“OK, is everyone clear?” A few players nod and murmur in response. Respect me, you bastards. They say that in prison you win respect by going up to the biggest bastard in there and punching him right in the face. I’m not much of a fighter, so I simply follow up with: “Paul, are you clear?”
“Boss, you must call me ‘The Pog Man™’.” Says my captain, Paul Pogba. A few players cover their mouths to try and hide their laughs. I sigh. This has already backfired.
“I’d rather call you Paul.” I reply curtly.
“But Boss, all of my friends call me ‘The Pog Man™’. I can’t play at my best unless you call me ‘The Pog Man™’.” I feel myself turning red. The players are starting to hide their laughing less and less. I need to stand my ground though, I can’t bend the fucking knee before my first match.
“I’ll tell you what, Paul,” I begin, “For now I’m going to call you ‘Little Poggy Boy™’. Impress me today and we’ll see about promoting you to Pog Man™.”
Pogba laughs and feigns applause as his team mates continue to giggle, but seemingly more in his direction now than mine. Success. For now at least, I’m King of the Prison. Who’s got all the cigarettes now, Little Poggy Boy™?
The French vice captain is Antoine Griezmann by the way. Both he and Paul were already in place before I arrived and I thought it unwise to risk losing the dressing room by replacing them after their recent triumph in Canada.
My first match as head coach of the world champions is a home tie in the European International League Group A against the Netherlands. It’s a 3 team group containing ourselves, the Dutch and the Irish so after this first match we’ve got a friendly while the other 2 play each other. I want us to get off on the right foot today though and the Dutch won’t be easy opposition.
We will of course be throwing caution to the wind today and unleashing the full power of 16th Century France upon our Dutch counterparts. The line up is as follows:
Goalkeeper – Hugo Lloris – Tottenham Hotspur
He may be 35 years old, but for my first match I’m going for tried and tested players and Hugo is certainly that, with 156 caps for France and over 15 years of top flight experience with Nice, Lyon and Spurs.
Right Back – Djibril Sidibé – AS Monaco
The full back spots are one of the only positions where I’m not completely spoilt for choice, but then I don’t need to be with Sidibé in the team. Widely recognised as one of the best right backs in the world, he’s the obvious choice.
Centre Backs – Raphaël Varane & Aymeric Laporte – Real Madrid & Chelsea
Speaking of spoilt for choice, we have more than enough quality centre backs. Real Madrid stalwart Varane and serial entrant in the Premier League Team of the Year Laporte beat the likes of Samuel Umtiti, Lucas and Dayot Upamecano to start because they’re coming into their primes and quite frankly they both absolutely ooze class.
Left Back – Lucas Digne – Manchester City
Lucas is my kind of player. Determined and hard working as hell with the pace and fitness to effectively charge up and down the left wing all day. Like the rest of the defence he’s hovering around 30 and is in his prime.
Central Midfield – N’Golo Kanté & Tiémoué Bakayoko – Chelsea & AS Monaco
In my midfield I want legs. Lots of them. These two players between them have at least 4. But it’s not just the fact that these 2 can run all day that’s inspired me to pick them, it’s their all round games. They’re both quick and strong, can tackle and pass and if absolutely necessary, crack off the odd shot.
Right Sided Attacking Playmaker – Kingsley Coman – Manchester United
Kingsley’s a tad younger than most of the players who’ll line up around him today but you wouldn’t know it. Experienced more than you’d expect for a 26 year old in a hugely competitive squad, the rapid and versatile midfielder’s already racked up 76 caps.
Attacking Midfielder – Paul Pogba – Manchester United
Our captain slots in alongside his red devil teammate Coman and I’m looking for him to be the sun around which everything else in the team gravitates. He’s certainly got the ability and his performances for United and France have rarely been anything but spectacular, so hopefully he’ll show me something similar.
Left Sided Inside Forward – Kylian Mbappé – AS Monaco
Kylian’s the baby of our starting XI at just 23 years old, but he may well be one of if not the most talented French footballer out there. Make no mistakes, Kylian, I don’t often say this but I do expect fireworks.
