Cautious Deschamps, France have work ahead
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Nope. Still nothing.
Didier Deschamps is still talking coach dialect. One game at a time. Not thinking about winning it all. If fans are singing La Marseillaise and cancelling their plans for July 13 in anticipation of Les Bleus at the Maracana, he's happy for them, but he's certainly not getting carried away.
On the evidence seen against Ecuador, you can't blame him. France created plenty of chances -- most of them after Antonio Valencia's sending off. But they also conceded the type of opportunities you should not give up against 10 men. And, relative to their smooth-as-butter victories over Switzerland and Honduras, they let things get a little too spiky.
Deschamps mixed things up at the back with a brand new pair of full-backs -- Lucas Digne and Bacary Sagna in for Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy -- and Laurent Koscielny in for Raphael Varane (rumoured to be less than 100 percent). Yohan Cabaye's suspension meant the deep-lying playmaker slot went to Morgan Schneiderlin, while Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann got starts ahead of Mathieu Valbuena and Olivier Giroud.
Change more than half your squad and you'll get a different team. It's that simple. And that brings with it pros and cons. The bonus is that new guys get a look-in, some weary legs get some rest and you don't run the risk of players on a yellow picking up another caution and missing the next match.
"Well, when you make changes it changes your rhythm," he said. "You lose some of your fluidity ... Today we did enough to win, but maybe we were less dangerous in the first half, before they went down to 10 men."
And that's his takeaway. He can argue that he's not looking beyond the best opponent but, on this occasion, he clearly did. It would have taken a mystic convergence of the planets for France not to qualify as group winners (a heavy defeat to Ecuador, a huge win for Switzerland). Deschamps paid a price for the rest and the tinkering: Ecuador came very close, rattled Mamadou Sakho's cage (more on this later) and laid bare some obvious deficiencies.
First and foremost, France's physical edge over most opponents isn't something to take for granted. Ecuador matched them in that department and when they released the lightning quick Enner Valencia -- a man who doesn't run as much as he squirts across the pitch -- it was all hands on deck defensively.
The Pachuca striker slipped between Sakho and Koscielny enough times to force the pair to play deeper than they would have liked. Schneiderlin, the guard dog in front of the back four, also retreated as a result. With Cabaye in there, it wouldn't have been a problem because of his range of passing; Schneiderlin, however, doesn't possess the same threat in terms of balls over the top, meaning that Reinaldo Rueda's defence could push up, congesting a midfield that already looked like rush hour.
Valencia also isn't just one of those little speedy forwards, either. Late in the first half, he nearly leaped out of the Maracana itself to win a header over Sakho, who has plenty inches and pounds on him. Hugo Lloris, ever dependable, snuffed out the danger, but you could see Deschamps' face darkening. Earlier, Sakho, clearly out of sync, had planted a nasty -- but unseen -- elbow on Oswaldo Minda.
In some ways, from Deschamps' point of view, you could have welcomed the exercise. The Honduras game, while physical, hadn't been much of a challenge. The Swiss clash was all downhill after Les Bleus went two-nil up within 20 minutes. This was a chance for the players to show their character -- which may explain why he made no changes at halftime, almost as if he were throwing down the gauntlet to his men: "Play yourselves out of this."
And a minute or so into the second half, they did. Pogba picked out Sagna, whose cross found Griezmann. Alexander Dominguez, outstanding on the day, pawed it off to the post and to safety. Five minutes later, a studs-up challenge from Antonio Valencia on Digne did what Griezmann could not: it turned the match in Les Bleus favour.
"When they went down to 10 men, it became simpler for us," Deschamps said, and France were able to move their center of gravity up the pitch. But, perhaps because every action has an equal reaction, it also left them exposed to the counter.
Christian Noboa fluffed an obvious chance on the break, after Sakho went walkabout. Then Jefferson Montero shrugged off a hearty tackle from Sagna (not an easy thing to do), turned on the afterburners, burst into the box and bamboozled Koscielny, before offering up the ugliest cross off the day.
Deschamps had seen enough. First it was Varane for the shell-shocked Sakho, then Giroud for Blaise Matuidi, a clear sign that France wanted to win this game, even though, by this point, it was obviously just for pride. They did create more chances -- a solitary Pogba sending a free header wide, most notably -- and they did help make Dominguez man of the match. But they also looked shaky every time Ecuador broke. And they got testy too, with Giroud's elbow on substitute Gabriel Achilier also going unseen by Noumandiez Doue and his crew.
You take the clean sheet, you take top spot in the group and you live to fight another day. But Deschamps couldn't be too pleased with what he saw. And the way he answered questions afterward (with more than one contradiction) somewhat confirms that he has reservations, but he sure as heck isn't going to share them with the media.
"We were a different team tonight, with different players, so you saw a different performance," he said. But then he added: "I have 23 players, if I took them with me, it's because I trust them, otherwise they wouldn't be here."
Asked what was missing from the team's performance he said, "Nothing, except for the fact that we didn't score."
Well, in fact, what was missing was a more solid defensive performance, more fluidity in midfield and adequate service to Karim Benzema. And, perhaps, steelier nerves and a tad more maturity in avoiding potential red-card situations.
It's not a huge deal. This game was, after all, a freebie, a luxury, a chance to try things out. Well, he tried them and they mostly didn't work, possibly because you can't throw three-quarters of a defence together and expect them to work seamlessly and because the likes of Benzema and Matuidi simply didn't have the usual sharpness, probably because they knew this was a kick-about, little more.
The good news is nobody got hurt -- not the guys on the pitch nor those on the bench -- and there were no silly bookings leading to suspensions. And that's what really matters here. It's done, it's over, next up Nigeria's Super Eagles and then, possibly, Germany in the quarters.
Not that Deschamps is thinking about the Germans. Because, you see, he doesn't look past the next opponent. When he's stuck to that -- Honduras, Switzerland -- his team have done well. When he hasn't -- like on Wednesday -- less so.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.