Milton Ceita Da Costa
France's Once and Future Generals
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, the criminally underrated Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fékir, Anthony Martial, Florian Thauvin, Adrien Rabiot, Blaise Matuidi, Tanguy Ndombele, Thomas Lemar, Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Kingsley Coman, Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud…
France has some of the best midfield and attacking talent in the world, perhaps the best.
Maybe even more impressive? Their backline, specifically in the center. The talent they currently boast is otherworldly and the pipeline looks set to continue long into the future. Could this be France’s response to Italy’s vaunted defender history?
The team to lift the Men’s World Cup in 2018 was marshaled by Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti (just saying his name, gets the song going again). Before that, in the Euro 2016 in which France lost at home in the final to Portugal, it was Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny ; Varane was ruled out from the tournament due to injury. Koscielny should be commended. He was a good player in his prime if not exceptional and did play in an international final. He has long been done with the French national team but during his prime, was much maligned for not being Tony Adams, but was in fact a very good centerback.
Let’s have a look.
A Few Who Could Have Played for France but Went Another Way…
Medhi Benatia is another although at 32 years old and a Moroccan international, he is often overlooked. He, however, was born and raised in France and has played for Udinese, Roma, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Kalidou Koulibaly, a French-born Senegalese international, could have played for France and… WOW.
Current Internationals and Hopefuls
Not all of the players listed can be deemed elite but at least five of them can and the others would walk into most international lineups. Before we continue, one thing to note is the amount of players who left France early in their careers to learn a new league and develop their game and their minds elsewhere. There can be something said in this approach ; Antoine Griezmann is another example of this.
Raphaël Varane is the most noteworthy of the blue contingent. There are few players in world football to have won as much as he has and to have done so at the ripe old age of… 26. He has been around for so long that we often overlook him and although he has had his injury problems, particularly early on in his first-team career, he has learned from some of the most renown managers in the world such as José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Didier Deschamps, Rafa Benítez and Zinedine Zidane. In every single one of his team’s successes, club or country, he has been a key element and has grown into a leader, especially for a young French side. The prototypical modern defender, he, on his day, can be considered a top three or four central defender in the world if not better.
Aymeric Laporte has missed most of the 2019/2020 season ; this has simply proven how important he is to Manchester City. There was a reason Pep Guardiola was desperate to acquire him from Athletic Bilbao. It was surprising however that Manchester City seemed to be the only club heavily focused in recruiting him. He was unlucky not to have been called up for Euro 2016, having to wait his turn behind players such as Adil Rami and Eliaquim Mangala for the French national team. He has amazingly still yet to play for his country of birth, due mainly to injury, and even flirted with joining the Spanish national team. He has everything one could want in a centerback and is quicker than he appears ; he reads the game intelligently and would be a cornerstone for any team playing out from the back and indeed is for his club. With him coming back into form and fitness, it will be very interesting to see if he gets the chance to partner the ever-present Raphaël Varane for France at the 2020 Euros, as his stature in the game had surely surpassed, before the injury, his main competition.
Samuel Umtiti arrived in Spain with much fanfare (for Olympique Lyonnais followers) and started his Barcelona career very well but has since been blighted by injury and struggling to get a good run of games. He was excellent in Ligue 1 and looked to be the future of the Barcelona defense. Umtiti is not as tall as some of his competitors but makes up for it with other qualities. He can pass out of the back, he is strong in the tackle, a powerful runner and tactically astute. To be fair, all of this could legitimately be said about the best of the French centerbacks.
Clement Lenglet, yet another left-footed general, has similarly started his Barcelona career well and although he might not yet be number one in the pecking order for the club he is their best centerback. It appears that he will soon officially take that mantel for Barcelona and it is easy to see why. His arrival in Barcelona was met with skepticism by some but he has shown what an intelligent buy he has been. Lenglet is clean on the ball, can play short or long, is more coordinated than he appears and is as composed as they come. He looks like an excellent carrier of the Barcelona tradition.
Benjamin Pavard who can alternate between right back— indeed he scored a worldie at the World Cup from this position— and centerback, plays for Bayern Munich and can no longer be considered even the fourth choice centerback for the French national team. He is intelligent and flexible and should not be too worried for his spot as he is likely to play right back for Les Bleus once again this summer. He is not as assured through the middle as Laporte, Lenglet, Umtiti or Varane but then he has been moved around the pitch more than most. He remains a more than decent backup if the French are ever in a pinch.
Dayot Upamecano is one of the most in-demand centerbacks in world football and a premier young one. He plays and starts for RB Leipzig, learning in one of the most educational leagues under one of the most intelligent young managers and for one of the most advanced clubs in the world. Upamecano is confident and backs it up. He does not hesitate to dribble out from the back and does so with success but is also willing to adapt his game and go long. His future is as bright as any.
Presnel Kimpembe who may or may not live up to expectations has been with PSG for 15 years and principally plays with and competes against Thiago Silva and Marquinhos. Besides having a delightful name, he is another “modern” centerback but this time on the shorter side, not unlike Marquinhos. Kimpembe likes to bring the ball out from the back, is proactive and looks more assured than before. He has been capped by France but looks to have a more strenuous path to the top what with so much talent. He has players older and younger than him with more upside and/or more quality. He is still nonetheless a more than adequate reserve.
