Football Features

“A change is needed” – France eliminated from Nations League after losing to Croatia

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:15, 13 June 2022

Croatia have beaten France for the first time in their history and eliminated the champions from the Nations League.

France won the last edition of the Nations League in the Autumn of 2021, beating Spain 2-1 thanks to a controversial Kylian Mbappé goal. However their title defence has not even lasted four games as two defeats and two draws in their first four games has confirmed that they cannot catch Denmark who on 9 points sit top of the group.

It could get worse for France, as with just two points they currently sit bottom of the group and would thus be relegated to League B if they are unable to rouse themselves. However the last two games of the group stage are in September, giving Les Bleus time to rouse themselves.

And it’s time they are certainly going to need because at no point in any of these four Nations League games has France played coherent, consistent football. There have been some bright moments, for sure, but it’s mostly been a slog.

Now it usually is under Deschamps, but France usually have enough to grind the wins out and get the goals they need. But without defensive lynchpins Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti (the latter has been absent with injury issues since pretty much the World Cup final) it’s been harder for France to hold leads, and beyond that they’ve found scoring goals to be a real chore.

How can a team with Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku starting find scoring goals a chore? Simple: there’s no midfield. At least, no creative midfielders.

When France won the World Cup, they did so with Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann as featured players. Injury meant that Pogba missed this round of Nations League games while Griezmann’s form has been struggling for his best form since a 2019 transfer to Barcelona didn’t work out, which is why he was on the bench for today and, when he did come on, blew a good chance.

Lacking that midfield direction is a killer blow for France, as Didier Deschamps’ style of play is risk-averse and attritional. France have the greatest assembled collection of talent of any nation around right now, yet Deschamps does not play in a way that maximises that talent.

Of course, results and trophies will always calm any concerns about style and systems, but with France looking as miserable as they have in the Nations League, is there time to start to question Deschamps?

The World Cup winner (as both player and coach) has recently begun to embrace a back three, but even that change has done little to make France more vibrant absent the two chief creators he entrusted to guide his side to victory in 2018.

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What next, then? In two weeks time Deschamps will have been in charge of the French national team for an entire decade, the second-longest managerial stint in the nation’s history. And while he lags some way behind Gaston Barreau’s 26 years in charge, the nature of the modern game means he has already surpassed Barreau in terms of games managed (128 to 124).

Is it time for a change? Deschamps contract expires in December of this year and on current evidence it is unlikely to be renewed. Perhaps if he were to win the World Cup, but could this France win the World Cup?

Sure, with the talent at his disposal you could never write France off, but as anyone who watched them during this Nations League summer and particularly their unco-ordinated flailings against Croatia tonight will attest, this is not a good team.

If Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann return to their best form in the coming months, then perhaps France will re-find the creative edge that they used to possess. The kind of edge that made them deadly opponents even with Deschamps’ archaic tactics taken into account.

Making a managerial change this close to a World Cup could be too drastic a step, but can France afford to continue playing this way and waste the last World Cup where they will have this ridiculous an assembled cast of talent? Kylian Mbappé is young, sure, but it’s not likely that Benzema, Griezmann, Pogba, Kanté and Varane will be around come 2026 and it’s not like there are avalanches of young talent coming through to replace them.

There is talent, sure, but people really don’t understand just how good that French spine was in 2018; those players are all generational talents, world-conquering stars e.g. even outrageous talents like William Saliba and Ibrahima Konaté do not bring the same assurance and control that Raphael Varane does.

Whatever their decision, France need to act, because a change is needed; whatever shape that change takes, they have to do something. If they head into Qatar playing like this then their World Cup title defence will be just as humiliating and painful as their Nations League title defence, and just as unsuccessful too.