Mamadou Sakho or Aymeric Laporte? Didier Deschamps Is Missing a Trick
France may not have been taking the Nations League that seriously but their stumbling finish to the competition has brought back the hand-wringing. A composed 1-0 win in a friendly against Uruguay on Tuesday at the Stade de France was little consolation after their galling 2-0 loss to the Netherlands on Friday. The Dutch look rejuvenated under Ronald Koeman and deservedly topped the group above France and Germany, but Didier Deschamps’ conservative selection choices threaten to hold back the development of his team.
Deschamps has always had slightly bizarre loyalties (think Moussa Sissoko) and an absurd adherence to playing left-footed and right-footed centre-backs in a partnership. The emergence of Samuel Umtiti, first at Lyon and then at Barcelona, has given Raphäel Varane a regular partner who complements his style. Although, with Umtiti (and Benjamin Mendy and Lucas Hernández) injured, Deschamps had a chance to look at a few not-so-usual suspects in defence this weekend.
When the manager did not trust the fitness of Mendy and Djibril Sidibé at the World Cup, he made the bold decision to start the youthful and relatively unsung Hernández and Benjamin Pavard at full-back. This weekend, with little riding on the games, he opted instead for experience. Adil Rami was part of the squad that won the World Cup, and had a decent game against Uruguay on Tuesday night, but he will be 33 in December and has turned in more than his fair share of calamitous performances this season for Marseille, who have the fourth most porous defence in Ligue 1.
Mamadou Sakho was picked to partner Rami at the heart of the France defence against Uruguay. He was decent if not excellent against a side seemingly lacking motivation, but his displays for Crystal Palace this season have hardly warranted a recall after two years in the international wilderness.
Everton left-back Lucas Digne was also given a start this weekend. He was one of France’s poorest performers against the Netherlands and was seen on several occasions jawing with Presnel Kimpembe after being put to the sword by Denzel Dumfries and Steven Bergwijn. Kimpembe wasn’t up to much either but he is only 23 and warranted his inclusion after a decent start to the campaign with Paris Saint-Germain.
Digne, Rami, and Sakho have all been in the conversation around the national setup for some time now, but none were anywhere near playing a vital role in France’s triumph this summer and, with the possible exception of Digne, they do not look likely to improve. So, with relatively little at stake for these two matches, why did Deschamps not take a leaf from his own playbook this summer – when he promoted Pavard and Hernández, both of whom earned their first caps this calendar year – and promote Aymeric Laporte?
Laporte’s strong form at Manchester City and the fact that he is a left-footed player should have made him an obvious pick for Deschamps, above Sakho; while Issa Diop’s play for West Ham surely must have earned him more consideration to be included ahead of Rami. Laporte has played 10 times for City this season, winning nine of those games and drawing the other one.
Diop and Laporte are the obvious candidates to fit into France’s defence to observers of the English game, but France also have options aplenty in other leagues. Dan-Axel Zagadou and Abdou Diallo have been integral to Dortmund topping the Bundesliga table; Nordi Mukiele has impressed for Leipzig after moving from Montpellier this summer; and Bouna Sarr has been in good form for Marseille. Would Sarr not have been worth some gametime, particularly with Pavard (himself not exactly in sparkling form for Stuttgart) playing 180 minutes over the two matches?
Deschamps did draft in the young Lyon left-back Ferland Mendy, who was included in the Ligue 1 Team of the Year last season, and the youngster sparkled against Uruguay, offering his usual vivacity in attack while also doing well in defence. Antoine Griezmann was among those impressed by the debutant, remarking after the match: “I liked his style of play. It seems like he’s been here for a long time. He played his game and didn’t show fear.” With Mendy’s Lyon teammate Tanguy N’Dombélé also impressing in the starting lineup, to say nothing of the continued rise of Kylian Mbappé, Deschamps’ reluctance to bring the same approach to his backline is baffling.
After all, France won the World Cup not merely through a series of resolute performances, but through – particularly in the final and against Argentina – outscoring the opposition. With so many of the team’s key attacking players relatively young, it is strange that Deschamps is not developing his defence in the same way.
It may seem a niggling point given France’s spectacular year but, with Olivier Giroud ageing away from relevance, the team’s evolution under Deschamps bears watching. If the manager promotes young defenders the way he has promoted young attackers – as well as Hernández and Pavard in the summer – France could be looking at a period of unprecedented dominance. Failure in the Nations League will not be the end of the world or his job, but anything other than a place in the semi-finals at Euro 2020 will be a huge underachievement.
The Guardian Sport