Benzema return the main talking point
Didier Deschamps’ decision to recall Karim Benzema to the France fold provoked online hysteria last Tuesday and the furore has yet to die down.
Benzema’s return after 71 games in the international wilderness was the major talking point across all the Euro 2020 squad announcements. His inclusion has whetted the appetite for the type of delicious football France may play this summer.
An attack comprising Benzema, Antoine Griezmann (pictured below) and Kylian Mbappe will be the tournament’s finest. The prospect of the trio being on the pitch at the same time has seen France installed as 6.05/1 Euro 2020 favourites.
Mbappe is 8.27/1 favourite in the UEFA Best Player of the Tournament market. He’s 10.09/1 third favourite in the Top Goalscorer market. He and Griezmann – the latter 24.023/1 to be top goalscorer – will be happy to share the limelight with the prodigal son.
Some are concerned the return of the Real Madrid striker will upset les Bleus’ squad harmony. There’s no evidence to support this.
The media reported several France players are “excited” about the prospect of lining-up alongside Benzema, enjoying the finest season of his career.
Whatever legal or disciplinary problems Benzema has had down the years, you can hardly label a high-performing centre-forward of more than a decade at one of the world’s biggest football clubs a disruptive dressing-room influence.
Erstwhile first-choice Olivier Giroud is relegated to the role of back-up target man. Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder is the third and final central striker thanks to his scoring record at Monaco over two seasons (38 goals in 62 Ligue 1 games).
4-2-3-1 the favoured formation
Across the squad Deschamps has favoured experience over rawness. This should surprise nobody. A born winner, Deschamps values a track record of success over everything.
Of France’s 26 players, 14 were also members of the successful World Cup squad three years ago. Several plagued by injuries or poor form have plagued some, such as Lucas Hernandez, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar and Ousmane Dembele, have kept their places.
As in Russia, France will use a 4-2-3-1. Eight of 2021’s favoured starting XI – Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Hernandez, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Mbappe and Griezmann – were first-choices en route to World Cup victory.
Of the three changes, Benzema for Giroud is the first. The second is Presnel Kimpembe for Samuel Umtiti – no longer in the international set-up – as the left-sided centre-back.
The third sees Adrien Rabiot replace Blaise Matuidi. Overlooked since moving to MLS last year, Matuidi was excellent in France’s asymmetric 4-2-3-1, shuttling between central midfield and the left wing. Now the role’s Rabiot’s.
More conventional wide attacking alternatives to Rabiot are Dembele, Kingsley Coman and Marcus Thuram. They may be drafted in and out of the team depending on game state and opposition.
Defence and midfield areas of concern
Does France’s formidable line-up leave opponents hope? Are there weaknesses to exploit?
Two flaws stand out. The first is the left-sided centre-back position. At his best, Kimpembe is majestic, but his form has faltered in 2021. He’s France’s no.1 choice in the position. Recent evidence suggests he may wobble.
Understudy Lenglet inspires even less confidence. He has had a habit of making alarming mistakes since he was a teenager in Nancy’s ‘B’ team.
The lack of midfield depth is the other shortcoming. The back-ups to Kante and Pogba are Rabiot, Tolisso, Moussa Sissoko – and that’s it. Sissoko being an unchallenged selection says it all.
This area of the squad was also thin at the World Cup. Kante and Pogba were the starting duo. Steven N’Zonzi was the first-choice back-up, notably playing 35 minutes of the final.
A lack of quality cover was no barrier to success then, and may not be again. Yet losing Kante or Pogba for a number of games would leave France seriously exposed.
Les Bleus still the team to beat
Those concerns aside, France are in ideal shape. They have depth, quality and experience, a manager with a peerless track record, and the Benzema factor.
Will les Bleus add the Euros to their World Cup triumph? Will Deschamps become the first man to win the European Championship and World Cup as player and manager? We’ll see.
What’s clear, however, is that France enter the tournament as the team to beat.
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Mike Maignan
Defenders: Benjamin Pavard, Leo Dubois, Raphael Varane, Kurt Zouma, Jules Kounde, Presnel Kimpembe, Clement Lenglet, Lucas Hernandez, Lucas Digne
Midfielders: N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Adrien Rabiot, Moussa Sissoko, Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar
Attackers: Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Kingsley Coman, Ousmane Dembele, Marcus Thuram
Strikers: Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, Wissam Ben Yedder