Complete Forward – Antoine Griezmann – Atletico Madrid
Another player who’s reached the remarkable landmark of 100 caps and yet somehow doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down for his club side. He’s two footed, there’s barely any weaknesses in his game and he can play anywhere across the forward line, so I look forward to seeing how he fits into my system.
Two things should be immediately apparent: Firstly, the quality in this team is absolutely mouth watering and I need to keep pinching myself because I get to put them in a team together, but secondly as far as International squads go, ours is old. Very old. I firmly believe that this is the best lineup currently at my disposal and only 2 of them are under 28. Russia 2018 and Canada 2022 took place right in the peak of this generation of players’ careers. By the next World Cup only Kylian Mbappé will be under 30. Lloris will be almost 40, although granted it’s not unheard of for a keeper to still be world class at that age. So it’s bittersweet to see this team together because I think over the next couple of years, the vast majority of this true golden generation will need to be replaced. It’ll be a big job, but that’s for another day. For now let’s see what these lads have got.
What these lads have got becomes apparent almost immediately. What they’ve got is so much talent that I could break down and openly weep in the middle of the Stade de France. It takes 5 minutes of beautiful football for us to win a free kick 25 yards from goal and Paul Pogba steps up to dispatch it perfectly, looking almost bored as he curls it right into the top corner for 1-0.
With just over 10 minutes gone it should be 2, but for a superb reflex save from Jasper Cillessen. Sidibé bursts down the right wing and is fed the ball by Bakayoko. The Monaco full back crosses to the near post, Griezmann shoots but the Dutch stopper does brilliantly to turn it behind. Mbappé swings the resulting corner in, Pogba rises to nod it across goal and Bakayoko has a free header at the far post, but puts it just wide.
By the 14th minute we can officially consider ourselves unfortunate to only be a single goal ahead when another Pogba free kick rattles the bar, and then 5 minutes later vice captain Griezmann presses Riedewald and robs the ball from him. He runs clean through and shoots, but Cillessen makes another good save. This is complete one-way traffic.
We continue to dominate the first half, but it’s not until the 53rd minute that we have our next real chance when a beautiful passing move ends with Bakayoko playing a give and go with Little Poggy Boy™, who plays it on to Kanté. Kanté gives the ball to Coman, he slides it across for Bakayoko and the midfielder strokes it into the far corner to double our lead. Perfect.
We’re pegged back out of nowhere a few minutes later though when Buitink slips down the right wing and cuts the ball across goal for Memphis Depay to tap in at the far post. Leave me alone Memphis, you twat. 2-1.
With under half an hour to play Pogba stands over a free kick once more, but this time he passes short to fellow goalscorer Bakayoko. Bakayoko passes to Mbappé on the edge of the box, who slips the ball straight through for Kanté. The one time Premier League winner with Leicester City has a go, but Cillessen makes another terrific save, tipping the ball against the post.
We continue to push and within a minute the Netherlands have 11 men in the box defending our corner. Mbappé’s initial cross is cleared but we patiently work the ball around the edge of the box, waiting for an opportunity. Pogba finds such an opportunity, squaring the ball through the mess of orange shirts for Bakayoko, whose shot cannons off Riedewald and wrong foots the keeper. Bakayoko claims his 2nd and our 3rd goal of the day.
For the last 15 minutes I bring off Kanté and Griezmann and introduce Rabiot and Fekir, who I’ll talk more on in a minute. The Netherlands go close soon after, with Buitink skying his shot after being put through by Vilhena, and a few minutes after that Thomas Lemar comes on in place of Kylian Mbappé. Again, more in a minute.
We have the final chance of the match with 5 minutes to go when Rabiot chips the ball into the box for Paul Pogba to chase. The skipper takes it down and shoots from a narrow angle, but can only ripple the side netting. The feel good factor is marred slightly a minute later though when Pogba has to go off injured.
