France's growing talent pool makes for tough decisions for Didier Deschamps
Just 38 years of age between them both. Kylian Mbappe turned 18 last December and Ousmane Dembele only blew out the 20 candles on his birthday cake last month. That they are both extremely talented -- borderline geniuses even -- is nothing new. But against England (3-2) in their first start for France together, Mbappe's fourth cap and Dembele's seventh, the duo showed they were ready to do it at the highest level despite their youth and have now made Didier Deschamps' nights a lot more difficult going forward
Since the French squad got together at Clairefontaine almost three weeks ago, the debate has been the same: can Deschamps really do without talents like them and to a lesser degree maybe, like Thomas Lemar, 21?
The France head coach decided to leave them on the bench against Sweden on Friday in a 2-1 defeat. His reasoning was simple. He is a conservative manager: Moussa Sissoko had rarely disappointed him with Les Bleus and is a bit more solid defensively than Dembele. It didn't matter to him that he spent more time on the bench than on the pitch for Tottenham this season. Dimitri Payet was a key member of the team at the 2016 Euros. Since then, however, he has been way below his best level and looked out of shape prior to the trip to Sweden. Yet, he was still preferred to Lemar.
Up front, there was no room for Kylian Mbappe either as Deschamps thinks the partnership between Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud is the best one to lead his 4-4-2 formation, even when "Grizou" is absolutely shattered after a long season. And you can also add the stubbornness of the manager to overlook N'Golo Kante for Blaise Matuidi who is, let's be fair, past his best. Against Sweden, even without Hugo Lloris' blunder in the last minute, Deschamps got most of his decisions wrong.
Everything that was missing on Friday was there on Tuesday though for all to see. Mbappe and Dembele brought both the blistering pace and amazing skills, and both were involved in France's second and third goals against England. Lemar offered more balance, especially in defence and his set pieces were also excellent, one of them bringing the first goal. Kante brought so much in midfield, as he helped free Paul Pogba and simplify France's game.
It was definitely easier for Deschamps to start his young stars against England, at home in a friendly with no pressure and against a weaker opposition than away in Sweden with a lot at stake and against a very aggressive team. It is not a given that Kante, Lemar, Mbappe or Dembele would have done better than Matuidi, Payet, Griezmann or Sissoko did in Sweden. The context was different and so were the expectations.
But what will Deschamps do next? He has the whole summer to think about it but decision time, arrives on Aug. 31 -- when the Netherlands visit the Stade de France -- and Deschamps can't afford to get his decisions wrong. As strange as it sounds, France will have to fight hard with Sweden and Holland now to qualify directly for World Cup 2018. They can't afford any more mistakes or slip-ups.
Deschamps should also be worried about the defence. France concede too many goals and have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last eight consecutive matches. The problem is probably not so much the centre-halves but more with the players in front of them and outside of them. The two full-backs, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy, are fantastic going forward but defensively must be much better. They make too many mistakes tactically in their positioning and the two goals against England came on Sidibe's side, as did the first against Sweden.
The back four also needs to be more protected. Matuidi and Pogba both like going forward too much which unbalances the team far too often. The answer is probably playing Kante, who is more defensive minded and would work for two, leaving Pogba, as we said earlier, with the freedom to run the game like he did against England.
France have incredible potential right now when you think that Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Adrien Rabiot, Presnel Kimpembe and Kurt Zouma hardly played or didn't play at all during this international break while Anthony Martial or Kingsley Coman, not even talking about Karim Benzema, didn't even make the squad! Didier Deschamps needs to use all this talent at his disposal in the best way. Now the pressure is on for him to deliver.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.