Didier Deschamps contemplates the perceived problems around the French side with the tenacity that anyone watching him patrolling a midfield would expect.
His expression, as he is asked a series of questions, is decidedly dismissive. What about controversies? The scandals? The endless controversies over Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and so on?
“No, no,” rebuffs Deschamps. “These are not controversies. These are stories that were made up to create distractions. The only story that exists is about Paul and that is his private issue. He is a victim. Everything else…”
It blows a short, sharp, raspberry.
“There is a climate that is not serene and calm, but everything is fine.”
Deschamps is aware of the obstacles in France’s way as they prepare to defend the hoisted World Cup in Russia in 2018. But he will not let outside noises infiltrate the job he intends to keep strictly between him, his staff and his players.
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It’s a sunny afternoon on the French Riviera.
Deschamps lunches by the water in Monaco, not far from his home in one of the picturesque French villages nearby. People are still swimming in the Mediterranean, strolling along the promenades. Deschamps looks and sounds relaxed, but he’s also optimistic about finding pragmatic ways to form a serious challenge from a very complicated set of conditions.
For many reasons, France’s preparation is far from ideal.
The most obvious stain is injuries which are forcing a major rebuilding of the squad – losing both Pogba and N’Golo Kante from midfield rips a lot of technical and psychological influence out of the way. Both players excelled on the pitch in 2018 and were key creators, in their idiosyncratic ways, of dressing room harmony. Now the team’s engine needs to be rebuilt with a new mechanism after Pogba (knee) and Kante (hamstring) were kicked out of the tournament.
“Obviously it’s better to have all the essential pieces and players with international experience,” Deschamps said.
He prides himself on being extremely loyal to his players, and these two men were men he trusted – and who trusted him – implicitly. The benefits of that relationship with top talent and the way it permeates the atmosphere within the team is incredibly hard to replace. Make no mistake, it’s a painful blow in the daily life of the team during the intensity of football tournaments.
Fortunately, the majority of players whose physical condition caused a great deal of uncertainty in the run-up to Wednesday’s announcement of the final roster have been retained. Deschamps is only interested in players who will be fit to play in the group matches – no betting – so it’s a relief to be confident enough to select Raphael Varane, Aurélien Tchouameni and Karim Benzema, who will all be elements fundamentals of the team of champions. spine. There are starting places up for grabs around them.
Oh, for more time to bond the group, organize sessions, try combinations, establish routines and focus the collective mindset. The problem that amplifies the absence of Pogba and Kante is that any reorganization of the squad must be done in record time. One of the frustrations shared by all national team coaches at this World Cup is the limited time available to gather and refine their squad ahead of the most important tournament of all. Is it reasonable?
“From a sporting point of view, of course not,” says Deschamps. “I am one of those who have been doing this job for a while. We had 28 days to prepare for the World Cup (2014) in Brazil, 24 days before Russia. Here we will have a week. We don’t have time to be able to modify anything.
“Obviously, the specificity of playing this World Cup in November and changing the calendar brings challenges. Today, players find themselves playing three matches a week, and the World Cup cuts the season. This tournament schedule requires a match every four days, whereas at the last World Cup it was every five days.
“We have to be careful of the actors in this show, how much recovery time they have. Overloading the calendar risks injury. But we are all in the same boat.
Deschamps prefers to keep his broader views on Qatar to himself. He distinguishes between his private personality as a French citizen and the public one as a professional coach.
“There is a lot of media interest, especially lately, but it was a decision taken more than 10 years ago,” he says, preferring not to be a spokesperson on socio-political issues. “This time, it is accentuated. The federation has taken the necessary measures to ensure that everything is respected.
He is not against individual protests if a World Cup participant wants to take a stand.
“Why not?” he says. “The players defend causes. Everyone is free to speak and no one sews their mouth shut to prevent them from expressing themselves. Everyone has their own feelings. Although today when they wear their team jersey and represent their country, they also have their own interpretations after that.
Back to football matters.
Deschamps is at the drawing board. He built a great system for getting the most out of team ingredients four years ago, but is it possible to emulate that without two of his key players? For all their own qualities, Adrien Rabiot and Tchouameni, for example, are not Pogba and Kante. Not yet anyway.
Will it require a change in tactics?