Nevertheless, I’m back in International football and back in the European International League with a bang. When the final whistle blows I have to leap with all my might to meet Crouchie’s high 5, before we both head onto the pitch to shake hands and pat backs as a chorus of “Vive le Franj!*” chants from the tens of thousands of French fans echoes around the Stade de France. What a fucking day.
Fair play, Pog Man™. Consider me impressed. He’s proved today that he can be relied upon to be our main attacking threat, but unfortunately his injury’ll keep him out for the Austria game. To be fair, the plan is to make wholesale changes anyway so I can see how the rest of the squad adapts to Project: Renaissance.
The name Noé Guillot may sound familiar as he recently helped tear my Auxerre side apart for Chelsea in a pre-season friendly. The plan for this squad was to go primarily for tried and tested so he didn’t originally make the cut, but with Pogba out for Austria and the niggling thought that some fresh blood will be needed sooner or later, I may as well give him a look. Welcome aboard, Noé.
A few days after my triumphant debut in Paris, we travel to Vienna to take on Claudio Ranieri’s Austria. That’s bloody right. If there’s one football manager I’ve always wanted to shake hands with, it’s Claudio Ranieri. What a bloke. I just love football sometimes.
I said before that this French team should be able to attack almost any team in the World home and away and I’m sticking by that. Even our second string should be good enough to get the win over Austria and I mean no disrespect by that, we’ve just got a bloody good second string. Here they are:
Goalkeeper – Alban Laurent – Real Madrid
I’m handing young Alban his debut today despite the fact that he’s “only” Real Madrid’s 2nd choice goalkeeper. At 20 years old his potential is staggering and there’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll eventually take over the number 1 jersey from Lloris.
Goalkeeper – Alban Lafont – Stoke City
Laurent won’t be playing the whole match though because he’s got competition. Stoke’s 23 year old shot stopper Alban Lafont. At the minute he’s much more experienced and rounded than Laurent so it’ll be interesting to see who performs the best. I’ll give the 2 lads a half each.
“But Franjo,” guffaw the masses, “How can you have a Stoke City player in your France squad?”
Right Back – Sébastien Corchia – Stoke City
Well how you like me now, guffawing masses? There’s 2 Stoke City players in my fucking France squad. Sébastien’s not exactly one for the future but as I said before we’re not exactly overflowing with fantastic options in the full back areas and at 31, Sébastien is still a bloody good player. He’s also got that determination, work rate and sky high fitness that I laud so much but thanks to the likes of Sidibé he’s been almost criminally under-utilised by the national squad throughout his career.
Centre Backs – Lucas & Samuel Umtiti – Paris Saint-Germain & Barcelona
As I also said before, there is an abundance of great centre backs for us to choose from. I’ve had to leave very good options like Upamecano, Kurt Zouma and Mamadou Sakho out altogether because we’re so well stocked. Like Varane and Laporte, Lucas and Samuel are 2 extremely classy centre backs: Quick, strong, mentally bulletproof and comfortable on the ball. I have confidence that they’ll do a job.
Left Back – Benjamin Mendy – Atletico Madrid
I actually considered playing Benjamin over Digne for the Netherlands match because of his fantastic crossing and dribbling ability, but he drew the short straw. He can still impress me today, mind.
Central Midfielders – Corentin Tolisso & Adrien Rabiot – Barcelona
Similarly to central defenders, we downright have too many world class midfielders in our ranks. I opt to play Corentin and Adrien together because of their club connection and I’m certain that either or both of them have the ability to win a first team spot if they put in the performances.
Right Sided Attacking Playmaker – Jeff Reine-Adelaide – Inter
Ah, how long has it been? How long has it been since I’ve had a true anti-winger in my team? I couldn’t resist giving Jeff a try despite the fact that he isn’t a first team regular at Inter because he’s such a great option to have. He’ll still be the playmaker in the side today and not an actual winger because we’re still playing Project: Renaissance, but it’s great to have him on board even so and I hope he does well.
