France arrives at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar as the titular world champion, but also in a state it has not been in for a long time. By no means euphoric. After a 5-0 thrashing of South Africa in March in a warm-up game, a string of unconvincing performances followed for Les Blues. The results followed… They won just one of their last six, against Austria (2-0), and narrowly avoided relegation from the UEFA Nations League.
Then the list of players with medical problems is quite consistent. Among the big names, N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba will not play at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, while Corentin Tolisso, Lucas Hernandez, Raphael Varane, Mike Maignan and Presnel Kimpembé are uncertain after recently claiming injuries of short or longer long term. Striker Karim Benzema hasn’t been 100 percent of late either, missing a few Real Madrid games. Putting the two aspects together, the recent results and the numerous batch problems makes the optimism not very high. On the contrary, there are shades of negativity around the team.
France didn’t really lose with Kanté and Pogba on the field.
At least 13 players out of the 23 who won the world title in 2018 will not be in Qatar. N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba hoped until recently that they would be back in action by the start of the World Cup. But the recoveries of the two midfielders ended in failure. Their absences extended for a longer period. For Didier Deschamps it’s a big headache because both were key players in France’s world title win in 2018. And he’s probably built a lot of his plans around them over the last year.
With the absence of N’Golo Kanté, experts believe that France is losing more than a midfielder. It loses its most important barometer. The one who created balance in the team through his effort, positioning ability, and a player who was present everywhere on the field, he was the link between defense and attack. The manager will also have to replace Pogba’s leadership and character both on and off the pitch. Statistically, France hasn’t really lost games with Kanté and Pogba in the lineup, so the absences are huge for Didier Deschamps.
Sure, Les Blues are not short of talent, they have a lot of depth. They can easily make up at least two very strong national teams today. The attack is absolutely fabulous, with Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe. The 2022 Ballon d’Or has had to wait eight years to play at a world tournament again after his exile from the team and is ready to make his mark. But France’s two world stars in attack also depend a lot on what they have behind them.
Is Aurélien Tchouaméni ready to become a leader already?
The absences of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba should be filled in the first place by Aurélien Tchouaméni, a player with huge potential for progress, transferred from Real Madrid last summer. He is primarily a defensive midfielder but has the ability to play anywhere between attack and defence. Cesc Fabregas, who played alongside Aurélian at Monaco last season, said Aurélien could play in the no. 10 if he wants. Los Blancos had no hesitation in committing to pay up to €100 million for him. The player made his debut in Ligue 1 at the age of 18, at Bordeaux, and after 25 games he was transferred by AS Monaco. After another 74 games for Monegasque in Ligue 1, he convinced Real that he is the midfielder who can play in the next 10 years at the Bernabeu, having something of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric. Tchouameni has really made huge strides over the last 12 months, but can he now take on the role of leader in midfield? France obviously also needs the experience to become the first nation to claim a fourth world title since Brazil in 1962.
Les Bleus are now between two cycles, one of Hugo Lloris, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and another led by Kylian Mbappé, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Jules Koundé and Mike Maignan. How will these combine in France’s bid to retain its crown? France is normally among the big favourites, along with Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Holland, Belgium. But Les Bleus travel to Qatar with more questions than answers compared to the state of affairs ahead of FIFA World Cup 2018. And they will need to find the answers quickly if they are to avoid the experience of 2002 when they finished last in the group of world champions.