Deschamps gets lucky as France beat Australia but piles on the pressure
MOSCOW -- France did win vs. Australia, but Didier Deschamps lost.
Les Bleus got the three points they wanted with a 2-1 victory Saturday despite their manager getting pretty much everything wrong. Deschamps' ability to guide his very talented squad all the way through this World Cup had been questioned a lot before the start of the competition, and this is without a doubt the worst start he could have hoped for on a personal level.
Before facing the Socceroos, the pressure was on Deschamps almost more than on his players, which doesn't happen to him too often. Deschamps felt it as well. Deschamps led his team as it entered Kazan Arena, as he always does, but you could see the tension on his face as he arrived, almost as if he knew already then that the plan he had put in place for this match was not the right one.
The pressure was on and it got the best of Deschamps. Instead of pushing away doubts over his management, the French coach put more scrutiny on it.
A first game at a World Cup is never easy. It's the biggest stage of all and vital to start on the right foot. However, when you make it even more complicated by changing your tactics a couple of weeks before and then actually play in a different way on the day of the game, and when you decide to give a World Cup debut to seven of your 11 starters, you're not helping yourself, either.
In short, Deschamps' risky choices backfired on him. He tried to justify it after the game regarding his decision to start a front three of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe by saying that they did well together against Italy two weeks ago. Yes, they did: in a friendly, at home in Lyon, at 9 p.m., against a team with a new manager and still traumatised by its World Cup playoff debacle.
Playing Australia in Kazan, under the midday sun and on a dry pitch against a determined, well-organised and solid team is not the same at all. Even Griezmann admitted after the victory that the lack of game time between the three was an issue. Yet Deschamps thought it was the right call to make.
For three weeks, the players worked on a new 4-3-1-2 formation, replacing the 4-4-2 they used in qualifying. They played their three friendly games like that, with Nabil Fekir and then Griezmann in the No. 10 role. On Saturday, Griezmann started wide in a 4-3-3. There was no No. 10 anymore; instead, it was a bit of a mess up front as Mbappe, Griezmann and Dembele ended up making the same runs, stepping on each other's toes and being totally transparent.
Hugo Lloris hinted after the game that the game plan was not very clear, either. He wasn't sure whether the instructions were to press or to drop deep. As a result, France did neither in the first half. It got a bit better after the break, but overall, it was simply not good enough at this level.
Deschamps had a shocker regarding his team selection. Dembele was certainly not ready to play in a game of this calibre. Corentin Tolisso, preferred to Blaise Matuidi, had a stinker in midfield. Benjamin Pavard, who played at right-back, struggled. The lack of experience of the team -- the average age was 24 years and 6 months, with only three players 26 or older -- was telling, but again, Deschamps went for it. Even his substitutions were disappointing. Fekir and Matuidi didn't bring anything to the game, unlike Olivier Giroud, who set up Paul Pogba's winner.
Lloris, whose analysis of his team's performance was spot-on after the game on Saturday, also asked each player to raise their game now that the World Cup is underway. It could not be truer for Deschamps as well. He has to do better.
Everything is not his fault, of course. The way the French players underestimated Australia is not down to him. He warned his men that the Aussies would be well organised and aggressive, which they were. Samuel Umtiti's stupid handball to gift Australia a way back in this game is not Deschamps' fault, either.
Ultimately, though, the France head coach had a lucky escape and can't afford to make more mistakes like these. Entering Thursday's game against Peru, the pressure on him is greater than ever.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.