Les Bleus have plenty of talent at their disposal as they prepare to host next summer’s 24-team tournament. But their lack of competitive action makes it hard to judge their chances.
France face the perennial problem of tournament hosts – they have played only friendly matches since their World Cup quarter-final defeat by Germany. But coach Didier Deschamps insists it is not a problem as, in the past year, France have played Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Brazil, with England, Germany, Holland and Russia lined up in the coming months.
This summer, Deschamps saw young French talent fetch big money in the transfer market: Anthony Martial cost Manchester United £36m while Inter paid £26m for Geoffrey Kondogbia. Those moves, and a number of others, have the potential to unsettle Deschamps’ squad.
Lyon starlet Nabil Fekir’s knee injury could sideline him next summer, giving Deschamps the chance to try other options. The final squad is far from decided.
France’s most talented player of recent times, Franck Ribery will play no part next summer. The Bayern Munich winger, who missed the 2014 World Cup through injury, was criticised by Michel Platini for his international retirement but is sticking
to his decision.
France’s default formation in most of their friendlies since the World Cup has been 4-2-3-1, but without Paul Pogba 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 have also been tried. Yohan Cabaye, Kondogbia or Moussa Sissoko could come into a three-man midfield allowing Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena to move further forward.
France’s 1998 World Cup-winning captain has steadied the ship since the debacle of the 2010 World Cup and recently extended his contract until 2018.
The Juventus star is developing into one of the world’s finest midfield all-rounders.
Q&A with World Soccer France correspondent Howard Johnson
A two-part audio recording of this interview can be found below.
Howard, can you tell us a little bit about France since the 2014 World Cup, as they prepare to host Euro 2016?
It’s been something of a false war for France coming up to the Euros next year. Obviously when you are the host nation you don’t have the pressure of qualifying but what you also don’t have is competitive football at international level for a long time. So there are upsides and downsides to that for France. The manager Didier Deschamps has a chance to blood players and test formations that he might not do in competitive games but there is that lack of intensity and lack of competitive fixtures that all international teams really need to be able to prepare themselves for a big tournament.
If you look at how they’ve done since the World Cup in 2014, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. The French played six games before the end of 2014, weren’t defeated in any of them and in 2016, they’ve also played six games so far but they’ve actually suffered three defeats. Probably the most eye-raising of those was a game in Albania against the Albanians on June 13, when they went down 1-0. Though it’s fair to say that any international fixture that isn’t competitive and is played in the month June, there’s going to be a certain number of players who will be wearing flipflops and have their minds on the beach. So I guess we can’t read too much into that. Didier Deschamps was extremely angry about the French performance that day.
But there have also been two other defeats. They lost in March at home in Paris to Brazil and in June they went down, also at the Stade de France, by three goals to four, to Belgium. So two defeats there, obviously to two top sides, but not what you would call ideal preparations. Then again, Deschamps will have learned a lot from those games. He won’t have been too disheartened by losing to two top sides as he thinks about the kind of team that he’s going to put out when the big day comes.
It must be frustrating for Deschamps to have that lack of competitive action. Is he bringing in many new players, or has he stuck with the players from the World Cup?
I’m not sure if he is finding it frustrating because if you look back to the 2014 World Cup, France already had a talented side and also a side that he had moulded in his own image. After the departure of Laurent Blanc, he was quick to bring in players who, certainly had performed at international level but maybe were not central to the previous manager’s thinking. I’m talking about Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann who have gone on under Deschamps to establish themselves as really key players for Les Bleus.
So he’s probably thinking that there wasn’t too much radical overhaul needed after 2014. After all they did get to the quarter-finals and lost to eventual winners Germany. So it wasn’t a disastrous performance by any means. So he’s trying to tinker rather than make wholesale changes and that probably a wise thing to do. In 2014 World Cup, the quality of the players he had at his disposal were probably the envy of most of the team at the World Cup.
Does Deschamps have a clear idea of his starting line-up, or at least who his key personalities are?
I don’t think it’s set in stone. Let’s not forget that the tournament doesn’t start until next year and a lot can happen in football between now and then. So, he’ll certainly have an idea of what his preferred team will be and I imagine he also hope there will some of the outsiders who will look to stake a claim between now and then.
Obviously, Anthony Martial’s move from Monaco to Manchester United has alerted people to the potential that the 19-year-old has. And it’s not just the fact that he scored three goals in his first two goals, it’s the fact that those three goals showed what an ice-cool finisher he is. Clearly, he’ll be making Deschamps sit up and take notice. He was already a big fan of Nabil Fekir, the young Lyon midfielder cum striker. Of course he’s suffered a horrible injury against Portugal and has been ruled out for six months. Cruciate injuries are notoriously tricky and they do take a long time to come back from but it still gives Fekir time to recover and play himself back into contention for the Euros.
