France’s 2018 World Cup squad is very different from those of the most recent competitions, with manager Didier Deschamps including lots of young talent and making some surprise choices.
Of the 23-man list, just nine players were at Euro 2016; a mere six were on the 2014 World Cup list. “I can’t please everyone – but I make choices and I take responsibility for them,” Deschamps said in a press conference after Thursday’s announcement.
Perhaps the most controversial choice was leaving Marseille striker Dimitri Payet out of the team. After featuring prominently in France’s Euro 2016 efforts, winning the Man of the Match accolade in Les Bleus’ opening match against Romania, Payet has put in strong performances for his club. He was Ligue 1’s top playmaker this season, claiming 13 assists.
But after Payet incurred a thigh injury in Marseille’s Europa League defeat against Atletico Madrid on May 16, Deschamps said he had no choice but to leave him out, citing the “risk of relapse”.
Like Payet, Manchester United striker and winger Anthony Martial was a surprise omission from the World Cup squad who put in solid performances for the French attack at Euro 2016. Following his transfer to AS Monaco in 2013 at the age of just 17, he made a strong impression at the French club, winning the 2015 Golden Boy award for the best young player in Europe.
Marseille’s Thauvin, surprise choice
Martial continued this run of form after moving to the Red Devils in 2015, scoring 24 goals in 86 games, despite this being a fallow period for the club. Yet Deschamps seems keen to give untested talent a go up front, sending Marseille’s 25-year-old winger Florian Thauvin to Russia in Martial’s place.
Thauvin has not yet played for a major club or in a major international competition. He has only played three games for France, scoring no goals. But, as Deschamps pointed out, “statistically, he has had a remarkable season”, scoring 22 goals in 34 matches for Marseille. In Russia, he will get the opportunity to make a similar mark for the national side.
That said, it is likely that Thauvin will have to do so after coming on from the bench. Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud and Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann are the obvious attacking choices for the French starting 11, having consistently proven themselves for club and country alike.
As for the third position up front, Deschamps may have a hard time choosing between Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé and PSG’s Kylian Mbappé, both newcomers to tournaments for Les Bleus. The former has been compared to Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo; the latter has been likened to legendary French striker Thierry Henry.
It seems there are no such difficult choices when it comes to the midfield. Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté and Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi formed France’s midfield trio at Euro 2016 and are the natural options for France’s World Cup starting 11, given their status as regulars at top clubs and their consistent performances together for Les Bleus.
In contrast, the first team defence has almost completely changed since Euro 2016. Ageing full backs Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, erstwhile stalwarts of the French back line, have both retired from international football. Arsenal centre back Laurent Koscielny is ruled out thanks to injury and poor form, while his partner at Euro 2016, Marseille’s Adil Rami, has made the cut to go to Russia but, at 32, is seen as too old to be a consistent first choice.
Manchester City’s 23-year-old left-back Benjamin Mendy broke the transfer fee record for a defender when he moved to the club in 2017, costing 65 million euros, having proven his worth over the previous four years in Ligue 1 for Marseille and Monaco, making him the first choice left-back in his first international tournament.
That is while Monaco right-back Djibril Sidibé, Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona centre-back Samuel Umtiti have emerged as three of the most gifted defenders in the world since Euro 2016, allowing Deschamps to complete his replacement of France’s former back line with fresh young talent.
Past precedent suggests that such change augurs well. In 1998, when France sailed to World Cup victory on home turf, only 13 of the 23-man squad went to the previous tournament, Euro ’96 – allowing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira to break through.
Having captained France to that famous victory twenty years ago, perhaps Deschamps is the man to bring the World Cup trophy back to Paris.