Griezmann in a No. 10 role just behind the two centre-forwards. The idea was not bad, except that France don't have a right wing-back (Kingsley Coman has mostly played there) and more worryingly, Griezmann is playing the worst football of his international career.
What happened to Griezmann? He has not scored a goal in open play for club or country since Jan. 6 in the Copa del Rey! The work rate he offers is a great asset for the team but right now Griezmann really doesn't deserve to start for France, despite his experience and status in the team. Christopher Nkunku, who is close to his former PSG teammate Mbappe and linked up very well with Benzema for his recent goal against Denmark, can offer much more than Griezmann even if he plays in a different position for RB Leipzig.
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The way forward for Deschamps could be to keep the back three, but to strengthen the midfield. Instead of a 3-4-1-2 formation, he could switch to a 3-5-2 and add another midfielder alongside Kante and Pogba -- Aurelien Tchouameni, fresh from completing his move to Real Madrid, could be the third midfielder, for example. In that case, France would be more solid and more balanced, which is what Deschamps looks for before a big tournament.
This is part of Deschamps' reflection while on his break: Other options could involve going back to a back four in a 4-3-3 formation with Mbappe wide, or playing in a flat 4-4-2 like they did to great effect at the 2018 World Cup, with Mbappe and Benzema up front and receiving support from two wide players.
In a recent interview, Deschamps actually reminded everyone that for him, the 4-4-2 formation is the best in football. Maybe his holidays will convince him that the "old way" should be the way forward again.