Would it really be an international break if there wasn’t some speculation that Zinedine Zidane would soon be managing Paul Pogba?
The spectre of managerial change — especially a sexier name, which would be almost anyone; most especially Zizou — has followed Didier Deschamps for most of his time managing France. Yet here were are in the sixth year of his tenure. For once, Zidane is being linked to Paul Pogba’s club instead of his national team. When France takes to the pitch against Iceland on Thursday, Deschamps’ job will never have been more secure.
The reason for this, in a sense, is exquisitely simple: The World Cup.
Lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy buys a manager time and goodwill. It does not necessarily result in his being better understood or appreciated. The memory of Raymond Domenech, a charlatan of the highest order who nominally managed France to a World Cup final, is fresh and works against Deschamps in this regard. One win against Croatia should not meaningfully change your assessment of a manager. Six years into Deschamps’ tenure, however, it is fair to examine his approach to management.
Les Bleus have appeared in three major tournaments under Deschamps: they narrowly lost to eventual winners Germany in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals; they made the final of Euro 2016, where they lost to Portugal in extra time; and they won the 2018 World Cup. That’s a good run. Measures of team strength suggested France was roughly the fourth-best team at those last two tournaments. Making a tournament’s final is at the upper end of the distribution of possible outcomes — even for one of the better teams. That France lost one of those finals on a weird goal against a Ronald-less Portugal both proves that point and has served to obscure France’s achievement in making it that far. France making the World Cup final would likewise have been a good performance even if Croatia had prevailed. Insofar as a manager can be credited with such results, Deschamps’ France has consistently performed at or above its level.
Deschamps’ tactics make some sense when approached through the prism of the possible outcomes in tournament play. A lot of things can go wrong, and Deschamps’ has consistently sought to minimize France’s downside risk. This might have been understood as a reflection of his squad’s weaknesses in 2014, when France was a team in transition. But serious influxes of talent in both 2016 and 2018 did not turn him into an attacking coach. He fielded attacking sides in the opening matches of both tournaments only to revert to simpler team shapes in subsequent matches. In 2016 and 2018, he repositioned Antoine Griezmann centrally and placed a central midfielder on one of the wings. In 2018, he added Olivier Giroud to give a team that had started with the smaller trio of Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembelé a clearer focal point. This, one can reasonably argue, is who Didier Deschamps is as a manager.
Conservatism can take on a variety of forms, but usually it manifests as a clear defensive measure: passing teams to death or taking a bevy of defensive actions in a deep block or pressing aggressively higher up the pitch. In 2018, France didn’t really do any of those things. In fact, France didn’t really do all that much of anything. Of the 32 teams at the World Cup, France was 17th in passes per game. In terms of defensive actions, Benjamin Pavard was notably active on the right flank, but France was pretty quiet across most of the pitch, especially in central areas. Les Bleus allowed more opponent passes per defensive action than the average team at the World Cup while pressing less. France nevertheless conceded the second fewest shots of any of the teams in the knockout rounds and those shots tended to be of low value. All told, France was second to Uruguay in expected goals conceded per match.
So what exactly was France doing? An educated guess is that Didier Deschamps relied on a mix of player positioning and talent. France sat back but didn’t have to frantically defend because it had bodies in between their opponents and Hugo Lloris’ goal. Opponents could out-pass Les Bleus without being constantly pressured, but couldn’t translate any of that into shots, especially valuable ones. When things broke down, France relied on individual talent to clean up any messes (much of this is an elaborate way of saying France had cherubic genius N’Golo Kanté at the base of midfield.) Even if you like defensive football, France made for boring viewing, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
France’s attack, while not a juggernaut, capably complemented this defensive base. Deschamps’ men didn’t take many shots, but those they did attempt were of a higher value than the average team. Les Bleus amassed 11 non-penalty goals against 8 expected goals despite striker Olivier Giroud’s persistent futility. Kylian Mbappé is an elite finisher who might consistently outperform expected goals. Other players just had good tournaments. Defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane each finished with a goal on about 0.15-0.2 expected goals while Benjamin Pavard lobbed in a golazo. The latest edition of France was both notably efficient and benefited from a certain amount of finishing luck.
That mix of efficiency and luck also extends to the sequencing of goals in France’s matches. Deschamps’ strategy was assisted by France barely trailing at the World Cup. Their only deficit came against a chaotic Argentina side. The bulk of France’s expected goals advantage over its opponents came in the opening 45 minutes of matches. France was therefore able to stick to its plan and never get overextended. Insofar as France’s tactics prioritized avoiding opponent goals above all else, this was somewhat by design. But the extent to which game states favoured France leads one to suspect that Deschamps’ team also got a little bit lucky.
Still, Deschamps’ basic risk-benefit calculations have repeatedly proven correct. That leaves us with the basic aesthetic criticism of his work: A team with France’s talent, some argue, shouldn’t be so scrappy. Some versions of this critique are imprecise, failing to differentiate Deschamps’ conservatism from that of a Sam Allardyce-like figure. Whereas the latter type drags bad teams over the line, Deschamps’ France has actually relied on individual skill, albeit in an un-sexy way. The likes of Pogba, Kanté and Griezmann can do so many things well that one can plausibly build a team around asking them to use 70% of their skills. Kanté contributes next to no creativity for France. Pogba is tasked with a lot of ball progression while taking relatively few shots. The one-on-one talents of Umtiti and Varane solve all manner of problems. France, with the possible exception of Mbappé, may not be exuberant, but it’s built on star power.
Most of those stars will hit their peaks between Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. The last two tournaments were arguably transitional or at the beginning of France’s real competitive window. In part because Deschamps recognized that a team’s best chances may come before it truly peaks, the likes of Kylian Mbappé won’t have the “will he win a World Cup?” question hanging over them for the next decade. This, in theory, could free France to take some more risks. A more dynamic France team would have more moving parts (this, I swear, is not an Olivier Giroud joke) and downside risk, but the entire core developing together might mitigate some of those risks.
But who are we really kidding? France, with the possible exception of exciting feints in friendlies or easy qualifiers, will play like this so long as Didier Deschamps is managing. That’s who he is, it’s the form he’s always come back to since taking over from Domenech. When it comes to international football, Deschamps is not bad, not necessarily fun, and most crucially not wrong.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association