France's World Cup squad skews young, and choosing wasn't easy for Didier Deschamps
"Less experience, more ambition." Didier Deschamps is such a good communicator that he could almost write the headlines for the media himself.
In four words, the France head coach summed up perfectly the 23-man World Cup squad he announced on Thursday evening live on French television. He has gone for youth and talent instead of maturity and experience. The average age of this group of players is only 26, which is the youngest in the last 20 years for France. The average number of caps is only 24 as well, one of the lowest in recent competitions.
Proof of the depth that the French have, Deschamps has left some big names out: Adrien Rabiot, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial all are on the reserves list, while Laurent Koscielny and Dimitri Payet are injured. And we are not even talking about Karim Benzema...
Deschamps might come to regret some of those decisions, but he had his reasons. Rabiot has never been as good for the national team as for PSG, and Deschamps lost patience quickly. The manager has an issue with Martial's attitude, which has not been good enough in the past, especially when he was not playing for France. Lacazette has always been in and out of Deschamps' squads through the years, and despite scoring twice against Germany in November, he didn't convince overall. Coman got injured at the wrong time with Bayern Munich, two-and-a-half months ago, although he is fit now.
The Arsenal striker's case is interesting. On Thursday morning, Lacazette went shopping in Oxford Circus in London with his wife. He looked relaxed, but deep inside it must have been a stressful day. He was hoping he would be in the 23 but knew he could miss out again, as in 2014 and 2016. Since coming back from injury, he has been good for Arsenal: eight goals in his last 10 games, and 19 in all club competitions in his first season in England. Yet he won't go to Russia unless something happens to one of the forwards.
Deschamps is trying to stay positive. He said on Thursday that things can change between now and June 4, when he must send FIFA his definitive 23-man squad. There are 11 players on the standby list this time. There were 15 combined ahead of the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and it's worth noting that five of those players ended up taking part in the competitions because members of the squad got injured. So there might still be hope for Lacazette & Co.
Obviously, for all the disappointed ones, there are the happy ones. Benjamin Pavard, probably the most unknown player in this squad and chosen ahead of Mathieu Debuchy, cried at home when he saw his name on the screen. Kylian Mbappe will "realise his dream to play in a World Cup." Benjamin Mendy felt "a lot of emotions." He spent seven months of the season injured, yet he is in the squad while Lucas Digne is on standby and Layvin Kurzawa at home.
"It is always hard to pick a squad like this because of the quality of the players we have and the competition in each position. I could only pick 23 players. I can't please everyone. I make choices and I take full responsibility for them," Deschamps said on Thursday. He could not wait for this bit to be over. Now he can focus on the pitch and making a competitive team out of this squad.
There is still a question as to whether he will play in a 4-3-3 formation or in his favourite 4-4-2. Otherwise, in terms of personnel, there won't be many surprises. The five players at the back are known (Hugo Lloris; Djibril Sidibe, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Mendy). In midfield, it will be a two with Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante or Blaise Matuidi, or a three with Pogba, Kante and Matuidi or Corentin Tolisso. And up front, it will be a four with Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Thomas Lemar, or a three with Mbappe, Griezmann and Lemar.
Dembele, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin will see action up front too, while Steven Nzonzi would bring more steel in midfield and height on set pieces if needed. Lucas Hernandez has played very well at left-back for Atletico this season, so he could easily step up for Mendy, and the same for Presnel Kimpembe and Adil Rami at centre-back.
As of Thursday, the World Cup has definitely started for France.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.