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Euro 2020 team guides part 21: France

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.

France’s record (W10 D2 L1) since they qualified for the Euros speaks for itself, especially since the sole defeat came in a friendly against Finland in which Didier Deschamps played his second string. The quality of play and entertainment levels have been questionable but when it comes to key games, the world champions keep winning with their typical collective self-belief, clinical finishing and individual flair.

After a 10-month break imposed by the pandemic, Deschamps used last autumn’s Nations League matches to try three different systems – 3-4-1-2, 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and 4-4-2 – and to consider a few younger players. “I can’t think of anything worse than a team that ticks over and cannot reassess themselves,” he said. “You also have to surprise your players and upset their routine once in a while.”

In November, Deschamps reverted to his favoured 4-4-2 and won 1-0 in Portugal in France’s most accomplished performance in the past three years. It seemed clear that plan A for the Euros would look pretty much the same as it did in Russia.

The only minor changes are that Samuel Umtiti and Blaise Matuidi, who is now playing in the MLS, have made way for Presnel Kimpembe and Adrien Rabiot, the latter back in favour after refusing to be on the standby list for Russia 2018. Oh, and then there was the sudden, incredible call-up for Karim Benzema, out of the national team since October 2015 because of his alleged involvement in a sex-tape blackmail case, which he denies.

Benzema’s involvement could change the whole dynamic but it was not a kneejerk call, as Deschamps explained when he announced his 26. “We met some time ago and shared a long conversation,” he said. “I thought long about it and decided, as I always do, what was best for the team. We won without Karim, but he is at his peak and also a different player, we know each other well and he can make this team better. I just have to find a new and right balance but I have no doubt about him and I am lucky to have intelligent players.”

Otherwise France’s strengths remain the same: a solid defensive unit protected by N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, effective transitions and an incredible attack with a lot of speed, experience and skill. The key questions are what impact Benzema’s return will have on and off the pitch and how fresh and fit the most influential players (Lloris, Varane, Kanté, Griezmann, Mbappé and Benzema) will be after such a bizarre and demanding season.

The coach

After leading Monaco to a Champions League final (2004), taking Juventus back to Serie A (2007) and clinching the title with Marseille (2010), Deschamps took the reins for France in 2012 and kept doing what he is known for: winning. With a contract running until the end of the next World Cup, he is already France’s longest-serving manager and boasts an impressive record of P111 W73 D20 L18. He lives in Èze, a village on the French riviera near Monaco, and stays quiet and focused on football aside from a few charitable activities, including donating to Opération Pièces Jaunes, which helps children needing long-term hospital care.

Icon

France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, recently needed someone to boost the Covid-19 vaccination campaign. Whom did he turn to? Kylian Mbappé of course. Bright, charismatic and likable, he acts as a role model to all youth and, coming from Bondy, one of the poorest Parisian suburbs, he is a symbol of success for the underprivileged. With more than 50 million followers on Instagram and six million on Twitter, no other France player is more present on social media.

Happy for a year’s delay

Because of a thigh operation, Ousmane Dembélé played only nine games last season for Barcelona and only returned to the pitch in September 2020. Peripheral as France won the World Cup, he has now fully recovered and his amazing speed and one-on-one skills could have a big impact. “He is back at his best and more mature, he has a lot to offer and I like his versatility,” Deschamps says.

Probable lineup

France’s probable lineup

What the fans sing

As far as football songs are concerned, France are not the most creative country. In fact, nobody can recall any songs about the national team since Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive was covered by the Hermes House Band, a Dutch group, in 1998. The tune remains for ever associated with their first World Cup victory that year and France winning major trophies, so it could still do the trick.

What the fans say

“Revoilà la chatte à Dédé!” – There goes Dédé [Deschamps’ nickname] riding his luck again!

“N’importe comment, Giroud va rentrer et marquer le but décisif.” – It doesn’t matter how, Giroud will come in at some stage and score the winning goal.

“Tant que Kanté peut courir, pas de souci.” – As long as Kanté can run, there’s no problem.

Pandemic hero/villain

Paul Pogba collected €60,000 in association with Unicef U and in March 2020 set up a birthday fundraiser to “help fight this war against Covid-19”. The Manchester United midfielder said he would double the amount if it reached the €30,000 target. Kylian Mbappé, meanwhile, gave an unknown “substantial” amount to a charity supporting the most vulnerable. “Concerned about the consequences of the serious health crisis which strikes our country, but also of all the consequences which it can generate on the most fragile people, Kylian Mbappé has just made a very large donation to support the work of the Abbé Pierre Foundation,” the charity said in a statement.

Patrick Urbini writes for L’Équipe.

Follow him on Twitter @purbini.

For a profile of Lucas Hernandez click here.

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