There are no easy answers after France’s goalless draw with Luxembourg in Toulouse on Sunday evening. The hosts should have thumped their tiny neighbors. The disparities between shots, possession, saves made, pass completion percentages and more contemporary metrics such as expected goals clearly pointed to a home win, but it wasn’t to be. France remain top of their group but only by a point and their remaining fixtures – away to Bulgaria and at home to Belarus – could be deceptively tricky.
Bulgaria are no longer the force they once were but they have beaten Holland and Sweden in the group. Had they not lost to Belarus, they might even harbor a hope of qualifying. Belarus, while never too impressive, held France to a goalless draw a year ago. Neither match should be considered an easy contest for France, especially in light of Sunday’s result.
It would be remiss not to praise Luxembourg for a compact performance. They had given France a surprising amount of trouble the last time the two sides met, in the spring, and were similarly tough on Sunday. Veteran goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert, by far the oldest player in what is a very young side, made a host of superb saves, and the defenders, notably Metz’s Chris Philipps, were also superb. Qualification is mathematically impossible but, given the successes of some of the continent’s smaller teams at Euro 2016, manager Luc Holtz could have something to build upon in a year’s time.
France were without Benjamin Mendy, who is only just coming back into fitness, and Ousmane Dembélé, who didn’t feature for Borussia Dortmund while forcing through a move to Barcelona. The performances of the players who replaced them, Layvin Kurzawa and Kylian Mbappé, were poor. Mbappé perhaps deserves some sympathy. He barely featured for Monaco before completing his loan move to Paris Saint-Germain and was asked to play out of position, on the right flank, as Kingsley Coman lacked match fitness – his start in the win over Holland on Thursday was his first of the season for club or country save a German Cup match against amateur opposition.
Coman plays as an orthodox winger who beats his man and crosses the ball. While he struggled with injury last season, he is a capable player but one who is not at all like Mbappé. Mbappé scored a cracking goal on Thursday, which may have had an undue influence on Didier Deschamps’ decision to start him, but he has always played as either a second striker or as a left-sided inverted winger. Deschamps is well-known for having a bizarre adherence to players’ “footedness” and being that Mbappé is right-footed and may play on that flank for his new club, the manager may have thought him worth a gamble in an unfamiliar position, particularly against such lightly regarded opposition.
Mbappé frequently took up a more central role and he did do well to link play with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, but he also left France with a dearth of width on the right flank. Djibril Sidibé did his best to make up the deficit but, much like Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Thomas Lemar, the way Mbappé continually took these positions played into the hands of Luxembourg’s low block.
While Mbappé’s positional discipline could be improved upon, perhaps more blame lies with Deschamps, especially when he could have played Florian Thauvin, Nabil Fekir or Alexandre Lacazetteo in that position. Even so, Deschamps would have been labeled a killjoy had he not found some way to start Mbappé. It’s not a manager’s job to please fans, per sé, but in a carnival atmosphere away from the usual venue of the Stade de France, he could perhaps be forgiven for this tactic.
Defensible as Mbappé’s performance can be, Layvin Kurzawa’s was beyond the pale. The left-back, a day before his 25th birthday, was asked to start instead of Barcelona’s Lucas Digne with Mendy unfit. He is much more physical, direct and pace-reliant than the Manchester City man but, perhaps wishing to impress Deschamps, he offered his best impression of his compatriot, albeit a very poor impression.
Mendy’s recent success has come as a result of an improved work ethic, good pace and a sublime ability to cross the ball. With Giroud playing as a target man, France have profited immensely from this approach, with Giroud’s second goal against Luxembourg in March the product of a pearl of cross from Mendy. Kurzawa, despite being afforded plenty of space and time on the ball, was very poor. He lost the ball 41 times, a stunning figure no matter the circumstances.
Giroud, in particular, was visibly frustrated by Kurzawa, who delivered 17 crosses, none of which found their intended target. Again, Luxembourg’s aerial prowess deserves some credit, but Kurzawa’s bizarre insistence on playing in crosses when this is never his normal style of play was maddening. He was also guilty of a poor first touch when receiving a ball into the flat, with a raking ball by Pogba into a dangerous position mis-controlled ahead of the interval. Digne will have been encouraged by this performance.
Paul Pogba was nearly as culpable as Kurzawa, shooting as often as he pleased from range. Despite drawing a fine diving save late in the first half from Joubert, he rarely looked like troubling the back of the net. Opposite Mbappé, Lemar, who had been so irrepressible on Thursday, looked dull as he added to the congestion in midfield by cutting inside and forcing Kurzawa wide. The normally reliable Laurent Koscielny nearly gifted the visitors what would have been an even more shocking win late in the match, only for Luxembourg substitute Gerson Rodrigues to hit the post on the counter.
Even the normally unassailable Griezmann snatched at a few chances. He wasn’t the only player to lament his misfortune, as Lacazette saw a curling effort cleared off the line and Pogba also hit the woodwork late on with a looping header. In reality, France did create enough chances to win the match, but when bad luck is combined with performances as poor as those of Kurzawa and many of his team-mates, the blame has to be shifted to the players’ lack of quality and effort.
