Paris – L’Equipe is running a poll on its website at the moment, giving readers the chance to put themselves inside Didier Deschamps’s head and select a full squad of 23 to take to the World Cup next summer. Around 300,000 have duly sifted through the long list and picked out their favourites in every position.
Unsurprisingly, Antoine Griezmann scores highly, included in more than 99% of the voters’ selections. Not so far behind, chosen by more than 97%, is a player who did not win his third cap until Friday. Kylian Mbappé has been included on the strength of his explosive season as football’s latest golden boy, on the assumption that he must be a natural at this level too.
This freakishly talented 18-year-old was largely kept in reserve for France’s recent doubleheader of a friendly against Paraguay, followed by the shock World Cup qualification defeat in Sweden, when he sprinted on for a late cameo but did not really have the opportunity to make an impression.
Perhaps he will get more of a chance to show what he can do against England on Tuesday – and the desire to see Griezmann playing just off Mbappé as the attacking spear of a new-look France is understandably enticing – but, all of a sudden, there is an urgency about the agenda that buzzes around the topic of the new generation. Is it time to push for change?
Is the moment right to shake up the side that is still largely built on the components that took France to the final of Euro 2016? Those questions lurked in the shadows of the postmortems after defeat in Stockholm, as the French tried to figure out how on earth they have squandered top spot in Group A.
France had the game, marked by fabulous finishing, under reasonable control as they pressed for a winner in the closing stages, but it was turned on its head at the death. Sweden’s players were overjoyed as they scalped France with a brilliant, opportunistic, stoppage-time strike. Hugo Lloris, who had presented Ola Toivonen with the chance to find an unguarded net from half a pitch away, looked as if he wanted to eat his own gloves as some kind of penance.
World Cup qualification is suddenly a more stressful operation than France had in mind. Lloris was profoundly apologetic. Deschamps was stern-faced and straight-talking as he laid out the requirement to win all of their remaining games.
How quickly the tone of conversation has changed. The next few months for France were supposed to be about fine-tuning, about evolving, about Deschamps prising himself away from his loyalty to tried and trusted players to unleash the prodigies in their place. There is such demand to see the new wave fast tracked into the first XI. The seemingly unstoppable trajectory of Mbappé, the silky touches of Thomas Lemar and the darting dribbles of Ousmane Dembélé make strong cases to be the present rather than the future. They already look revved up and ready to go and Deschamps is under pressure to weigh up how he balances what they offer compared to an older generation that he trusts.
In Sweden, for a game Deschamps (rightly) assumed might pose physical and tactical challenges, the France manager was reluctant to be too bold. Having already integrated exciting full-backs in the Monaco pair Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, Deschamps chose more conservatively in attacking positions, mindful that the young whizzes further forward might not track back or be as diligent as a more experienced option. But Moussa Sissoko? Really? Having spent a season as an expensive spare part at White Hart Lane, he struggled to match the intensity of the toughest group game between the top two.
Such are the decisions Deschamps wrestles with as he tries to sensibly manage the integration of the new wave. Sissoko and his season in the shadows or the vibrant prospect of Dembélé? Olivier Giroud, with his weird blend of not-quite moments and an excellent scoring rate – 17 goals from his last 17 starts for his country, including a piercingly swiped volley in Sweden – or the wonderkid Mbappé? Dimitri Payet, their star of the Euros, who has found some form again after a mid-season dip, or the purposeful bursts of Lemar?
France are spoiled for choice, but those choices are not that straightforward. It is a dilemma of sorts: loyalty versus audacity. That topic has been put into sharper focus now that the World Cup qualification scenario has changed. Only group winners take a guaranteed ticket to Russia; France are behind Sweden on goal difference, with four games remaining.
How long is the life of a team? The question was posed by a French journalist, Vincent Duluc, in the aftermath of the quirky defeat in Sweden. Deschamps is not about to abandon the Euro 2016 team, which has formed the basis of this qualification campaign. But the fresh faces are ready and waiting to seize the opportunity. How they handle the friendly against England should give the manager even more food for thought.
The Guardian Sport