Didier Deschamps—a French footballing legend as a player— took over from Laurent Blanc right after Euro 2012. He led France admirably through qualifying, taking them back from the brink after the distrarious first leg qualifier with Ukraine, and his success triggered a clause in his contract so he will remain manager through Euro 2016, which France is hosting. Short, stocky with a shock of graying blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he commands the respect of his players and has made a name for himself both as a player and as a manager throughout Europe.
They employed both a defensive 4-2-3-1 and an attacking 4-3-3 in qualifying. They have the talent to player either style, but Deschamps will probably have them player deeper and employ the single striker considering Brazil’s heat and humidity.
Hugo Lloris was one of Tottenham’s very few bright spots in an otherwise disastrous 2013-14 campaign. He has 55 caps for his country and also wears the armband. He is a terrific pure shot stopper—and his reflexes keep his team in games. A thinking man’s keeper, he knows when to come out and when to hold back, and one of the best in the world in one-on-one situations.
Only two defenders in the 2014 squad have more than 20 caps, and they aren’t even centerbacks. Laurent Koscielny is the only centerback that saw regular playing time at the club level this season, and while he had an above average season for Arsenal, he is still prone to silly mistakes and really does seem to enjoy giving away the occasional penalty. Defensive rock for France? Yet to be determined. Deschamps will need somebody to step up into the roll, but right now it is either filled by Loris or no one at all.
Franck Ribery would be heralded as the best player in the world if not for Messrs. Messi and Ronaldo. Despite his age he plays with a reckless abandon on the ball that usually only the young possess. A brilliant positioner, he always knows where to be on the field when off the ball, but prefers to be on the ball as he is widely considered to be the best dribbler in Europe. He floats with the ball like a video game player. A joy to watch. Sadly for France, he won’t play in this tournament.
The most difficult thing to do in soccer is put the ball in the back of the net. And so the players that can do that on a regular basis are some of the most highly sought after, and rarest, players in the game. Karim Benzema is one of those players. Strong and powerful, he is one of the best pure finishers in world football. When the ball is at his feet and he his in sight of goal, you bet on him to score nine times out of ten. Unlike other famous French strikers like Thierry Henry who play with grace and style and rely on deft touch to score, Benzema barrels his way into the opponent’s box like an army of steamrollers. He doesn’t find shooting space, he makes shooting space with his pure strength. The kind of striker that doesn’t cause defenders to panic, but instead gives them sweaty night terrors. He has never scored in an international tournament for France, but look for that to change in Brazil.
The defense was mentioned is a major worry, but what’s probably keeping Deschamps up at night is the lack of any team leadership. Loris wears the armband but is not vocal on the pitch – and none of France’s veterans have proven themselves to be leaders at any level. After the infighting and player strike that defined France’s world cup in 2010, one would think a priority would have been establishing a strong captain who works well with the manager, but that didn’t happen. If they win early, it won’t matter. But watch for clubhouse problems if things don’t start well in the group stage.
Deschamps snubbed Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, which prompted his girlfriend to call Deschamps a “shit manager” – and now Deschamps is suing her. Nasri won’t be on the plane to Brazil, but this scandal is going follow the squad to South America anyway.
The France squad might lack leadership and defensive acumen, and they might be playing against the ghosts of 2010, but there is a youth quality to this team that the world best be ready for. And any conversation about the youth element starts and ends with Paul Pogba. Only 21 and with only eight caps, Pogba has been playing out of his mind for Juventus and had nine goals in 49 appearances for the Italian champions in 2013-14. At six feet one (six feet four with the mohawk) Pogba is an imposing presence on the ball, plays a box to box style and has a wicked right boot that you wouldn’t want to put a match to. If France are going to cleanse themselves of the stench of the last four years, players like Pogba are going to be the ones to lead the charge. The promise of youth, of a new generation of stars as France look to host Euro 2016, is a French silver lining to watch for this summer.
Drawn into an easy group that they absolutely must qualify out of (Group E with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras), they should also look to win to avoid having to play Argentina in the first knockout stage. A semi-final appearance would make right what happened in South Africa, but a quarterfinal appearance would at least meet expectations.