I know that Deschamps is a particular fan, he’s an extremely talented and exciting player and I’m sure Deschamps will be keeping a close eye on him. But he’s hot some pretty talented players to dislodge from the team that Deschamps can pick at the moment. It will be interesting to see what happens.
In terms of tactics, he seems pretty set on a 4-2-3-1. He’s experimented a little, but he seems to be settled on the two defensive midfielders, the three attacking midfielders and the lone striker…
It’s fair to say that’s what he’s thinking. In international football these days, the 4-2-3-1 is the option of choice for a lot of managers. Playing one up top seems to be either a reaction to the way international football has gone, or maybe it’s a fashion, I don’t know. But it is fair to say that is how he is looking. The teams that play 4-2-3-1 have to be quite fluid, they need to have players who can get up and down the park and can get chuck in and work hard when the opposition have got the ball and can also break forward quickly. Benzema looks like being the man up top. Then there’s Alexandre Lacazette, who had a fantastic season with Lyon last year, and Antoine Griezmann, who can get up and down the park, can get into the box to support the main striker and can finish.
While it looks like they will play 4-2-3-1, it can very quickly change to a different formation where they can flood the opposition penalty box with players.
You mentioned Anthony Martial. Are there any other players on the fringes of the squad who might make the breakthrough?
There’s one or two. There’s Paul-Georges Ntep, an attacking midfielder or striker who plays for Rennes. He could have played for Cameroon, he’s got a Cameroonian background, but Deschamps rather craftily gave him his debut not so long ago, probably to make sure he had him under lock and key for France. Whether the player has enough ability to break into what is already a very strong squad, we’ll have to wait and see but he’s very talented. Another who fits into the same category in Jordan Ferri, a midfielder with Lyon. A very decent player who is fast becoming the lynchpin in the Lyon side and has already forced people to sit up and take notice of him.
The problem that these players face is that France already have a squad that, I suspect, is pretty much the envy of every other team at the Euros. So it’s going to take something pretty exceptional to break in.
Are there any concerns over players who are in the squad but not playing regularly for their clubs?
It doesn’t seem to be an enormous problem. The one player who springs to mind would be Loic Remy at Chelsea. You forget with Remy that he’s only 28 years old. In many ways you think of him as coming to the end of his career because he’s a bit part player. And yet he’s really not, he should be absolutely in the prime of his footballing form. That might be a concern, although Deschamps already has a decent choice of strikers and attacking midfielders.
I guess you might also look at the case of Patrice Evra who, although he seems to be first choice at Juventus, is getting on a bit. It’s hard to say whether he will keep his place at Juventus through the season. But looking at the spine of the team, there’s not a lot of problems with people who aren’t getting enough game time.
What about Franck Ribery. Is he history with the national side? Is there any chance he might make it back?
Well, it’s one of those where your heart says yes and your head says no. He’s been such a key player in France and so much part of the French psyche for such a long time. I hate to use the phrase but he has been talismanic for France. But he missed the entire World Cup with his back injury he’s had ankle problems at Munich, I think he only played 15 Bundesliga games last season. The other thing you have to bear in mind with Ribery is that by the time the tournament comes around he will be 33 and he’s a guy who has built his reputation around that explosive way of playing that we have all enjoyed watching. At that age, with the injury problems that he has had, it’s hard to see him coming back to the sort of level that he used to be able to attain. You could also argue that in some way the French national team has moved on somewhat. If I were a betting man, I don’t think I would be putting any Euros on him being there.
Looking ahead to next summer, how are preparations going? Some of the new stadiums look spectacular.
I must admit that while people often like to laugh at the French for being behind the times, or not on top of things, or not very much in step with how people do things in Europe – and a lot of is true – but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And they have organised themselves extremely well, in preparing the grounds. As you say, the stadiums look magnificent, it looks like everything is going to be ready on time.
If you cast your mind back to 1998, a lot of people would argue that, along with Italia 90, it was one of the best tournaments of the past 50 years. So the French have proved they can host a tournament, that they can create a footballing atmosphere and generate excitement throughout the country and that they can produce stadiums that are worthy of the event. So far, so good, I’m touching wood, but everything looks to be in good shape, it’s set up to be a fantastic tournament.
