The Kante dilemma: Can Didier Deschamps solve his biggest problem?
N'Golo Kante is the kind of player who would be essential against Germany - but will Didier Deschamps risk compromising his new attacking balance in the semi-final?
“It won’t be a stroll in the park for them: we’ll go all out for it,” said Didier Deschamps, invigorated by France’s 5-2 win over Iceland and already plotting the downfall of Germany in the Euro 2016 semi-finals. “We’re playing in France, our own country, and we’ll go all out for it. We have to remember anything is possible.”
The common thread between the two knockout matches, following an unimpressive campaign in the groups, is the use of Antoine Griezmann in a central role in a 4-2-3-1 but also the absence of N’Golo Kante. Now, on the eve of his biggest match as France manager, you wonder if cold-blooded pragmatism is finding a place in Deschamps’ thinking. Excluding Kante from his team to face Germany could be a decision with huge repercussions.
The Leicester man, outstanding in the group stages, started the Ireland game but was removed at half-time with France 1-0 down after getting a booking which ruled him out of the quarter-final; Kingsley Coman came on to take up a position wide on the right, Griezmann pushed into the centre behind Olivier Giroud and scored twice in 15 minutes. Griezmann adopted the same position from the outset against Iceland at Stade de France and scored again as France constructed the best attacking performance of the tournament so far by scoring four times before the break. Six goals across a combined 90 minutes in two different matches: France at their best.
Griezmann and Giroud of FranceAFP
Deploying Griezmann in a central role is the most elegant solution for France in attack. He has now scored four goals to top score at Euro 2016 - more than any other French player has scored at the tournament since Michel Platini in 1984. Olivier Giroud has also excelled with three to his name and the two are playing off each other beautifully, combining for three of the six goals mentioned above. It is a thriving partnership and one which breaks down with Griezmann exiled to the wing. The problem is that it is also a formulation which makes it hard to find a position in the team for Kante, with Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba the more senior options in the withdrawn midfield roles.
Kante only made his France debut four months ago but in that short time he has become a key member of Deschamps’ team. Ahead of Thursday’s much awaited semi-final against Germany in Marseille the big selection dilemma the France boss has to resolve is being framed around him. Does he play or not? Can France work him into the team without Griezmann being forced wide? Kante did start in a 4-2-3-1 in the 2-0 win against Albania but that necessitated dropping Pogba - something Deschamps is unlikely to countenance with the poster boy of the tournament steadily growing into Euro 2016 and scoring against Iceland with a booming header from a corner.
Against Iceland, with Kante absent, the 4-2-3-1 formation allowed Moussa Sissoko to come in on the right of midfield and the Newcastle man impressed with his high-energy display. Another option for the right, if Deschamps is truly determined to take the game to Germany, is Bayern Munich's electric young winger Coman, who would relish the chance to run at some of his team-mates.
France without Kante
France with Kante
Leaving Kante out altogether would be a decision fraught with problems; his qualities are no secret. "We are talking about numbers,” said Arsene Wenger prior to the tournament. “He has the most interceptions in Europe and by far. He has incredible quality. He feels the game, only very few people can do that. He's always where he needs to be. It is very rare to have that in the central midfielder. Not always orthodox, but always in the right place."
It is a quality France will need against Germany - an altogether far more difficult opponent than either Ireland or Iceland. Even with striker Mario Gomez missing the rest of the tournament and both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira likely absent for the France match, the world champions still possess the most awkward set of players in the tournament to try and shut down: Mesut Ozil, the elegant playmaker who slips as effortlessly between the lines as a lothario does between the sheets; Thomas Muller, the unconventional space invader; Julian Draxler, the dribbling prodigy. Kante’s unique ability to intercept and disrupt will surely be more essential than ever.
France's midfielder N'Golo Kante is tackled by Romania's midfielder Nicolae Claudiu Stanciu (L) and Romania's midfielder Adrian Popa (R)AFP
The more France can stop Germany in their tracks before they approach the penalty box, the more comfortable an experience this semi-final will be. And there is little question that having Kante in the side would be a huge asset in this regard. But if the trade-off is taking Griezmann out of the position which has enabled him to find his sweet spot then there is danger on both sides. It is the looming issue Deschamps will have to grapple with in the hours that remain before the biggest match of Euro 2016.