Abdou Diallo (23), Issa Diop (23), Mouctar Diakhaby (23) and Kurt Zouma (25) are unlikely to make much headway for France in the next few years unless unfortunate injury strikes. All four would have to be partnered with a much better and much more experienced cornerback to ever contemplate giving them an extended run for the national team. They find themselves behind Kimpembe but further demonstrate how France is spoiled for choice.
Coming through the pipeline : 22 years of age or younger they have :
(Boubacar Kamara, Benoît Badiashile and Wesley Fofana)
France’s future looks assured with the next generation looking to follow the current standard-bearers.
Benoît Badiashile (18) : has the benefit of being fairly tall, around 194cm or (6’4’’) and at the age of 18 he has already made 15 Ligue 1 appearances for AS Monaco’s team this year. They continue to prove to be one of the better talent factories in Europe. He is confident with the ball at his feet and can pass well. Physically he has a bright future although he could stand to put on some weight.
Théo Barbet (18) : is certainly one for the future. He plays for DFCO’s reserve team but is only 18. It remains to be seen if he can evolve like his fellow left-footed Frenchmen. Fun note : from the same city as Antoine Griezmann.
Nicolas Cozza (21) : plays for Montpellier and has perhaps disappointed some. He is not afraid to play or get stuck in a tackle. His path is not as high arcing but he can have a successful career in Europe.
Bafodé Diakité (19) : is benefiting from playing fairly regularly for Toulouse. He has not been spectacular for them as they struggle at the foot of Ligue 1 but the experience will, hopefully, be a positive one. His decision-making will need to improve but at 19 that is almost a guarantee.
Wesley Fofana (19) : can be considered to be having a successful season. He is playing regularly at only 19 and has tasted Europa League competition with l’ASSE. He is aggressive and appears to be passionate about defending. He comes out of the under appreciated Saint-Étienne factory. His passing needs to improve but he is on a better trajectory than some of his compatriots.
Boubacar Kamara (20) : is perhaps the most successful of the new generation so far (after Upamecano). He plays consistently for Marseille and has often been moved into midfield as well. He is a good passer and a confident one. He makes himself available to play and demonstrates composure and maturity. Neither the tallest nor the strongest, his game nonetheless is well-tailored and his future could be quite exciting.
Evan N’Dicka (20) : has started several games for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. This is a great learning environment for him. Another left-footer, he has played in the Europa League as well. His passing is a weakness but physically he is well built and powerful. He might not always appear coordinated but as he matures, so will his game.
Andy Pelmard (19) : plays for Nice and has been rewarded with a few appearances this season. It has not been easy but his passing and willingness to put his foot on the bal will stand him well. His height is a disadvantage but not one he cannot overcome. (He is also left-footed).
Malang Sarr (21) : was supposed to be a star but has disappointed mightily. He just turned 21 in January however and has plenty of time to build a bright career, especially being out of contract this summer. He can (and hopefully will) choose his next club and league based mainly on development and opportunity.
Loïc Mbe Soh (18) : born in Cameroon, he is currently apart of PSG’s setup and will look to follow in the footsteps of Presnel Kimpembe. He is less prominent than most of his competition but he made his first two appearances in Ligue 1 last season and made another this season (at right back). He has been capped in various national youth teams and if he can continue to develop he might be able to benefit from Thiago Silva’s approaching departure to stake a claim for a backup spot with his club team. A loan is more likely, where he will look to continue to develop his passing game, versatility (positively or negatively) and anticipation.
Jean-Clair Todibo (20) : hugely hyped, Toulouse lost him to Barcelona. He was recently loaned out to FC Schalke 04 (which, on another note, is a fantastic producer of young talent) in Germany. He is confident and progressive with his play. His concentration will improve as he grows. His next steps, whether at Barcelona or elsewhere will be crucial. Depending on Barcelona’s transfer strategy, learning under Umtiti and Lenglet, if Pique moves on soon, could be the best move.
Dan-Axel Zagadou (20) : is growing into his role at Dortmund and could soon conceivably become a permanent fixture. Assured on the ball and proactive, he fits in well with the club and the league. He is learning next to Mats Hummels and although the club and Hummels could be doing better, Zagadou has done well enough to excite for the future. He needs to be more aware and concentrated but there is hope that with experience this will come quickly.
International managers tend to go with what they trust : so a Varane-Umtiti partnership, fitness allowing, is very likely for this summer. However, Lenglet had appeared to supplant Umtiti at club level although they have now played together a few times. Varane’s place is unquestioned ; he is the most established, most successful and at his best (although he seems to suffer Sergio Ramos-esque dips in form from time to time) is the best. That other spot could be a fascinating battle.
From top to bottom the French have world-class players and players with world-class potential. There could be a world, in fact there is a world in which three of Aymeric Laporte, Clément Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti, Dayot Upamecano, and Raphaël Varane start on their bench. No other team in football can claim such quality in depth. France’s reign at the top may depend on the a strong base ; if it does, they are more than well-prepared for this summer and many into the future.