Didier Deschamps has choices to make, needs Paul Pogba to find form
Eleven days. That is all Didier Deschamps has left to make his mind up. France face Australia in their World Cup opener on June 16 in Kazan and their head coach is due some sleepless nights until then as he considers the right players and the right formation. On Saturday in Lyon, Les Bleus face the U.S. in their last warm-up friendly and Deschamps could start with the line-up that will face the Socceroos. Or not.
"I don't have a headache but I have a lot of options, at the back and in midfield" said Deschamps after the win against Italy on Friday. He could have added in attack as well, where the depth of talent and the amount of options are plentiful.
But such choice means there are questions for Deschamps to answer and his players know pretty much everything is still up for grabs: "We are giving the coach problems to pick his team. That's a good thing for everyone" Antoine Griezmann said on Friday.
Before the personnel, Deschamps will have to decide on a tactical system. Being a conservative manager means he doesn't like changing his formation all the time and he rarely adapts it to meet the demands of the opposition. Since the second half of France's Euro 2016 round-of-16 tie vs. Republic of Ireland, Deschamps has favoured 4-4-2.
He likes having Griezmann and Olivier Giroud leading the line and, behind them, for zones to be occupied in midfield with the cover that brings to the full-backs. This system also offers balance, but there is a risk of being overrun in midfield, especially against the best teams.
In his World Cup preparations, Deschamps tried 4-3-1-2 in the 2-0 win vs. Ireland, then 4-3-3 as France beat Italy 3-1. The 4-4-2 has not yet been seen, so expect it against the Americans, especially as Giroud and Griezmann have only started one warm-up match. Thomas Lemar is also likely to get a chance.
While 4-4-2 is likely to be the preferred system against Australia, 4-3-3 has shown promise. The trio of Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele -- with "Grizou" sitting deeper to become the playmaker for two fast wide men, is interesting. Mbappe and Dembele need space in front of them to maximise their talent but counter-attack football is suited to this team, especially against better sides.
This tactic also gives a role to Corentin Tolisso who, with Mbappe, has been France's best player so far ahead of the World Cup. The Bayern Munich midfielder brings something different with quick transitions and is always looking to play forward with a lot of energy. It seems, though, that there would be no place for him in a 4-4-2.
Paul Pogba is at the centre of debate once again after his poor performance against Italy. He defended more than he attacked but, compared to Tolisso, for example, he didn't do enough. Deschamps, though, continued to defend the Manchester United midfielder.
"If I picked him, it is because he is indispensable. I know what he can do; it is down to him to raise his game. I have faith in him" said the manager on Sunday morning, two days after stressing that Pogba worked hard defensively, which is what Deschamps asked of him.
It seems unlikely Pogba will be dropped for the start of the World Cup, but Tolisso is making a case for himself. N'Golo Kante is a definite starter and Blaise Matuidi can offer more defensively. As such, Pogba needs a good performance on Saturday to calm the critics. If he doesn't not impress, the debate will continue until the Australia match.
Full-backs Benjamin Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left did more vs. Italy than Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy managed in the Ireland game, yet the latter pair are expected to get Deschamps' nod, with Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti an untouchable central duo.
And then there is the attacking conundrum. Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin are not in the starting conversation, while Griezmann is certain to play. That leaves Giroud, Lemar, Mbappe and Dembele to battle it out for two or three places, depending on the formation.
Giroud offers a unique profile, especially against defensive opponents. Lemar is a creator with a lovely touch and is great on set pieces. Mbappe is a prodigy, the type of player you get once every 20 years. Dembele has fire in his legs and is capable of doing incredible things as well as making simple mistakes.
While Giroud, 31, has plenty of experience, Lemar (22), Dembele (21) and Mbappe (19) are very young and approaching their first major tournament. Not that PSG's Mbappe considers it a disadvantage, as he said on a French TV documentary last month: "Don't talk to me about age. Talk to me about football and level. If you are good enough, whatever your age, you play."
Mbappe is certainly good enough and could take the World Cup by storm, while Deschamps likes Lemar for his creativity and his defensive discipline and Dembele could be a super sub. Deschamps has an incredible array of talent at his disposal and 11 days to make the right choices.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.