France will win or lose based on Didier Deschamps' uncharacteristic gambles
MOSCOW -- Throughout his managerial career, Didier Deschamps has always been easy to follow. Like every tactician, he has his principles: mostly conservative and defensive ones, in his case. But he is not a gambler. Everything he does is usually long thought of before, mulled over and never decided in a rush. In 2014 for the World Cup and 2016 for the European Championships, he had a style, an idea and his tactics ready to start the tournament.
Not in 2018. This year, to the surprise of everyone, including his players, Deschamps is gambling.
Just a month before the start of the World Cup, the France manager decided to pretty much change everything. Out the window went the 4-4-2 formation he'd been using ever since the round-of-16 game against Ireland at the most recent Euros. For two years he'd been working with his players on this system, the partnership up front between Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as well as the positioning of the four players in midfield. Yet he decided it was not good enough to face Australia in the opening match on Saturday in Kazan. So Les Bleus started from scratch on a new formation, the 4-3-1-2, new tactics with a diamond midfield, new positioning with Griezmann as a No. 10 and a new style.
Three weeks before the start of the World Cup, the move is daring to say the least, risque and even borderline crazy. Why did he do it? He has yet to explain to the media. He's also brushed aside any questions about it so far. "He thought it would be better for the team," Kylian Mbappe said Wednesday.
Is it a better shape in terms of balance? Probably. The three players in midfield offer more protection to the back four, so defensively, it is better. In terms of certainty of success? Not really. France did well in their 4-4-2. The players were comfortable in this formation. Griezmann plays like this at Atletico Madrid, as does Ousmane Dembele at Barcelona. Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibe and Mbappe played like this when they won the league with Monaco a season ago.
Sources told ESPN FC that the dressing room isn't so keen about the sudden and late tactical change. Take Griezmann. He's currently one of the best strikers in the world and has just scored 29 goals and enjoyed 13 assists this season with Atletico in a 4-4-2 set. By putting him in a No. 10 position, albeit with a lot of freedom, you take him away from the box where he is so lethal and decisive. Despite the quality of his vision and passing, he is not a playmaker in the purest sense.
This "mini-revolution," as French media have put it, from Deschamps might have been inspired by the emergence of Mbappe. Deschamps wants to put his diamond midfield in the best environment to succeed. If Mbappe plays wide in a 4-4-2 , he still needs to do a lot of work defensively to help his full-back. If you play him up front in a two, he doesn't have to defend much anymore, which suits him more. It is the same for Dembele, who is likely to start up front with him Saturday against Australia.
It can be said that France have not really improved since the Euro 2016 final. The old 4-4-2 look certainly has its limits, particularly in midfield, where you can get overrun by a strong opponent. However, by deciding to change his tactics so close to the start of the World Cup, Didier Deschamps has taken a big gamble. If it works Saturday against Australia, the pressure on him and his players will be eased. If it doesn't pay off, the stress will build even more and the atmosphere in the dressing room and around the team will get much heavier.
The tactics aren't the only gamble by Deschamps. On Thursday, he decided to keep Sidibe in his squad, sources told ESPN FC. The Monaco defender has been struggling to get fit for over a week, and Deschamps did think about sending him home and calling up Mathieu Debuchy instead. He's since ended the conversation. For someone who is not a gambler, Deschamps has made two huge calls.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.