Kylian Mbappe given chance to lead France into new era
It probably wasn’t the birthday present Antoine Griezmann wanted. On the day a talisman turned 32, Didier Deschamps instead confirmed Kylian Mbappe as France’s new captain. Hugo Lloris’s last meaningful action with the armband was to be beaten by Gonzalo Montiel’s penalty.
An era has ended. Lloris spent 12 years with the captaincy, and the fact it was rarely an issue over the 121 games he wore it was a measure of success. He did not depart as a double World Cup-winning captain but the alliance of the two Frenchman to lift the trophy, in Didier Deschamps and Lloris, provided almost unparalleled stability.
As France start their quest for the lone international trophy, the European Championships, to elude Deschamps the manager, it is with the sense this is his Les Bleus 2.0. Raphael Varane retired along with Lloris, removing a second constant in the spine of his side: given his injury problems and France’s host of gifted young centre-backs, it may have been a wise choice. Karim Benzema’s decision to end his international career came in very different circumstances: seemingly ruled out of the World Cup, he was fit by the end of it, but Deschamps did not summon the Ballon d’Or winner back.
Benzema was the odd man out in a golden generation, the player in international exile when France won the World Cup in 2018, yet with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante not deemed fit to return, the emphasis may have shifted to a younger group. Mbappe is the 24-year-old captain – France may have borrowed from Argentina’s logic in seeing a superstar as the logical leader, based more on talent than a Lloris-like gift for bringing everyone together – and closer in age to most of his new colleagues. Only four of those who featured in the 2018 remain and they tell a tale in themselves: Mbappe, fresh from becoming just the second man in history to score a hat-trick in the World Cup final, has been elevated from the ranks. Griezmann, one of the competition’s outstanding players as a makeshift midfielder, has not, something he is apparently unhappy about, and may continue in his deeper role. Benjamin Pavard is suddenly the senior defender, though he lost his place in Qatar while the hardy perennial Olivier Giroud, who had a triumphant tournament before the ignominy of his first-half substitution in the final, carries on.
At 36, he is very much the veteran in this group. Behind him, the injuries to William Saliba and Wesley Fofana camouflage some of France’s extraordinary depth of talent in the middle of defence, though Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano offered other evidence. Mike Maignan may now be a superior goalkeeper to Lloris anyway. The breakout start Randal Kolo Muani almost won the World Cup final while Deschamps has not one but two Thurams to turn to. The manager’s own decision to stay on may have been influenced by a sense of new possibilities.
But the French and the Dutch could compare notes in the Stade de France. Each mounted a comeback against Argentina; with superior penalty-taking, either could have been World Cup winners. Louis van Gaal left his post after, extraordinarily, not losing a game in 90 minutes in either his second or third spell in charge of his country. Ronald Koeman has made an undiplomatic return, saying he overlooked Jeremie Frimpong – an alternative to the suspended Denzel Dumfries – because he cannot defend.
He is likely to differ from his ally turned adversary Van Gaal, switching to a back four. He has immediately recalled Gini Wijnaldum, who was falling from favour from the older man even before injury ruled him out of the World Cup.
He begins with one of the toughest games in international football rendered harder by injuries and illness. A host of withdrawals have included Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Cody Gakpo, Sven Botman and Steven Bergwijn.
Remarkably, he does not have any of the three goalkeepers Van Gaal took to Qatar, with the unknown who excelled there, Andries Noppert, now injured. Koeman’s squad now includes six uncapped players. There is a greater emphasis on wingers, traditional staples of Dutch tactics, after Van Gaal’s fondness for 3-5-2. The contingent of target men in the squad is down from three to one, with Luuk de Jong retiring. The last survivor is Wout Weghorst, instigator of a spectacular comeback in vain against Argentina.
It is one of the few things he and Mbappe have in common. There was a glorious improbability to Van Gaal’s last gambit, to the way he almost eliminated Argentina by embracing the long ball. Yet the World Cup ended up with Lionel Messi against Mbappe. And as Deschamps has signalled the future for France, giving Mbappe the armband could mean he succeeds Messi as the World Cup-winning captain.