France will need more than Mbappe moments if they’re to retain the World Cup

Date published: Sunday 4th December 2022 7:21 - Ian King

Kylian Mbappe shoots for France during their World Cup game against Denmark

France got through to the knockout stages of the World Cup without too much difficulty, but things are about to get considerably tougher for them.

 

If there’s one thing that we can say for certain about the 2022 World Cup so far from a footballing perspective, it’s that there has been very little consistency. No team put in masterful performances in all three group games, while a couple of big hitters may count themselves a little fortunate to have scraped through the group stages at all.

One of the most eyebrow-raising results of the week came in the final match in Group D, when Tunisia beat France 1-0. This wasn’t quite an earthquake-producing result. With France already through to the knockouts, Didier Deschamps played a second-string team with players out of position. Tunisia didn’t qualify as a result of their win and France’s first-choice eleven got a bit of break. No harm done.

But is it really as simple as that? Does a game’s worth of rest really outweigh the disruption of losing? Because it can hardly be said that this match simply ‘didn’t matter’ to France. This much can seen from Deschamps’ decision to introduce Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Adrien Rabiot and William Saliba during the second half after Tunisia took the lead, while the decision of the Fédération Française de Football to protest over Griezmann’s late equaliser being ruled out after the final whistle had blown also implies that losing matter to them.

And if the Tunisia result demonstrated anything at all, it was that while France have an outstanding first eleven, they lack strength in depth. A couple of injuries to key players could set them quite a long way off course, and with the draw for the knockout stages having not been particularly kind to them beyond the second round, the quality of their bench will only become more important as the tournament progresses.

Is it merely wishful thinking to be looking for fallibility in this France team? After all, their win against Australia was one of the more one-sided of the tournament so far and European Championship semi-finalists Denmark were navigated well enough.

Despite the pre-tournament injuries to Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba, their attacking options remain glorious. Mbappe is one of the very few footballers on the planet who seems to play the game on a different plane to just about everybody else, while Griezmann remains a reliable foil and Olivier Giroud cannot be discounted, even at 35 years of age.

But if there were ever any doubts to be had over this France team, they were never focused on the attack. Five of the defenders in their squad have made fewer than ten appearances at international level, while Spurs supporters will attest that goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has had something of an accident-prone season so far in the Premier League. The loss of N’Golo Kante to yet another injury may have been entirely predictable, but to suggest the absence of a player whose star shone so brightly as they won the last tournament isn’t big just feels a little silly.

They conceded first against Australia and it took them until four minutes from the end of the Denmark game to score their winning goal there, too. They were very good in both of those games, but as with everybody else in this tournament their football hasn’t been perfect throughout.

And while that group draw was not an unreasonable one for France, their progress beyond the group stages increases sharply in difficulty as they progress. In the second round they play Poland, for whom Robert Lewandowski has finally broken his goal drought and will be desperate to extend his involvement in what, at 34 years old, may well turn out to be his last World Cup.

France are expected to get through that game, and presuming they do so they then face either an England team that has rediscovered a little form or a Senegal side that would surely arrive for such a game with something approaching a tidal wave of momentum behind them for what would likely become a de facto away match for France.

Get through that, and none of Morocco, Spain, Portugal or Switzerland would be considered pushovers.

The risk for France is that Deschamps becomes over-reliant on Mbappe doing Mbappe things. It should go without saying that there is no footballer on the planet better placed to do Mbappe things than Mbappe. but over-reliance on those moments of magic would be a risky policy to follow. All you have to do is take a look at PSG’s record in the Champions League with Mbappe in the team to see that.

But the fact does remain that Mbappe is an incredible footballer, almost certainly the best in the world at the moment, and he is backed up by a group of players who are plenty capable of going all the way in the World Cup, just as they did in Russia four and a half years ago. The team that Tunisia beat in their final group game is categorically not the France team that will be playing the rest of the tournament, whether that lasts one more game or four.

If France are to retain the World Cup, obstacles will certainly have been thrown in their way, from the glut of injuries they’ve suffered to being lumped in a challenging part of the draw for the knockout stages. And these things can unravel quickly in international football. A year and a half ago at Euro 2020, France led Switzerland 3-1 with ten minutes to play, looking comfortable for a place in the quarter-finals. An hour later, Switzerland had won the game on penalties; it was Mbappe who ended up as the only person not to score in the shootout.

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