Back in June, France were overwhelming favourites ahead of the Euro 2020 finals, off the back of a victorious World Cup campaign and a strength in depth unparalleled across Europe.
Three months later, however, Les Bleus are bordering on turmoil. Since beating Germany in their opening Euros match, they have drawn five on the bounce, including the last-16 elimination by Switzerland on penalties.
On-field displays have not improved during this international break, following underwhelming 1-1 draws against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine, leading to several stars admitting their exasperation in public.
So what is going wrong with the world champions? Sportsmail delves into some of the issues…
France have drawn five matches in a row and are making qualification for Qatar 2022 difficult
Didier Deschamps is facing a number of problems, including the role of Antoine Griezmann
HAS DESCHAMPS LOST HIS DOMINEERING AUTHORITY?
FRANCE’S LAST SIX MATCHES
- D 1-1 vs Ukraine (WC qualifier)
- D 1-1 vs Bosnia and Herzegovina (WC qualifier)
- D 3-3, lost 5-4 on pens vs Switzerland (Euro 2020, last-16)
- D 2-2 vs Portugal (Euro 2020, group-stage)
- D 1-1 vs Hungary (Euro 2020, group-stage)
- W 1-0 vs Germany (Euro 2020, group-stage)
It is the trickiest period in Didier Deschamps’ nine-year reign as France boss.
Their early exit from Euro 2020 in the summer was a surprise but – after a run to the Euro 2016 final and victory in Russia two years later – it was excusable.
This is at times the random nature of tournament football, where shocks and upsets are relatively commonplace.
Yet it pointed to some other problems. French sports outlet L’Equipe state that Deschamps’ managerial approach has changed, from his usual authoritarian nature to that of being more open on matters of selection and formation.
His players have influence now and he is willing to negotiate on style and approach – but is that leaving the team open to a lack of clear identity and thinking?
The squad almost feared their manager ahead of the 2018 World Cup but since that ultimate triumph, Deschamps has softened – the thinking is that this has also led to general drop in discipline.
Another accusation labelled at the team at the moment is a lack of aggressiveness on the pitch, which captain Hugo Lloris acknowledged after Saturday’s stalemate in Kiev.
Deschamps has reportedly softened his approach since France’s 2018 World Cup triumph
‘There was a lack of commitment, of aggressiveness. The euphoria of the 2018 World Cup is over,’ he sharply said.
‘We’re feeling a little lack of confidence. There’s also a lot of development in terms of players, but it’s up to everyone to increase their level of performance.’
While it could be argued that France are simply going through a rough patch in form – not unlike Spain after their string of successes from 2008-2012 – these issues do need to be resolved sooner rather than later.
BENZEMA’S RETURN HAS UPSET THE APPLE CART
The ultimate indication of Deschamps changing his approach was his surprise recall for Karim Benzema for the Euros.
The Real Madrid forward had not played for his country since 2015, following an alleged blackmail of fellow national team player Mathieu Valbuena over the alleged recording of a sex tape.
But amid Benzema’s terrific form for Real Madrid, Deschamps changed tack and opted to bring the 33-year-old back into the fold.
And, in Deschamps’ defence, Benzema’s form has been good, as he struck four times at the Euros.
Karim Benzema’s return to the France team is an indication of Deschamps’ change in approach
However, despite Benzema integrating himself back into the set-up professionally, the simple matter of his recall is indicative of Deschamps’ change in approach and a removal of the stubbornness which elevated France to such heights.
And given France’s supreme form before, was Benzema’s recall really necessary, particularly given the array of riches Les Bleus have in attack anyway?
For what it’s worth, Benzema isn’t panicking.
‘I wouldn’t say worry, because there’s nothing to worry about, but obviously we want to win every game. Benzema told Telefoot after the draw to Ukraine.
‘We know that matches are getting harder and harder and we only have ourselves to blame, because we need to be setting the tempo and manage our efforts – it’s up to us to make the difference.’
That said, Benzema did score four goals at Euro 2020 and has settled back in well
Tonight, Benzema returns to Lyon amid much fanfare as France host Finland at the Groupama Stadium. Deschamps is persevering with Benzema for now – but for how much longer?
GRIEZMANN IS INCREASINGLY CONFUSED AT CHANGE IN ROLE
Such a vital player for the national team, Antoine Griezmann is undergoing a difficult period currently with both club and country.
Amidst a tough two years at Barcelona – and following a deadline-day return to Atletico Madrid on loan – the forward is also reportedly being left confused as to his role with the national team.
Griezmann’s role is constantly changing, match by match, and his creativity is diminishing too.
But Deschamps, particularly tonight without the injured Kylian Mbappe, must start getting the best out of the 30-year-old again.
Griezmann is undergoing a difficult period, unsure of his role with the national team
He scored a terrific header last week to save a point against Bosnia and Herzegovina and 20 goals for his country since the start of 2018 shows the impact an in-form Griezmann can have on France’s fortunes.
POGBA LEADS THE WAVES OF DISCONTENT
Paul Pogba certainly did not mince his words after France were held once again at the weekend.
‘We have to show some pride as well and not accept it all,’ he said.
‘Pardon the language, but it p***es me off to not be winning. I haven’t won with the French team in a while, and it’s something that I’ve missed. I think that’s the case with everyone, with all of the players, we want to show a reaction.
‘We have to do a lot better, we know that. It comes down to the details, we’ll need to change it and be more aggressive, work harder and show more desire.
Paul Pogba certainly did not mince his words after France were held once again by Ukraine
‘I think it’s down to everyone, for example when you see a player putting in a tackle it gives a boost to go up. I include myself in that, we need to be more aggressive – when we are, we win the ball higher up the pitch and we’re more incisive.’
In a way, this is exactly the sort of reaction this French side need. They can put things right as their qualification for Qatar is still very much in their hands, starting tonight.
‘Right now, we’re not the best team in the world,’ Pogba added.
‘We need to do the job on the pitch for that. It’s the results that are going to show that.’
MISSING IN-FORM STARS…
Mbappe’s absence tonight due to a calf injury is a blow, as is N’Golo Kante’s poorly-timed ankle knock that he picked up in the opening weeks of the Premier League season for Chelsea.
No matter how good the strength in depth, any side would miss those two stars.
Replacements such as Adrien Rabiot and Aurelien Tchouameni have not met the standard required so far – and lest we forget the row that brewed in the summer between Rabiot’s mother and Mbappe’s family in the stands.
Also missing for Deschamps is Jules Kounde – following a two-match ban for his horror tackle and red card last week – as well as Kingsley Coman, Lucas Hernandez, Benjamin Pavard, Dayot Upamecano and Corentin Tolisso.
Kylian Mbappe (left) is absent for France’s encounter tonight due to a calf injury
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante also withdrew from the squad last week because of an ankle knock
So to tonight, and a clash against Finland which now takes on extra significance.
The Finns are only four points behind France in Group D having played two fewer matches – and only top spot automatically qualifies for Qatar 2022.
Deschamps’ men are still in a good position, but they can ill afford another slip-up against a Finland side who beat them on home soil in a friendly last year.
Beyond anything else, France simply need a win to stop the rot and the critics as this international window draws to a close.
Finland stunned France to win 2-0 in a friendly last November – could history repeat itself?