France threw away another lead to draw 1-1 with Croatia in the Nations League.
The result leaves France in third in Group 1 with just a single point as their Nations League title defence has gotten off to a slow start.
Just like at the weekend against Denmark, the French took the lead early in the first-half only to prove incapable of sitting on that lead and riding out for a win. And while it wasn’t as bad as the defeat against Denmark, a draw does them no good.
France won the 2018 World Cup by playing to fine margins. They held men back, sat on leads, and played risk-averse conservative football with a glittering squad capable of so much more. But who cares? Because they won.
But what has become clear after watching Les Bleus squander lead after lead is that their victory in 2018 owed so much not only to the tactics, but the players out on the field. In particular the centre-back duo of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti.
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In 2018 Varane and Umtiti were two of the five best centre-backs in the world. A role Varane held up until last summer when he moved to Manchester United (but one that he should regain under an actual coach in Erik Ten Hag) but one that Umtiti has fallen far from owing to knee problems that he avoided fixing with surgery.
Umtiti destroying his own career by not addressing his problems head-on in 2018 has had a knock-on effect for his club and country, because Barcelona only just replaced him this season with Ronald Araujo, while France have yet to find anyone who can offer the level of defensive solidity that Umtiti brought to the Les Bleus back-line.
Look at the way in which France’s defence collapsed at the weekend against Denmark once Varane had to leave the field due to injury. Varane went off in the 61st minute and then by the 69th, Cornelius had exposed the lack or organisation to equalise (then he won it late by bullying Varane’s replacement William Saliba).
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Then tonight against Croatia, things seemed to be all too comfortable for most of the game despite France playing a much-changed XI. But this was a false state as Ante Budimir had been causing the French defence trouble all night long. And as they tried to ride out the 1-0 win, their lack of organisation at the back saw them panic under a bit of pressure and concede a penalty late.
Andrej Kramaric stepped up and scored the spot-kick for Croatia but the chaos that ensued after him where a very middling Croatia side who had already taken off Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic looked more likely to score a winner than the mighty French did.
Two collapses in two games, to go with their two collapses in one game against Switzerland in Euro 2020. A tournament that seemed to be theirs for the taking ended up with them being eliminated at the round of 16 because they couldn’t hold out against Switzerland and conceded three goals, with Varane’s various partners (Clement Lenglet and Presnel Kimpembe) being chiefly at fault for the goals).
For France to play Didiball they need a world-class defensive presence in defence. For years this was Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, then it was just Varane. But now neither are available, and while William Saliba is a good defender he just doesn’t have the dominating presence of Varane, the question becomes: are France doomed?
Well, perhaps not. Varane will miss the rest of the Nations League games but there remains a new hope for Les Bleus in the form of Ibrahima Konaté. Didier Deschamps called the Liverpool defender up to replace his injured vice-captain and he is now into first-name-on-the-team-sheet territory, or at least second after Karim Benzema.
It is surely time for Ibrahima Konaté to take his place at the heart of the French back-line for the Nations League. And looking ahead to the World Cup in November of this year, it’s clear that Konaté must remain part of the defensive set-up alongside a fit Raphael Varane if France are to have any hope of retaining their crown.