Opinion: Didier Deschamps must succeed where Jogi Low failed and reinvent his French World Cup winners
France will face Spain in the final of the Nations League as Didier Deschamps strives to get more out of Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and co. Les Bleus are still likely to keep their shape on Sunday evening, but they are quicker to break apart that shape quicker to expose opponents.
Didier Deschamps en conférence de presse à la veille de la finale de la Ligue des Nations entre l'Espagne et la France
Being world champions isn’t easy. Germany proved this at the 2018 World Cup, when the 2014 winners failed to make it out of their group. France, the 2018 winners, also suffered a similar fate at Euro 2020, when Didier Deschamps’ team were dumped out by Switzerland at the last 16 stage.
At this point, it appeared Les Bleus had reached the end of a cycle with Deschamps in charge. In much the same way that Germany needed fresh ideas after the 2018 World Cup, France were seemingly ready for a new manager to offer something different. After all, Joachim Low showed the folly of staying on too long.
Unlike Low, though, Deschamps has demonstrated a willingness to provide those fresh ideas himself. Only two months have passed since Euro 2020, but France are trying new things in an effort to keep themselves at the top of the international game ahead of the 2022 World Cup, where they will be defending champions.
Against Belgium in the UEFA Nations League semi-finals, Deschamps deployed his team in a 3-5-2 shape. While France underwhelmed in the first half, they had the structure to mount a comeback, fighting back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and set up a meeting with Spain in Sunday’s competition final.
Of course, France played in a back three at Euro 2020, but Deschamps now appears to have a tighter grasp of the sort of players required to make the system work. Against Switzerland at the Euros, Adrien Rabiot was used at left wing back, unsurprisingly to no great effect.
Now, though, Deschamps has recognised the need for someone like Theo Hernandez to offer width and verticality. The AC Milan wingback is one of the best in his position, yet wasn’t included in France’s Euro 2020 squad. Renowned for his stubbornness, Deschamps has at least corrected his mistake.
Indeed, Hernandez was key to France’s comeback against Belgium, scoring the goal that put Les Bleus through to the final. In the past, France have been criticised for being too rigid, especially when they have the attacking quality to open up and blow away opponents. Hernandez is a route to getting France up the pitch quicker and with more directness. Even when he doesn’t receive the ball, he opens up space for others.
Not only this, Deschamps has recognised the need for a natural left-sided centre back in behind Hernandez and who better to perform this role than his brother, Lucas Hernandez? Their family tie has translated well into an on-the-pitch partnership which frequently sees one cover for the other.
Deschamps has done the same thing on the right side, with Jules Kounde now first-choice as the right-sided centre back behind Benjamin Pavard. Kounde, of course, can also play at right back and so there is no problem if Pavard has to cover in behind the Sevilla defender for spells.
France's forward Kylian Mbappe (R) celebrates with France's forward Karim Benzema after scoring a goal during the UEFA Nations League semi-final football match between Belgium and France at the Juventus stadium in Turin, on October 7, 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
There is still a feeling that more is to come from this group of players - France drew their first two World Cup qualifiers after the Euros against Bosnia and Ukraine - but the win over Belgium showcased some of the subtle, but important, changes Deschamps has made since the summer.
Even in the way Antoine Griezmann has been pushed closer to Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe as the front two, Deschamps has made adjustments to change the way France play. Previously primarily concerned with maintaining shape and structure, Les Bleus are now quicker to break apart that shape for their own benefit.
Low might argue he never had the options to meaningfully change things as Germany manager. Deschamps, however, doesn’t have that problem. France’s squad is the deepest in international football. They could have forged a competitive team from the players they left at home for Euro 2020. Deschamps is now making better use of some of them.