France are on course to challenge for another international trophy under manager Didier Deschamps, but with the players at his disposal, is he now holding them back?
The France team that Deschamps inherited was far from the outstanding side of the past half-decade. He took over in 2012 after Laurent Blanc’s effort at the Euros saw them come second in their group, below England. A win, a draw and a defeat was enough to see them through, at which point they were sent home by a 2-0 defeat to eventual winners Spain. There was nothing special about this France team, which needed work.
Deschamps left Marseille to join the national side, and had shown that he had the ability to transform teams into something special. With him, Marseille won their first league title in almost two decades, and also a Coupe de la Ligue, in the best period the club had for years. While he left in disappointing circumstances in the summer of 2012 after a mid-table finish, he was nevertheless the best manager they had in years.
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It appears that the slow-moving nature of international football suits his methods. He is a pragmatic man, able to assess the strongest team that can work as a whole. While Aime Jacquet - in many ways his managerial inspiration - made use of Stephane Guivarc'h to unify a team and give it a figurehead to work towards, one can draw a comparison with Olivier Giroud’s presence.

1998 World Cup Final, St, Denis, France, 12th July, 1998, France 3 v Brazil 0, France's Zinedine Zidane, watched by captain Didier Deschamps, gets away from Brazilian captain Dunga (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Image credit: Getty Images

Deschamps took a stand against Karim Benzema for his involvement - or otherwise - in the persecution of Mathieu Valbuena, when it might have been easier to find a simple compromise. By bringing Giroud into a team with Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and other more gifted players, he gave his side a unifying figurehead. Deschamps similarly deserves credit for recognising sufficient time had passed to bring Benzema back, now hungry enough to deliver an improvement in quality, and to give Kylian Mbappe and others something different to work with. It would have been easier to return to a finals event with more or less the same squad, but instead he recognised the chance to make adjustments against what an ordinary managerial ego would demand.
It is difficult though to gauge just where this France team are at. Like other teams, they appear to be struggling with fatigue, perhaps the problems brought about by a disparate international tournament being held at the end of a season afflicted by the coronavirus. Players must need a rest, and while they might truly want to be at the tournament, the emotional and mental strain of living and working within a restrictive bubble is hard enough for anyone. Add the stress of playing for one’s country and it might explain why some teams have simply fallen apart, and others have underperformed.

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The win over Germany was clearly a bright start, and they are worthy of their draws against Hungary and Portugal, but the best Deschamps sides are the ones that find their way to win whether it is ugly or beautiful. There is a pragmatism at work here yet again, but perhaps the best way forward would be to let the handbrake off, for Deschamps to trust his players’ technique and creativity rather than their ability to fend off an opponent.
Take a look at the better sides at the tournament so far. Denmark, Portugal, Belgium and England. None of them have desperately impressive defences. Italy have an organised side but nothing to suggest they can withstand the very best efforts of Mbappe, Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba. The same can be said for Germany, who already failed to keep the French attackers at bay when they met in their respective sides’ opening fixtures.
Managers, like players, accumulate scars as they continue their careers. The risk-taking emerging Wayne Rooney became a stagnant presence as he withdrew into himself. Neymar has gone from a player of sheer brilliance and inventiveness with the ball at his feet to something altogether more predictable. Experience leads to the pursuit of the most sensible action in terms of percentage. For Deschamps, he might be suffering from the same affliction. Losing will send his team out, so can't be countenanced. The temptation will be to batten down and hold out, to hope that his astonishing forwards can continue to be the difference when it matters. Instead, he might be rewarded by allowing the rest of the players behind him to give them their full assistance.
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