Things for France to fix: Deschamps' tactics, right role for Kylian Mbappe
It has been laborious at times, with some very average performances in a group they should have easily bossed and with the feeling that there has been no genuine progress since the Euro 2016 final, but France have eventually qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The most important was to get there and now the hard work starts for Didier Deschamps.
All the current question marks surrounding France are linked to him and his management. The head coach has been criticised these past few months for some of his bad decisions and looks like the weakest link at the moment. He needs to get it right to exploit the exceptional potential of this latest French generation. Here are five things that he must address before next summer.
1. Find a style of play
It was a constant question during the whole of last season and has been again so far in the current campaign: what is the philosophy that Deschamps wants to give to his team? France have no style of play at the moment.
There is no identity in the way the team is playing. There is enough individual talent and mental strength in the squad to win some big games, like the semifinal of the Euro 2016 against Germany. There are also a few pairings working well together but collectively, this team has no project, offensively or defensively. Deschamps needs to find the style of football that suits his team best and can get the best out of his players.
This France squad is so talented, so complete and full of options that they could really choose to adopt any style of football. You have the pace of Kylian Mbappe, Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembele, the technical ability of Thomas Lemar and Antoine Griezmann, the all-around talent if Paul Pogba and the physicality of Olivier Giroud, just to name a few. Nevertheless, Deschamps has yet to implement a style on this team.
2. Get harder to play against
Tactically, France have not evolved enough. The 4-4-2 formation that Deschamps prioritises is too simple, from a tactical perspective, to play against and to counter. Belarus exploited the space left between the back four and the two defensive midfielders (Corentin Tolisso and Blaise Matuidi) to create themselves far too many chances on Tuesday evening in Paris. A better team would have battered France. Les Bleus would be more solid with a midfield three although they were still quite shaky in Bulgaria on Saturday like that, too.
Offensively, the 4-4-2 doesn't offer enough collectively going forward. You get crosses from your wide players but not much more. There are no passing triangles, no link-up play. Deschamps needs to find the right formula.
3. Manage the depth of talent well
This is linked to the previous two points. Depending on how he wants the team to play and in which system, Deschamps then has to pick the right men. Having such a huge depth of players is fantastic but it also makes it harder for him to field the right team. He got it wrong against Sweden (1-2), against Luxembourg (0-0) and also against Bulgaria (1-0) and Belarus (2-1) despite the latter pair ending in victory. His conservatism is a consistent problem.
Just looking at the squad he picked for the games this month: how did Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet make it ahead of Nabil Fekir and Anthony Martial? Matuidi can't start ahead of N'Golo Kante anymore in a midfield two either. "DD" has to be bold enough to make the right calls, both in terms of squad selection and starting XI selection. Then it will be down to the big boys to deliver: the likes of Pogba, Raphael Varane, Griezmann or Hugo Lloris must act as leaders.
4. Figure out what to do with Mbappe
Mbappe is obviously not a problem for Deschamps or for France. The 18-year-old prodigy is an exceptional talent that any team would love to have in their ranks. He can only be an asset for the French. However, the problem for Deschamps will be to figure out how to use him in the best way. Do you build the team around him? Do you play him centrally or out wide? Do you use him as a super sub? If you go the latter route, can you really afford not to start him?
Deschamps will need to find the right answers to all those questions. So far in his international career (eight caps, one goal, one assist), Mbappe has been better coming off the bench with great displays against England in June and the Netherlands in September.
5. Solve the full-back positions
The season only started two-and-a-half months and France have already lost one key player in Benjamin Mendy. The left-back, one of the best in the world, should be out for the season unless he recovers very well in a record amount of time from his knee surgery. Lucas Digne is nowhere as good as him, Kurzawa is up and down and the rest (Patrice Evra, Jordan Amavi, Theo Hernandez, Lucas Hernandez) are not ready for various reasons. On the right, Djibril Sidibé has not been convincing enough. He is so powerful going forward, even if his crossing ability is not the greatest. However, defensively, he still makes a lot of mistakes.
Sebastien Corchia at Sevilla seems the best alternative considering the age of Christophe Jallet (34 in three weeks) and Bacary Sagna (35 in February, and who has no club anyway) and given that that the younger tier of options (Benjamin Pavard, Kelvin Amian) are not good enough right now.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.