2018 was a glorious year for French football – and for Didier Deschamps.
20 years after captaining France to World Cup glory on home soil, the Frenchman lifted the Jules Rimet trophy as manager, joining Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the only men to have achieved such a feat.
It was the undebatable pinnacle of Deschamps’ managerial career. He oversaw a well-spirited and passionate group of players, drilled with stunning tactical precision and sent them out to dominate the 2018 World Cup.
He was even an innovator. Playing Blaise Matuidi on the left of his lopsided midfield allowed him to get the most out of Paul Pogba’s creativity and a wide-eyed, keen-to-impress Kylain Mbappe’s pace around the ominous Antoine Griezmann and target man Olivier Giroud.
It was perfection, and it won.
But three years on, and the story is different. The squad’s mentality has shifted, as have Deschamps’ tactical ideas.
In the three years since that triumphant summer, France have tinkered with systems and shapes as their opposition have learned how to deal with Deschamps’ once unplayable game plan. Results like a 2-0 loss to Turkey in June 2019, a 2-0 defeat to Finland in November 2020, and uninspiring and sluggish wins against teams like Moldova and Kazakhstan have continuously demonstrated a lack of ideas – and the problem simply hasn’t been solved.
Deschamps also has a squad in a different mindset to three years ago. They’re now champions, not chasers.
Mbappe is no longer a future star, but rather already a global sensation. Even before a ball was kicked at Euro 2020, it was clear that the Paris Saint-Germain forward’s ego was a lot bigger than it was in Russia and was causing some disharmony among the camp.
France’s lack of tempo and imagination in most fixtures they’d played for the year previous to this summer’s European Championship had also led Deschamps to make a big call: Karim Benzema was reintroduced to the camp. Let’s not get it twisted, the Real Madrid star clearly wanted to inspire his teammates to victory and was thrilled to be involved, but it certainly didn’t help the harmony within the squad.
A melting pot of bad omens prior to Euro 2020 culminated in their round of 16 tie with Switzerland. In the absence of both Lucas Hernandez and Lucas Digne, Deschamps made one of the costliest decisions of his managerial career.
Rather than playing a natural right-footed full-back on the left and staying with the formation his squad had prepared for, the France boss decided to switch system completely – playing centre-back turned right-back Benjamin Pavard at right wing-back and central midfielder Adrein Rabiot on the opposite flank, while also putting Clement Lenglet – who hadn’t featured for Les Bleus since March – straight into the heart of defence.
The France boss had decided to switch to a shape that had not worked for the team on the three previous times they’d attempted it since 2018, against a Swiss side who use it as their primary system, in a major tournament knockout game.
It was a move that showed Deschamps’ lack of ideas and connectivity with his group. It was a move that left the French players looking even more lost, dejected, and without direction or collective purpose than they had previously. It was a move that spurred Switzerland on to eventually record a massive shock result.
After a 3-3 draw over the course of 120 minutes, Yann Sommer secured a 5-4 penalty shootout win by saving Mbappe’s spot-kick – seems ironic, right?
As Gary Neville put it in the ITV studio, France’s whole Euro 2020 campaign was an ’embarrassment’.
And it’s time for change. With Zinedine Zidane waiting for a next challenge and having previously revealed his desire to manage his country, there’s an obvious successor. A successor who has already led star-studded and ego-filled squads to glory (notably three successive Champions League titles at Real Madrid) and a successor who also knows what it is to win major tournaments for France.
The general consensus among French fans is that Zizou would be welcomed with open arms – and a big kiss on either cheek – but, for Deschamps, it could, and should, be…