There was no retribution from France on Saturday evening. A trip to Albania, six days removed from their 4-3 humbling at the hands of Belgium, was on the cards; a side that France have yet to taste defeat against in their lifespan as a footballing nation.
Apt given the national side’s current predicament, France departed Albania late Saturday evening on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline. “I am particularly annoyed and disappointed because I’m responsible,” remarked France coach, Didier Deschamps, post-match.
Whether he was attempting to deflect criticism away from his players or not, now, a year from the highly-anticipated European Championships on home soil, is certainly not the time to be issuing apologies.
His detractors, whose cries of discontent have intensified over recent weeks, will have found those words particularly unpalatable. Their nation, who last tasted European Championship success in 2000, simply do not represent a side capable of giving their fans a month to savour next summer.
And, as Brazil’s World Cup dreams were shattered by Germany infront of their own supporters, there is also a feeling that France’s current dysfunctional bunch are at risk of being humbled in the early rounds.
The most pressing issue for France at this current moment is that Deschamps appears unable to galvanise the dressing room. On the last two outings, France have sleepwalked their way through the 90 minutes and, as paramount to a manager’s role, the ability to maintain motivational levels throughout your squad is key to a side’s progression.
But hosting next year’s tournament, thus gaining automatic entry, can be a doubled-edged sword – on the one hand, Deschamps is able to tinker with the squad without the pressures of sustaining results. The scheduled friendlies, on the other hand, hold little significance and, naturally, effort levels plummet.
It also true that, in the exception of injuries, the spine of France’s side will remain largely unchanged heading into next summer’s championships.
His record as a France coach, meanwhile, continues to split opinions. In the three year’s since he succeeded Laurent Blanc as head coach of the national side, he has yielded a 51.4% win ratio.
And, as Julien Laurens noted in his ESPN blog, makes his stint as France head coach, on paper, the worst since Gerard Houllier’s harrowing tenure during the 1992-93 campaign.
But many Francophones yearned for a commendable World Cup campaign after the debacle in South Africa and, despite crashing out in the quarter-finals of the tournament, they received one. The ex-Marseille boss was able to maximise Karim Benzema’s output and, frankly, France were a more attractive proposition than in previous years.
More pertinently, however, Deschamps’ reign as France boss will likely be determined by the state he departs them in. And currently, France lie in a perilous position.
There are, as always, mitigating circumstances. For one, Deschamps has been let down by players who excel at club level, but underwhelm at international level.
Olivier Giroud falls into that category. In Arsenal colours, he has proven a consistent source of goals since he arrived in 2012 and, more recently, returned from a prolonged spell on the sideline to net 19 times.
In contrast, his international career can be defined by a World Cup group-stage tie against Switzerland and, worryingly, he has proven over the course of his international career that he cannot be relied upon as France’s primary centre-forward.
Arsenal teammate, Laurent Koscielny, is another culprit. At club level, he has developed into a magisterial centre-half and, at that, one of the best in the land. But when tasked to play alongside Raphael Varane in Les Bleus backline, he has become increasingly fallible.
Equally, Deschamps is hamstrung in solving the central-midfield crisis for France. Yohan Cabaye’s shoddy club-form has finally caught up into him and, as the fixture against Belgium testified, he is unable to flourish in that role. Meanwhile, Maxime Gonalons does not offer the attacking qualities required. Morgan Schneiderlin has yet to trade his style for substance, while Moussa Sissoko lacks discipline.
There can be no caveats attached to the quality of attacking options waiting in the wings for Deschamps, however. Dimitri Payet, Nabil Fekir and Paul-Georges Ntep are, to varying degrees, capable of superseding those higher in the pecking order.
Why, then, does Deschamps refuse to integrate Fekir and Payet, or, given the individual skill set of the former, shape the side to augment his talents? Instead, France often rely on 30-year-old Mathieu Valbuena to provide the ingenuity.
The pint-sized midfielder is, in his own right, a fine talent. Perhaps France’s most impressive player over the last year or so. But by plying his trade in an admittedly inferior Russian Premier League – coupled with his ageing body – there remains the risk that by the time Euro 2016 rolls around, Valbuena’s potency will have diminished.
France are, however, in a position to turn things around. Deschamps has seven friendlies before the June 10th opener in the Stade de France, including clashes with England, Portugal and Netherlands.
But he has to be ruthless. Cabaye does not merit a place in the starting XI – many will argue that extends beyond the squad – and, in Alexandre Lacazette, the 46-year-old has a responsibility to bed the 27-goal forward into the side.
Perhaps France will take solace in the fact that, as Brazil’s form before the World Cup last summer showed, promising form in friendlies does not equate to consistent form during competitive ties. With only 12 months remaining until their date with destiny, however, a decision on Deschamps’ future must be made – is he hindering the development of a talented phalanx of players, or are they merely lacking desire?