If Australia coach Graeme Arnold is looking for a sponsorship from Panadol to deal with his squad choices, then French manager Didier Deschamps likely be hospitalised with a selection headache to die for. The former Juventus midfielder finds himself in a pickle as he deals with injury issues, squad cohesion and the pressure that comes with being in charge of what can only be described as a player buffet.
Since taking over as manager in 2012, Deschamps has searched for a way to balance an abundance of quality players with the all important on pitch compatibility. Even at the beginning of the 2018 tournament in which they won, Deschamps was still tinkering with his side, before settling on a quasi-version of the 1998 tournament winning team with a fulcrum up top in Olivier Giroud (read Sebastian Gui’varch) combined with a workmanlike midfield and a selection of highly talented individuals.
At this World Cup, Deschamps may want emergency services on speed dial as Giroud, who is closing in on France all-time goalscoring and was set to spend the majority of his time on the bench, could well be recalled into action. Recent Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, who was enjoying a fruitful return for the national team, following a six year exile, has been ruled out of the tournament due to a thigh injury.
Benzema’s untimely absence could be a blessing in disguise however and anoints Kylian Mbappe the undisputed main man of the French squad and eases the tension amongst the squad in regards to who their talisman would be. The recent injury to striker Christopher Nkunku, leaves Antoine Griezmann to partner Mbappe in attack. While Griezmann is undoubtedly talented, he is coming into Qatar undercooked thanks to only being able to play at 30 minutes per game at Atletico Madrid for most of the season.
The mounting pile of injuries could well become the story of this squad. Deschamps is already without his 2018 winning midfield of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba and will have to rely on Adrien Rabiot plus another two picked from an untested bunch of Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, Mattéo Guendouzi and Youssouf Fofana.
One cannot help drawing a number of parallels with the disaster of 2002 where Les Bleus acrimoniously crashed out of the group stage following their first World Cup win and the Euro 2000 title. Couple that with the fact that no team has ever won back to back World Cups and Deschamps could be forgiven for reaching for something a little stronger than paracetamol.
The only thing Graeme Arnold may want to give away to Didier Deschamps is the phone number for a support group for those suffering from selection induced brain pain. What he most certainly wants to share, and ultimately wield against the Frenchman, is the time honoured trope of Australian football: the underdog label.
In the lead up to Australia’s double do-or-die qualification playoffs against first the UAE and then Peru, Arnold repeatedly referred to having “Aussie DNA” providing their best chance of progressing to the World Cup. Upon the announcement of his 26-man squad, Arnold said that he would be looking to play “11 boxing kangaroos” on the pitch. Some would argue that this approach worked as the Socceroos secured a spot in Qatar after a brutal 20 game schedule which culminated in Andrew Redmayne (a.k.a. the Grey Wiggle) providing the decisive save in the penalty shootout against Peru.
Arnold’s definition certainly extends beyond a winning mentality to Australia’s style of play who prefers to limit opposition chances with low risk ball circulation and rely on counter attacks and set pieces to provide the bulk of scoring chances. This is partly of Arnold’s doing and partly due to the limited ability of the squad.
Just like Benzema, Australia have suffered a blow with one of their key forwards, Martin Boyle, being ruled out on the eve of the tournament due to injury. Their most creative and relied upon player, Adjin Hrustic, who won the Europa League last year with Eintracht Frankfurt and now plays for Hellas Verona, is unlikely to start against France as he recovers from injury. If fit, Hrustic is one of the first names on the teamsheet, along with Aaron Mooy and goalkeeper captain Mat Ryan.
All other spots are up remain grabs as Arnold balances the need to counter the opposition’s strengths and the form of his players, some of who do not play regularly at club level. Left sided player Craig Goodwin could start due to his superior dead ball delivery, but he faces stiff competition in the side as Arnold will pick three attackers from Mitchell Duke, Jamie Maclaren, Awer Mabil and Matthew Leckie. Expect exciting young talent, and recent Newcastle United recruit, Garang Kuol to come off the bench at some point to provide a more direct threat in attack.
Injuries, a dressing room riven with cliques, a governing Federation embroiled in it’s own turmoil, and the giant bald spectre of the unemployed Zinedine Zidane hovering over all gives plenty of credence to the argument that this is sure to be Deschamps’ last tournament in charge. But their attacking firepower is likely to be too much for an Australian backline who will find it difficult to cope with the French’s intelligence, skill and movement.
For the Socceroos to win, they will need to call on all their experience from their long qualifying campaign in heat of Asia and the Middle East and expose France at set pieces, something Deschamps has mentioned being wary of prior to this tournament. However, it is difficult to see the Socceroos causing France too much trouble owing to their limited squad and playing style.
While Deschamps is worried, this could be just the tonic the Frenchman is looking for to soothe the squad friction and ease the pressure of expectation he and his squad is feeling. The Socceroos will find it mighty tough to get a result, but if they do, they will relish an opportunity to live up to the underdogs tag.
Prediction: France 3-0 Australia
Written by: Joel McMaster
Fantastic article. Also super interesting to read in retrospect post match. Great job Joel! Hilarious as always
Very good article…Arnold needs some ability as well as Panadol.