France are favourites - but stars need to step up

Didier Deschamps’ France side have been largely underwhelming so far this summer. From a last minute belter to win the opening game, a hard-working victory in their second match and a disappointing draw in their final game, it’s not been quite the cracking start the French would’ve hoped for.

Now the knockout stages loom, it is only going to become a more pressurised situation for France. The country will be dreaming of success, having largely disappointed over the past few years. Deschamps’ changes have worked, thus far, but the players have looked sluggish, short on form and disjointed at times. That is, of course, apart from the magnificent Dimtiri Payet.

On that note, let’s take a look at a few France players who need to up their game if it can be a historic summer for the country…

Paul Pogba – Hyped up as the star of the tournament, the ultimate French poster boy has flatter to deceive so far. Crucially being left on the overcrowded bench for their second game, Pogba has disappointed Deschamps as much as anyone. In his three appearances during the group stages, Pogba was dispossessed at an average of 3.3 times per 90 minutes, a rate that is considerably higher than it had been during his club season.
Fatigue may, of course, be a factor for a player who has appeared over 55 times this season, but Pogba’s penchant for the spectacular must be reined in if France are to have a real impact on the knockout stages of the Euros.

Pogba’s slightly different role in the French side has also seen him ratchet up his passing, playing considerably more long balls per game than he has done for Scudetto-winning Juventus. This is largely down to his midfield partners, Matuidi and Kante, meaning that he has more of a responsibility to shift possession himself and has to take on the role of central playmaker.

Further into the tournament, Pogba must find a way to create more open chances for the forward line. As formidable as the current midfield is, the balance places a lot of strain on Pogba to produce in transition.

Blaise Matuidi – One of the best midfielders in the world on his day, Blaise Matuidi has been hugely disappointing so far this tournament. Improvement, like for Pogba, is a must if France are to go all the way. A season as the engine in Paris Saint Germain’s midfield might just be catching up with Matuidi as he struggles to have the same dominance on games in all three thirds that we have become accustomed to.

The presence of N’golo Kante might have just upset Matuidi’s positioning in the side, too, with the players often going for the same loose balls. Defensively, Matuidi is contributing far less in the current France side than he did during the Ligue 1 season. Per 90, Matuidi won less tackles and completed less interceptions in the group stage and – despite being a small sample size – this is representative of a player who has markedly under performed.

Although Matuidi is not a match winner in the same way as Paul Pogba, he is a vital cog in any side he plays in. His role in providing shape when out of possession and as a ball carrier when looking to make a quick attacking transition is vital, yet he has hardly made an impact on the Euros thus far.

Unless there is to be a permanent change of shape by Deschamps, Matuidi must find his best form both with and without the ball to give his side the midfield balance that is oh-so crucial at the top level.

Antoine Griezmann – After another wonderful season with Atletico, Antoine Griezmann has been a flop at the Euros. Many tipped the forward to be one of the players of the tournament and, from the very first game, he has looked short of confidence. Being taken off early in the second half of the curtain-raiser was always going to have some collateral damage and Deschamps is at risk of paying the price.

When Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial were both picked to start the second group game ahead of Griezmann it was a reflection of his poor first performance, despite the fact neither youngster really had much of an impact.

The presence of Olivier Giroud has taken Griezmann into a now-alien role on the wing and there is no question that this has upset his rhythm. After scoring 22 La Liga goals as a central striker, being shoe horned into a wide position – despite beginning his career in that role – does seem a little harsh. The result has been a star player shooting less frequently and too often taking the safety-first option when in possession.

Griezmann, unless Coman or Martial are to step up to the plate, needs to up his performances drastically in the knockout stages. With a potential quarter-final against England, the pace of the Atleti man could be a real game changer if he is allowed to drift more centrally and feed off the scraps of the in-form Olivier Giroud.