What about the mood of the French public? I remember they took a bit of time to get into the mood in 98…
The French are a funny lot, aren’t they. They love to get behind their team when things are going well. And when things are going badly, you don’t hear anything else in the bars except what a terrible team France is, we need to get rid of these players and bring another set of players. That’s kind of the default position in France when they have a poor result or even an average result. So they like to flip-flop but if they get off to a good start, the atmosphere will be there from the start. If the French disappoint in the early rounds there’ll be a lot of grumbling. But if things go right, and obviously everyone here hopes they do, things will build very quickly, the atmosphere will improve and football fever will grip the country, as it did, as you say, in 1998.
RESULTS SINCE 2014 WORLD CUP
Sep 4 – Paris
France 1 (Remy 73)
HT: 0-0. Att: 75,000. Ref: Bieri (Swi)
France: Lloris – Debuchy, Varane, Sakho, Evra (Digne 68), Pogba, Matuidi (Cabaye 68), Sissoko (Schneiderlin 78), Valbuena (Cabella 74), Griezmann (Remy 58), Benzema.
Spain: De Gea – Carvajal, San Jose, Sergio Ramos, Azpilicueta, Koke, Busquets (Iturraspe 46), Fabregas (Pedro 68), Raul Garcia (Silva 58),
Diego Costa (Paco Alcacer 68), Cazorla (Isco 78).
Sep 7 – Belgrade
Serbia 1 (Kolarov 80)
France 1 (Pogba 13)
HT: 0-1. Att: 12,000. Ref: Stark (Ger)
Serbia: Stojkovic – Ivanovic, S Mitrovic, Nastasic, Kolarov, Gudelj (Kuzmanovic 61), Matic, Z Tosic, Tadic (Djuricic 61), L Markovic (Ljajic 86), Djordjevic (A Mitrovic 75).
France: Lloris – Sagna, Varane, Mathieu, Digne, Pogba (Matuidi 74), Cabaye, Schneiderlin, Sissoko (Valbuena 82), Remy (Benzema 61), Cabella (Lacazette 61).
Oct 11 – Paris
France 2 (Benzema 3, Pogba 69)
Portugal 1 (Quaresma pen 78)
HT: 1-0. Att: 75,000. Ref: Marciniak (Pol)
France: Mandanda – Sagna, Varane, Mangala, Evra, Pogba, Cabaye (Sissoko 71), Matuidi, Valbuena (Payet 58), Benzema (Gignac 89), Griezmann (Schneiderlin 84).
Portugal: Rui Patricio – Cedric Soares, Bruno Alves (Ricardo Carvalho 46), Pepe, Eliseu, Andre Gomes (William Carvalho 46), Tiago (Eder 68), Joao Moutinho, Nani (Quaresma 68), Cristiano Ronaldo (Joao Mario 76), Danny (Vieirinha 85).
Oct 14 – Yerevan
France 3 (Remy 7, Gignac pen 55, Griezmann 85)
HT: 0-1. Att: 10,000. Ref: Kovacs (Rom)
Armenia: Berezovsky (Kasparov 61) – Haroyan, Arzumanyan, T Voskanyan, Hovhannisyan, Mkrtchyan (Aslanyan 90+1), Artur Yedigaryan (Dashyan 58), Hayrapetyan, Sarkisov (Hambardzumyan 65), Pizzelli (Karapetyan 83), Simonyan (Hovsepyan 69).
France: Mandanda – Jallet, Varane, Mathieu, Digne, Schneiderlin, Matuidi (Pogba 46), Sissoko (Griezmann 60), Payet (Cabella 60), Remy (Valbuena 73), Gignac (Benzema 87).
Nov 14 – Rennes
France 1 (Griezmann 73)
Albania 1 (Mavraj 40)
HT: 0-1. Att: 29,000. Ref: Zelinka (CzR)
France: Lloris – Jallet, Varane, Yanga-Mbiwa, Digne (Kurzawa 70), Sissoko (Schneiderlin 80), Cabaye (Griezmann 59), Pogba, Valbuena (Payet 85), Lacazette (Gignac 69), Benzema.
Albania: Berisha – Hysaj, Cana, Mavraj, Agolli, Lila (Vila 85), Abrashi (Ajeti 69), Memushaj, Kukeli (Bulku 90+2), Lenjani (Shala 76), Cikalleshi (Balaj 90+2).
Nov 18 – Marseille
France 1 (Varane 83)
HT: 0-0. Att: 50,000. Ref: Gil Manzano (Spa)
France: Mandanda – Sagna, Varane, Mangala, Kurzawa (Digne 78), Pogba, Payet (Sissoko 61), Guilavogui (Gonalons 85), Valbuena (Lacazette 68), Gignac (Benzema 68), Griezmann.
