MOSCOW — One step forward, two steps back. This France team has been hard to follow so far at this World Cup. This is probably because there is not much of a guiding idea from Didier Deschamps and not much momentum from the players either, despite the improvement we saw against Peru.
Their dreadful 0-0 draw against Denmark on Tuesday at the Luzhniki Stadium confirmed two things. The French still finished top of their group, which was their objective. They did the job in a relatively easy group and don’t care how they did it.
“We really don’t care. It was not a nice game to watch. Denmark didn’t want to make any effort and neither did we, said Antoine Griezmann, whose current form is now as worrying as France’s performance was bad on Tuesday. “The most important is to be in the last 16. This World Cup is hard, tougher than the one in 2014 I feel.”
The second thing, and the most relevant, is that France’s second string failed to impress. Deschamps made six changes to his starting line-up compared to the team that beat Peru 1-0 on Thursday. He had faith in the newcomers and in their ability to push the starters all the way for a place in the team for the last 16. “If they are here, it is because they are good enough to play and to start for France at the World Cup,” said the manager on Monday.
Yet that faith is now gone. At times while sitting on the bench, the French head coach could not believe what he was seeing. Sloppy passes, bad choices, no intensity, no width, poor crosses: the list could go on.
It was a big game for Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele or Djibril Sidibe and they simply didn’t show up. Not long ago, they were certain to start for France. Lemar was the star of the 4-0 win against the Netherlands in September and also started against Colombia in March. Dembele was in the team for the first game against Australia, while Sidibe played all the World Cup qualifiers as well. A good performance against the Danes and they would have put the doubt in Deschamps’ mind for upcoming matches but it wasn’t to be.
Lemar was shocking. He didn’t bring anything forward. His confidence is so low that he was reluctant to take any risks in possession. He missed a lot of easy things and somehow still finished the game. Dembele was not so fortunate, subbed off after 78 minutes. While on the pitch he provided no end product, which is too common in his case. His play simply wasn’t good enough.
As for Sidibe? “I thought I played very well, one-touch football with a lot of intensity. I am happy,” he told ESPN after the game. He clearly didn’t see the same match as everyone else; though he was motivated, his play was far too messy.
In goal, Steve Mandanda hardly had anything to do. Presnel Kimpembe was solid at centre-back, albeit against a team that hardly attacked. And what was the point of Steven Nzonzi? In a game like this and alongside Ngolo Kante, he was useless. Benjamin Mendy came on after 50 minutes for his World Cup debut though the quality of his crosses was terrible. With Lucas Hernandez’ injury, Mendy might get lucky and play in the last 16; if so, he will have to be much better than he was on Tuesday.
To his credit, Griezmann tried to defend his teammates’ poor performance. “It is hard for the new players. It has been 10 or 15 days since their last competitive game. It is complicated to come into the team like this. And for most of them, it was their World Cup debut as well,” he said after the match.
The truth is that this game, the worst of the World Cup so far and its first 0-0 too, has killed off any sort of competition within the French squad. There will be no debate as to who plays in the last 16 on Saturday. There are no winners today, only losers. The ones who missed their chance might not see anymore playing time in this tournament.
“A new competition starts now. We came here with big ambitions. We had some tough games but we got what we wanted. We are here with a lot of humility and ambition. Now, we are in front of the mountain,” said Deschamps after the game on Tuesday.
He already knows which of his players will be doing the climbing.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.