If France Can’t Figure These 3 Things Out, Argentina Just Might Do This

Neither France nor Argentina has impressed in Russia, giving extra flavor to a behemoth Round of 16 encounter.

As frustrating as it was to watch (the 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow deserve a refund), France’s scoreless draw against Denmark — our first of the tournament — wasn’t hard to predict. Les Bleus wanted top spot in Group C and Denmark loves nothing more than an amicable bit of chumminess, and so that’s how it played out. But the unease in France over three entirely unconvincing displays will continue heading into the Round of 16, especially with Lionel Messi and Argentina the opponents. 

Leading up to the Denmark game, center back Raphael Varane rightly pointed out how France had gotten it done while other tournament favorites had acutely labored. “If you could be more positive,” said Varane to the press, “it would be cool.” But with only three goals after three matches, it’s hard to be overly excited about a team that was so vaunted for its rich attacking talent before the tournament. 

Here are three worrying situations in the France camp that Didier Deschamps needs to rectify if the dream of a second World Cup victory is to be realized.  

#1. Unleashing the Young Guns

At the tender ages of 19 and 21, it’s easy to give Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele something of a free pass. They shouldn’t shoulder the burden of France’s expectation, but they certainly do have to offer much more than they’ve shone. They’re too talented not to make an impression at this World Cup. 

The likes of Landon Donovan (20), Lukas Podolski (21), Thomas Muller (20) and Memphis Depay (20) tore up the previous four World Cups with a directness that was unbridled. Dembele and Mbappe haven’t shown that sort of fearlessness.  

Dembele disappointed against Australia and Denmark, but Mbappe showed signs of coming to life against Peru. As things get tense and cagey in the knockout rounds, it’ll be up to these players to provide the impetus. 

#2. The Giroud Effect 

After watching Giroud spearhead France to a forgettable 1-1 draw with a young USMNT before the World Cup, Didier Deschamps elected to begin the tournament with a front three of Dembele, Griezmann and Mbappe, with Pogba, Kante and Corentin Tolisso comprising the midfield.

However, the fortunate 2-1 win over Australia saw Tolisso struggle in an unnatural position while Dembele was hugely ineffective over the course of 70 minutes. What’s more, Griezmann’s ability to influence proceedings was greatly reduced leading the line.

The plan then was to revert back to the old plan: Giroud up top, Griezmann in behind and Mbappe providing support from the right-hand side. The structure limits the ability of Pogba to dictate matches further up the pitch, and so Blaise Matuidi works as something of a sacrificial lamb on the left-hand side to allow Pogba more of an impact in the attacking third. 

But this didn’t resolve anything against Peru. Griezmann again looked lost, and although Pogba, Giroud and Mbappe figured on the winning goal, it was largely down to a mistake from Peru captain Paolo Guerrero.  

Although France underwent a raft of changes for Denmark, Giroud and Griezmann remained in their same roles. Again, they struggled heavily while Dembele put in another poor 78 minutes and Lemar essentially played himself out of the World Cup.  

Nothing’s yet resolved heading into the Round of 16. For all the tactical shifts and shapes, Deschamps ultimately needs more from Griezmann. However, while Giroud and the Atletico Madrid forward will always capture the headlines, this has not been a kind tournament to Dembele and the supporting cast. 

For all of France’s embarrassment of attacking riches, it’s worrying that the Man of the Match for Les Bleus has been a defensive midfielder throughout (Kante in the first two games, Steven Nzonzi vs. Denmark). 

#3. A Few “Sure Things” Aren't So Sure Right Now 

We’ve touched on it briefly but France’s “guarantees” are struggling (apart from Kante). Griezmann’s only scored one goal, that coming from the spot. His pass success rate is eye-catchingly poor at just 69.6 percent.

During Atletico’s run to the Europa League title, Griezmann averaged 1.6 key passes per game. After 218 minutes of World Cup action that number stands at 0.7 per game. 

In the back, both Hugo Lloris and Samuel Umtiti have looked shaky. It’s easy to brush off Umtiti’s mental lapse as a one-off, but Lloris’ poor form is the worrying continuation of a long season for the man who now possesses 100 France caps. 

Argentina will be looking at France, thinking, “They’ve got issues, we can do this.” France will be looking at Argentina, thinking, “This is the perfect match to score four or five and get rolling.” 

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