Sweden: Isaksson – Krafth, Jansson, Granqvist, P Bengtsson (Wendt 46), S Larsson, Kallstrom (Ekdal 46), Kacaniklic (Forsberg 86), Bahoui (Durmaz 46), Thelin (Guidetti 67), Zengin (Hrgota 67).
Mar 26 – Paris
France 1 (Varane 21)
Brazil 3 (Oscar 40, Neymar 57, Luiz Gustavo 69)
HT: 1-1. Att: 80,000. Ref: Rizzoli (Ita)
France: Mandanda – Sagna, Varane, Sakho, Evra, Sissoko (Kondogbia 74), Schneiderlin, Matuidi (Giroud 84), Valbuena (Payet 82), Benzema, Griezmann (Fekir 74).
Brazil: Jefferson – Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luis, Elias (Marcelo 90+2), Luiz Gustavo (Fernandinho 90), Willian (Douglas Costa 83),
Oscar (Souza 86), Neymar, Roberto Firmino
(Luiz Adriano 88).
Mar 29 – Saint-Etienne
France 2 (Lacazette 14, Giroud 38)
HT: 2-0. Att: 36,018. Ref: Kruzliak (Slk)
France: Ruffier – Jallet (Sagna 89), Varane, Koscielny, Tremoulinas, Schneiderlin (Zouma 82), Kondogbia (Guilavogui 60), Lacazette (Matuidi 71), Payet (Valbuena 82), Griezmann (Fekir 60), Giroud.
Denmark: Schmeichel – Jacobsen, Kjaer, Sviatchenko (K Hansen 77), Boilesen (S Poulsen 46), Wass (Christiansen 46), Kvist (Delaney 88), Krohn-Dehli, Vibe (N Jorgensen 58), Bendtner, Eriksen (Schone 83).
June 7 – Paris
France 3 (Valbuena pen 53, Fekir 89, Payet 90+1)
Belgium 4 (Fellaini 17, 42, Nainggolan 50,
E Hazard pen 54)
HT: 0-2. Att: 70,000. Ref: Strahonja (Cro)
France: Lloris – Sagna, Varane, Koscielny, Tremoulinas, Sissoko, Cabaye (Payet 46), Matuidi, Valbuena (Fekir 73), Giroud (Ntep 79), Griezmann (Lacazette 46).
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, Lombaerts, Denayer (Dendoncker 85), Vertonghen, Witsel (Dembele 81), Fellaini (Chadli 77), Nainggolan, Mertens (Ferreira Carrasco 60), Benteke (Lukaku 59), E Hazard.
June 13 – Elbasan
Albania 1 (Kace 43)
HT: 1-0. Att: 13,000. Ref: Ozkahya (Tur)
Albania: Berisha – Hysaj, Cana, Ajeti, Aliji, Basha (Lilaj 72), Kace (Balaj 80), Lila (Memushaj 18), Roshi (Sadiku 64), Lenjani (Rama 56), Cikalleshi (Fejzullahu 88).
France: Lloris – Jallet (Sagna 72), Varane, Sakho, Evra, Gonalons (Valbuena 59), Kondogbia, Lacazette, Payet (Pogba 46), Griezmann
(Ntep 59), Giroud (Fekir 46).
Sep 4 – Lisbon
France 1 (Valbuena 85)
HT: 0-0. Att: 39,853. Ref: Makkelie (Hol)
Portugal: Rui Patricio – Vieirinha (Cedric 61), Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho (Jose Fonte 27), Eliseu, Adrien Silva (Miguel Veloso 60), Danilo Pereira (Bernardo Silva 86), Joao Mario (Danny 79), Nani, Eder, Cristiano Ronaldo (Quaresma 67).
France: Lloris – Sagna, Varane, Koscielny, Evra, Sissoko (Valbuena 80), Cabaye (Schneiderlin 46), Matuidi, Pogba, Benzema (Martial 74),
Fekir (Griezmann 14; Giroud 88).
Sep 7 – Bordeaux
France 2 (Matuidi 9, 25)
Serbia 1 (A Mitrovic 39)
HT: 2-1. Att: 42,000. Ref: Soares Dias (Por)
France: Lloris – Sagna (Debuchy 46), Varane, Mangala, Tremoulinas, Pogba, Schneiderlin, Matuidi (Kondogbia 46), Valbuena (Martial 76), Giroud (Benzema 62), Griezmann (Sissoko 90).
Serbia: P Rajkovic – Tomovic, Ivanovic, Spajic (Kosanovic 90), Obradovic, Gudelj (Ljajic 56), Matic, Fejsa (Petrovic 82), L Markovic (Z Tosic 58), A Mitrovic (Skuletic 76), Tadic (Kostic 56).