“Anything is possible,” says Deschamps. “We can do things differently. There’s no guarantee we wouldn’t have gotten there four years ago if we had done it differently. The most important thing for me is to adapt to the players and not the other way around. I’m not going to choose a system and put the players in it, I’m going to make sure to choose the system based on the players I have.
He does not plan to micro-manage the talents at his disposal: “It is about a framework. I’m not going to tell them to dribble, control the ball, shoot or pass. It’s not PlayStation.
Given the bright lights he can rely on up front, Deschamps will urge everyone to make sure they give their all to provide all the defensive aspects needed as some kind of compensation to help the midfield. “The heart of the game in midfield is important, but it is above all the attackers who make the difference, who win the games. But that’s not enough in a World Cup. You can’t neglect defensive solidity. It depends on the collective. Be strong. Defend very well.
Memories of the shock defeat to Switzerland at the European Championship last summer – a round of 16 draw in which his side played scintillating football only to be floored in a way they could at hardly understand – remain fresh. France led 3-1 with less than 10 minutes to play, only to implode and then lose on penalties.
“We didn’t do what was also necessary in terms of solidity. Our game did not prevent us from exploding in full flight in the last 10 minutes, ”says Deschamps. “There were a lot of things that caused us to find ourselves in trouble.”
It goes back to one of his fundamental beliefs about football and his players will hear it a lot in Qatar: “Collective strength is always more important than individual strength.”
Still, Mbappe and Benzema carry a lot on their shoulders. “Like all great players,” says Deschamps. He expects a lot from them and says they expect a lot from themselves.
Mbappe is grabbing the spotlight so much and Deschamps thinks he can keep delivering ‘Wow!’ moments. “At the last World Cup, Kylian made history, and he was four years younger than he is now. He’s a competitor, he obviously wants more. There’s no no limits. But he has already achieved so much so young that people expect him to do more. If he scores one goal, he is capable of scoring two or three.
“In his head it’s clear – he wants to make sure he can be the best.”
Football has often served the lesson that one player’s misfortune can be another’s opportunity, and those selected to the squad now have the chance to show off and impress.
Tchouameni, 22, becomes essential in the midfield. Deschamps is a fan of the Real Madrid player’s mentality as well as his technical qualities.
The relative lack of experience can be seen in the selections previously acquired by other team members in this sector of the team: Eduardo Camavinga (four), Youssouf Fofana (two), Matteo Guendouzi (six), Jordan Veretout (five). Deschamps has in the past taken advantage of relatively untested national team players who have competed magnificently at a World Cup. Think of Benjamin Pavard in 2018, for example. The Bayern Munich defender had six caps before this tournament.
Four years is a long time in football.
The World Cup has not been successfully defended for 60 years – since Brazil repeated their 1958 triumph in 1962. Only one coach has done what Deschamps hopes to do in Qatar, which is to guide his country to successive World Cup final victories, Vittorio Pozzo in 1934. and 1938.
Deschamps is a pragmatist, and argues that like most tournaments there are “eight to 10 (teams) who can legitimately have the title in their sights”. He shrugs his shoulders as he talks about who might or might not be favorites. Who can say? So much can happen during the crazy bubble of tournament football.
The mere mention of France’s history following stellar World Cups with descents into the abyss prompts another swift elimination.
Not to mention the crunch of 2002, when the defending champions went out in the group stage without a win or even a goal. Deschamps, captain of that 1998 team, retired from international football in 2000, so he is quick to remind everyone that this was not in his frame of reference.
“Defending the title is very complicated,” he said. In an attempt to maintain a high level, he instructs the need to address the psychological, physical and tactical levels. “There’s always a bit of everything, but that’s the reality of top-level football. When you are at the highest level, winning is very difficult, but maintaining it is even more difficult.
Deschamps has been France manager for more than a decade. Winner of the trophy as a player and now a coach, his record is enviable. He has represented his country in this capacity a total of 235 times. But that doesn’t stop his future from hanging in the balance. There’s no certainty he’ll continue beyond this World Cup, his former France and Juventus midfield partner Zinedine Zidane, not taking club jobs and floating in the background.
“I didn’t hear,” said Deschamps. “I never worry about myself. I still have the same desire, the same determination.
All in all, this leads to a typical Deschamps line: “I’m not here to have fun. I am here to win.
(Main graphic — Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)