How return of 'brilliant' Karim Benzema will force Didier Deschamps into France tactical switch
The return of Karim Benzema to the France setup after a five-year absence provides manager Didier Deschamps with multiple attacking options for the Euro 2020 favourites. In her latest column for Eurosport, Grace Robertson takes a deep dive into how Les Bleus could line up following the return of their prodigal son.
Sometimes you have those days when you somehow find a £20 note in the back pocket of your jeans. France had one of those days when Didier Deschamps decided to call up Karim Benzema after a long exile. While he picked up a knock in the friendly against Bulgaria, the indications are this was simply a dead leg and the striker should be ok to start against Germany next week.
Les Bleus were already imperious in just about every other position. Hugo Lloris has been as reliable between the sticks as you could ask for at international level. Defenders? The French produce them like they do fine wines, both classy on the ball and adept at more old-fashioned defending jobs.
As for midfielders? When you can leave someone of Houssem Aouar’s ability out of the squad, you know you’re set. In terms of attacking threat, you have Kylian Mbappe becoming arguably the world’s greatest player with Antoine Griezmann still showing all his quality.
But that genuine centre forward was a question. Deschamps has generally played Olivier Giroud, and any regular Premier League viewer will know the Chelsea man offers great aerial prowess and control with his feet but isn’t always the most prolific goalscorer.
France won the 2018 World Cup by turning this weakness into a strength. Giroud didn’t score in the tournament, but it was his hold-up play that both allowed Mbappe to shine and kept the side so solid defensively. France could sit back very deep, staying ultra-compact without the ball and almost impossible to break down, trusting they could launch the ball to Giroud and he’d make it stick. He just needed to lay it off to Mbappe or Griezmann and they were in business. It’s not pretty, but tournament football isn’t always about aesthetics.
But now the prodigal son returns. Benzema, exactly the kind of brilliant striker France have lacked, is back. It’s a tantalising prospect. Benzema showed an incredible ability to play as the foil to Cristiano Ronaldo for many years, bringing the Portuguese superstar into play with smart passes and runs.
He can absolutely do the same for Mbappe. If you built a guy in a lab to play alongside Mbappe and really help get the best out of him, you’d end up building Benzema. Add in Griezmann making third man runs and you have the perfect recipe for a dynamite attack.
France's best attacking combination? Mbappe and Benzema
Image credit: Getty Images
This would obviously mark a big shift from Deschamps, not just in his time coaching France but throughout his career in football. The best years of his playing career came as a tough tackling midfielder at Juventus in the 1990s. At the best of times, the club with the motto “winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts” aren’t famed for beautiful football.
But this Juventus side in particular was all about endless hard work to make life a nightmare for opponents. Even Zinedine Zidane had to put a shift in. It’s this sense of working hard and putting the result before all else that Deschamps has looked to instil in the France national team, and it’s proved hugely successful if not always great for the neutrals.
Putting substance over style doesn’t automatically mean negative football. When the players at your disposal are more suited to an attacking game, that’s what you should do as a genuine pragmatist.
Benzema wants to receive the ball to feet, so it would make no sense to persist with a long ball game if Giroud is sitting on the bench.
Giroud continues to impress for France but may have fallen down the order
Image credit: Getty Images
France have to change with a different kind of striker leading the line. That means more emphasis on having the ball and dominating possession. It means more time in the opposition half, pushing the full backs up and defending a little higher up the pitch at times. We’re not talking Pep Guardiola here, but it can’t be Sam Allardyce either.
Are we seeing this so far? Sort of. France steamrolled Bulgaria in their final friendly, but it was never really a contest. The attacking players were more than comfortable knocking the ball about and trying intricate one-twos in the opposition half. It was all very eye-of-the-needle on the edge of the box, and it more than did the job.
Giroud did come on, but there was an obvious emphasis on avoiding a reversion to the old long ball style. This was a France that wanted to play good football.
If that is to be the template, the team still needs reformatting further. The attackers are far too narrow, with Mbappe and Griezman both taking up fairly central roles. This means the full backs need to push up to fill the space, but first choice pair Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez are not naturals at doing this.
Being Euro 2020 favourites could be France's problem - Platini
Deschamps is accepting he can’t play long ball football with these players, but he still hasn’t fundamentally altered the side enough to make it a true reality.
Benzema is obviously a better striker than Giroud. Deschamps is right to select the Real Madrid forward to lead the line. But a team used to playing with Giroud has to change in some pretty big ways to adapt to Benzema. France absolutely have the players to do this, and there shouldn’t be too much doubt they have enough talent to win Euro 2020.
But whether Deschamps can really commit to the different style of his new number nine could decide whether a Frenchman will lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy for a third time.