The returns of Mendy and Dembélé will be a welcome tonic for France come October, but this match should rightfully cast a long shadow on Les Bleus in the intervening weeks. For a side as talented as France patently are, they too often look like a team of individuals, over-reliant on skill rather than invention and tactical discipline to batter mediocre opponents. As this result, the draw in Belarus and the loss to Sweden showed, football can be a game of fine margins. Without a necessary injection of tactical coherence, this supremely talented group could find themselves disappointed come next summer should they not heed Sunday’s warning.
• To say Monaco’s transfer window was a successful one might seem a little facetious, but Leonardo Jardim won’t be too displeased with the outcome. From a revenue point of view success of course is an obvious conclusion. €90m for two relatively replaceable players in Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko amid €350m worth of sales amounts to superb business. Along with Bernardo Silva, the losses of Bakayoko and Mendy were envisaged. While considering possible further damage, Monaco will be content with the state of their squad as it stands. Despite the fact that Thomas Lemar and Fabinho were close to leaving, Monaco eventually decided to halt PSG advances for the Brazilian and while Arsenal and Liverpool were close to snaring the young Frenchman, Lemar, for now, has decided to stay and both men remain crucial to Monaco’s season. This despite the fact that Arsène Wenger has stated, rather ominously, that Arsenal would be back for Lemar. Although losing Mbappé to rivals PSG is tough to take, €180m (eventually) for a player that they have proven they are capable of living without, one that they wouldn’t be able to hold on to for more than another year anyway and an individual that they paid nothing for in the first place should be seen as a good deal, despite Mbappé’s supreme talent. For the most part, Monaco have had things their way, the large turnover a necessary part of their model. Acquisitions of the exuberant Keita Baldé and Youri Tielemans, the arrivals of Ligue 1 prospects Rony Lopes (returning from loan) and Adama Diakhaby as well as the shrewd €11m pick up of Stevan Jovetic equals an astute end to business with the club quietly confident that they can usurp PSG once more.
• Kylian Mbappé’s arrival in Paris and the capital club’s inability to rid themselves of a big-name forward gives Unai Emery an issue. Assuming Paris Saint-Germain retain their 4-3-3 set-up, Mbappé will have Javier Pastore, Julian Draxler, Lucas Moura, Edinson Cavani, Ángel Di María and, of course, Neymar to compete with for three places in the starting XI. Managing such an array of talents could prove troublesome especially as, should they all be available, then one of the four of the seven who miss out on the XI might not even make the bench. Attempts were made by PSG to move along at least one of their now congested forward line. Pastore, Lucas and Draxler were all offered individually to Monaco as part of the Mbappé deal and all were flatly declined. Di María and Lucas were reportedly offered to Tottenham; Di María was also subject to unsuccessful advances from Barcelona; while Draxler was supposedly told he could find another club, having signed as recently as January. Although this was later refuted, Liverpool and Arsenal were strongly linked. In the end, 21-year-old Portuguese striker Gonçalo Guedes, himself signed in January from Benfica for €25m, joined Valencia on loan. This is, of course, not to mention Hatem Ben Arfa, who failed to finalise a move away despite being effectively banished by Emery, and Jesé, who resurfaced in Stoke. Although the situation could be eased by deploying Pastore in central midfield or moving to a 4-2-3-1 formation, whether this bottleneck will breed competition or sow discontent is unclear. How Emery handles the consequences could be crucial to his team’s success come May.
• Although the attention during closing hours of the transfer window was understandably focused on Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, a number of intriguing moves were made beyond the big two. Rémy Cabella’s lacklustre spell at Marseille came to an end as he joined St Étienne on loan. The club has been quietly productive under new boss Oscar Garcia but their midfield remains workmanlike, little change from previous coach Christophe Galtier’s reign. However, the addition of Cabella will finally add some guile and vision, perhaps even providing the catalyst they need to make a genuine charge for the top six. Meanwhile, Nicolas De Preville’s move from Lille to Bordeaux is one of the more eye-catching transfers of the summer. Striker De Preville rose to prominence at Stade de Reims before they were relegated in 2016, swiftly outgrowing the historic club before making the move to Lille. Injuries curtailed his run in a poor Lille side last season but he still managed 14 league goals. His waspish style and ability to affect the game from both flanks will fill a sizeable hole in Jocelyn Gourvannec’s side as Gaëtan Laborde continues to misfire. De Preville paired with breakout Brazilian winger Malcom and the jinking Francois Kamano in support could be one of Ligue 1’s most devastating and illusive forward lines in 2017-18. Alongside De Preville and Cabella, whether or not Aymen Abdennour’s two-year loan move to Marseille can help solidify a creaking back line, if Wahbi Khazri can recapture his Bordeaux form after an ill-fated spell at Sunderland or will Gianneli Imbula prove his career can be rescued at Toulouse are all threads to follow for the season to come.