YEKATERINBURG, Russian Federation, Jun 22 – France have booked their spot in the World Cup last 16 but a team forged in the image of coach Didier Deschamps is unlikely to win many friends or admirers.
Deschamps, bidding to join an elite band to have won the World Cup as a player and coach, has a choice of forwards that is the envy of many of his counterparts at the tournament in Russia.
France boast an estimated 550 million euros ($641 million) of attacking prowess in Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir.
And yet Les Bleus struggled to beat Australia 2-1 — thanks to a Griezmann penalty and an own goal — and then on Thursday dumped out Peru with a solitary Mbappe goal.
The inherently conservative Deschamps dropped the nimble Dembele for the more physical Giroud against Peru and it was the Chelsea striker whose shot was deflected, allowing Mbappe to dart in and score from close range.
The 34th-minute winner is not going to win any prizes for artistic merit and France were not afraid to pump the ball long to Giroud on several occasions.
Deschamps’s side, who face Denmark on Tuesday eyeing top spot in Group C, registered just four shots on target all game.
Afterwards, invited by reporters to heap some praise on Mbappe, the 49-year-old Deschamps preferred to focus on the brilliant teenager’s dedication to doing his bit to help the team defend.
And, having seen his young but talented side spend most of the second half on the back foot against a tidy but toothless Peru, Deschamps scoffed: “I saw Spain v Iran (Spain laboured to a 1-0 victory on Wednesday) and Spain spent the last 10 minutes defending.
“If you are looking for 5-0, don’t come to a World Cup, you won’t get this.”
– ‘Solid & disciplined’ –
On the eve of the Peru clash and after the game, Deschamps, a no-frills midfield ball-winner in his playing days, repeatedly emphasised the need for his attackers to do their bit defending and for the team.
Absent was any mention of his array of exciting front men expressing themselves or being allowed to take risks.
It was telling also that after soaking up the Peru pressure, Paul Pogba, defender Lucas Hernandez and captain Hugo Lloris spoke most enthusiastically not about game-winner Mbappe, but defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante.
Lloris said France — for whom midfielder Blaise Matuidi was an incongruous presence on the left wing — had been “solid and disciplined”.
Manchester United midfielder Pogba, who played a key role in the Mbappe goal but otherwise offered a negligible threat as an attacking force, pointed out that many of France’s fellow pre-tournament favourites failed to win their first two games.
Deschamps led France to the final of Euro 2016 on home soil, proving he has what it takes to guide them efficiently through tournament football.
And yet France under his leadership look like they are playing with the handbrake on.
Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann again looked a far cry from the striker that terrorises La Liga defences every week.
Franck Passi, the former Marseille player and coach, told AFP that Griezmann “hasn’t really begun his World Cup yet”.
But Passi believes France will grow into the tournament.
“In the group stages there are teams who are priming themselves to go far in the tournament and are not very good physically at the beginning,” he said.
“I think we will be better in the second half of the tournament.”