Didier Deschamps turns 51 on Tuesday and, obviously, this is not the birthday he wished for. It's been a tough 10 days for the France head coach. First and foremost, his team didn't secure qualification for the 2020 European Championships. A win against Turkey at home on Monday would have been enough, but they didn't take their chances, conceded a late goal on a set piece -- their consistent weakness -- and the doubts about their strength in depth are creeping back in.
On top of that, add a poor performance in Iceland last week (despite a win), an argument with Bayern Munich over the fitness of Lucas Hernandez, the injuries of key players (Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe) showing that the squad depth isn't actually that great and Deschamps will need a few days to recover, or even forget, that the past 10 days ever happened.
Of course, Les Bleus will still qualify for the Euros quite comfortably. They just have to wait one more month and will surely get it over the line at home against Moldova on Nov. 14. But even sealing the deal won't erase the problems that the French have had in their two games in this international break.
Take their attack. France scored just twice in two games, both goals from Olivier Giroud and both from set pieces: a penalty in Iceland, a header on a corner against Turkey on Monday. It's not good enough. They hit the post late in Scandinavia but overall there was not enough creativity, movement or even desire to attack in Reykjavik. Against Turkey, the problem was more their collective lack of efficiency. They had a couple of big chances but didn't take them.
When Pogba and Mbappe are not present, it's obviously harder to score and create. But this was a great occasion for Antoine Griezmann, for example, to take more leadership and show he could be the boss of this team. In the absence of many key players, the team relied a lot on the Barca star. Sure, he ran a lot, fought hard, tried hard and got the penalty in Iceland and the assist in Paris, but overall it was disappointing. He should and could have done much better.
The heart of the problem -- and it is an old debate in France -- might well be Deschamps' DNA as a manager. As we saw in Russia when France won the World Cup, Deschamps is more of a defensive coach, always conscious of the balance of his team with a mentality of defending well before going forward. He was criticised for his team selection against the Turks: instead of a more attacking line-up, he started Moussa Sissoko on the right while Wissam Ben Yedder was anonymous up front. For all the talent of Kingsley Coman, his decision-making and final ball are still too disappointing.
When asked if he regretted his choices, Deschamps showed some bite. "What is a more attacking team? We had eight chances, we could have had 15 or 20. I have no regrets, we had chances." Let's be clear, France did not have eight opportunities to score and seeing that they didn't win the game, having 15 or 20 chances would have surely been better.
Those two games also highlighted how important Pogba, Kante and Mbappe are to this squad. It's nothing new or revolutionary to say this, of course, but when we thought they could be replaced or rotated, we were wrong. Corentin Tolisso and Blaise Matuidi are too limited on the ball to have much of an impact from midfield. Coman, Thomas Lemar, Sissoko and Jonathan Ikone are good players, but they still lack something to be able to be a part of this France team at the international level.
The big winner of the past 10 days is, without a doubt, Giroud. He has now scored 38 times for France (in 95 caps), putting him only three goals behind Michel Platini and 13 behind Thierry Henry for the national team's all-time record. But should France be worried that their best striker at the moment is a 33-year-old who has hardly played this season for Chelsea?
That said, what likely annoyed Deschamps the most on Monday night against Turkey is the goal conceded by his team. It came from a free kick that Griezmann didn't need to concede. Benjamin Pavard's positioning was poor and he's forced to cover two Turkish players. And Steve Mandanda in goal should have done better at his near post.
Set pieces are an old weakness for France. And since the summer of 2018, a third of the goals they've conceded (excluding penalties) have come from a corner or a free kick. The French are struggling to be solid in those situations and they need to fix it. They had a similar problem before the World Cup but did manage to sort it out in time. Can Deschamps repair it again in time for the Euros?
These two matches against Iceland and Turkey should have been a grand occasion for France to remind everyone that they are the world champions and will be the overwhelming favourites at Euro 2020. Instead, doubts are starting to creep in. The good news for Deschamps and the players is that there is still plenty of time before next summer's tournament to get things right.
And for those who are fans of history, let's not forget that back in October 2017, Les Bleus were in similar disarray, with two narrow wins away in Bulgaria (1-0) at home against Belarus (2-1) after a pathetic draw at home against Luxembourg in September (0-0). Nine months later, they were crowned World Cup champions.