Watch the video at the top of the article to see Squawka’s analysis of the wealth of centre-back options France have at their disposal.
France are champions of the world and will be one of the favourites to win Euro 2021. But for all their attacking talent, their dominance is built on a rock-solid defensive foundation.
Although Les Bleus won the World Cup with a back two, such is the talent available to Didier Deschamps that he’s now playing a back three.
To best illustrate the staggering depth France have in this position, we’ve put together eight completely unique combos including world-class talent and future stars. There was just one rule: every trio must include a left-footer, as is the fashion.
Not a fan of our thematic picks? That’s fine, we’ve left you a 30-player shortlist in the comments so you can choose your own based on age, ability or compare them all using the Squawka Comparison Matrix.
Starting with what appears to be Deschamps’ first-choice selection, Raphael Varane still anchors the side. The Real Madrid man provides experience, control, incredible quality and an ever-expanding trophy cabinet.
Presnel Kimpembe was part of the 2018 World Cup squad and Deschamps has always valued his intensity, skill and, most importantly of all, his left foot.
However, it is the emergence of Dayot Upamecano that was perhaps the catalyst for a change to a back three. His talent is too good to ignore yet Varane is too good to drop. And they want that left-footer.
During the 2019-20 Champions League campaign, the RB Leipzig centre-back completed 88% of his attempted take-ons. In fact, only one player successfully tackled him: Lyon left-back Youssouf Koné.
Then, on his senior France debut, Upamecano won every aerial duel he contested, completed every dribble he attempted and completed more long passes than any other player on the pitch. You get the idea. He’s pretty special.
Lucas Hernández and Benjamin Pavard were the starting full-backs for France when they won the World Cup but both are centre-backs by trade. So the Bayern duo fit naturally into a back three.
In the middle is the Bavarian’s latest defensive addition and the youngest player on our 30-man shortlist: 2002-born Tanguy Nianzou Kouassi.
We’ve already spoken about this exact trio in our ‘Three ways Bayern could line up in 2020-21 video’. So let’s dive deeper into the squad depth.
The fact that both Bayern and Barça have invested heavily in French defenders shows the embarrassment of centre-back riches available to Les Bleus.
Samuel Umtiti was vital to the World Cup triumph in 2018 and would still be fondly known as UmTITAN by the Barça fans if not for chronic injury problems.
At the heart of this trio is the man who has all-but replaced him for club and country. Clément Lenglet is one of France’s best ball-playing defenders and reads the game impeccably.
Since the start of the 2018-19 LaLiga season, Lenglet ranks in the top five for successful passes into the opposition half per 90 minutes.
The third member of the Barça-inspired trio is a Rolls Royce of a defender. Jean-Clair Todibo has the talent to become a world-class centre-back. The only things missing are minutes and a nurturing coach.
And, given the chaos surrounding the club, he might not find that at Camp Nou.
Break-out Bundesliga giants
All born in 1999. All 6-foot-4. All making a name for themselves in Germany’s top-flight.
Evan N’Dicka has turned heads for Eintracht Frankfurt with dynamic displays at full-back and in a central role, but is lesser-known than his Bundesliga compatriots.
Ibrahima Konaté, however, is so highly-rated that he was wrestling the spotlight away from Upamecano in 2018-19 before being plagued with injury. Like his RB Leipzig team-mate, he is fantastic at carrying the ball forward but much more dominant in the air.
Anchoring this trio is Dan-Axel Zagadou who has struggled to stay fit. When he does play, though, the Dortmund centre-back is a composed presence equipped with superb left-footed distribution and a mountainous frame.
Premier League old guard
While injury has halted the development of Zagadou, Konaté and others, this Premier League trio is proof comebacks are possible… but not always caps.
Aymeric Laporte is the best left-footed centre-back in the world according to Pep Guardiola and it is difficult to disagree. Unless you are Didier Deschamps.
But even when he was finally called up in August 2019, a serious knee injury robbed him of his debut.
In the middle is one of the few teenagers that José Mourinho ever trusted and the only player in this combo to have represented France at senior level. Injuries may have slowed Kurt Zouma down but he’s beginning to undergo a renaissance as a top-class stopper.
Willy Boly has always flown under the radar despite thriving in a back three at Wolves. Eligible for France and the Ivory Coast, Les Bleus’ latest tactical switch could provide renewed hope of a phone call from Deschamps.
Premier League new wave?
The Premier League’s love affair with French footballers is not set to end anytime soon.
Malang Sarr is a confirmed new arrival, joining Chelsea on a free transfer in August 2020. A superb passer with more than 100 Ligue 1 appearances to his name, he will give the Blues a natural left-sided defender when integrated into the squad (potentially after his loan at Porto).
Wesley Fofana was not a Premier League player when this was recorded, but given the talent he possesses and the numerous reports surfacing at the time, that might no longer be the case.
The same also applies to Jules Koundé. A superhuman dynamo attracting interest from Europe’s elite clubs, Koundé is a box-to-box centre-back, who would be unstoppable if liberated by a back three. Signed by Sevilla from Bordeaux for €25m and lifting the Europa League in his first season, he could end up being sold for three-times that amount. Monchi has done it again.
21st century stars
Benoît Badiashile may not have impressed Thierry Henry with his press-conference manners, but Monaco’s teen titan has gone from strength to strength on the pitch. A dominant duelist and proactive defender, he broke the club record for most touches in a Ligue 1 game in the first match of the 2020-21 season.
Bafodé Diakité made his professional debut for Toulouse at the age of 17 and is a favourite within the French youth set up. With Issa Diop and the aforementioned Todibo being developed at the club, Diakité is a name worth writing down.
During the 2019-20 season, only one outfield player in Europe’s top five divisions played at least 900 minutes without committing a foul from an attempted tackle. The answer? William Saliba.
Spending the campaign back on loan at his boyhood club St Étienne, the teenager was statistically the cleanest tackler in Ligue 1. The Premier League will provide an even tougher test, but it’s clear to see why Arsenal fans are pleased to have dipped their toes into the French national pool.
Under the radar
So stacked is France’s centre-back depth, there are plenty of players that would have probably been capped by any other nation by now.
Moussa Niakhaté follows the Bundesliga trend, ascending to the role of Mainz vice-captain in just his second season having joined from Metz in July 2018, replacing another French, left-footed centre-back we could mention, Abdou Diallo.
Robin Le Normand has taken the less-trodden LaLiga path, breaking through at Real Sociedad in 2019-20. A wonderfully well-rounded defender perfect for the central slot, his contract was extended twice in the space of a year-and-a-half by the Basque club, a clear sign of his potential.
Mohamed Simakan is much younger and has not left France… yet. The Strasbourg wonderkid should be on the shortlist of any club that considers themselves to be smart recruiters. Capable of playing full-back or centre-back, a clean tackler, proficient dribbler and keen distributor, Simakan ticks every box. But at this point, are you even surprised?
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