Attacking Midfielder – Noé Guillot – Chelsea
As I said before, Guillot gets a chance to impress today thanks to Paul Pogba’s knock so he’d better make the most of it. Arsene Wenger obviously thought very highly of the lad, having used him in the World Cup and most notably started him in the final, but I’m yet to be entirely convinced. He’s quick and mentally assured but I feel like he may be lacking technically. I want to see how he does before making any decisions on him though.
Left Inside Forward – Thomas Lemar – AS Monaco
There are probably only 3 attacking midfielders in the world that could keep Thomas out of my first team and unfortunately they’re Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé. He’s an absolute dream of a player and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he ousted one of the other three at some point.
Complete Forward – Anthony Martial – Paris Saint-Germain
Anthony’s a solid choice either on the left or up top, having scored 21 in 69 caps so far for France. He’s not a regular at PSG at the minute but again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he made himself undroppable for me going forwards. When he originally burst onto the scene he was meant to be the best French footballer of his generation and while he’s done well, he’s yet to live up to that billing in my eyes.
Complete Forward – Nabil Fekir – Real Madrid
Nabil is officially the only striker I called up to my squad, which I found pretty funny. Griezmann’s my first choice and there’s obviously Martial, but we’ve got a host of versatile attacking midfielders who I’m sure could step in with ease. I want to look at Nabil though so he’ll come on at the break with Lafont.
I shake Ranieri’s hand as our teams line up on the pitch. I can’t hear what he says to me over the deafening noise of the Austrian fans, but I’m sure it’s something endearing and charming, so I smile and nod.
Austria go close within the first minute when young Inter striker Andreas Seidel escapes the clutches of Samuel Umtiti, dribbles into our box and skies his shot. I wouldn’t mind but he does it again 15 minutes later. Salijl passes across Umtiti, who’s left flat footed, for Seidel. He shoots but Laurent makes a great save, tipping the ball onto the angle. What really makes me panic though is when he does the exact same bastard thing 5 minutes later. Seidel receives the ball, shrugs off Lucas, steps around Umtiti and fires at our goal. Laurent gets a hand to it again but calamitously can only spill it into the net. Bloody hell. It’s a richly deserved 0-1 lead for Austria and I’m already forgetting everything I said about our embarrassment of riches at centre back.
With half an hour gone I’m starting to fear a mauling. We’ve not really started playing yet. I get the feeling that perhaps Project: Renaissance should be reserved for when we’ve got the absolute crème de la crème on the pitch. Pardon my French. Sorry. Anyway, we go on the counter attack after half an hour but at half time we’ve still not turned up. As promised, Alban Lafont and Nabil Fekir come on replacing the unfortunate Alban Laurent and the anonymous Anthony Martial. I feel for Laurent. He’s made a mistake on his debut and as Ryan Shawcross will tell you, that does not a good international career make. He did pull off a magnificent save though and I won’t forget that. Just as I won’t be giving up on the lad and his International prospects.
After the hour mark Andreas Seidel’s transfer value is still skyrocketing. Running rings around our centre backs once more he has another dig at goal, but Lafont tips the ball behind. But then finally with 20 minutes to go, we get our chance. A period of possession that echoes the beautiful football we played against the dutch culminates with a Mendy cross from deep on the left wing, right into that sweet spot between the defensive line and the keeper. Fekir, by no means the tallest striker, leaps majestically to connect to it but sees his header smack back off the bar. Lemar tries to get to the rebound but the ball’s cleared before he reaches it.
With 12 minutes to go we have a free kick 25 yards out and slightly right of centre. It’s a perfect position for a left footer like Thomas Lemar. Lemar steps up, bends it… Not quite enough. It’s too central and the keeper saves it, but he can’t keep hold of the ball. It bounces down and Sébastien Corchia reacts quickest, darting over to boot in the rebound. We do celebrate, but it’s mild compared to the Netherlands match. Nobody celebrates quite as wildly as Corchia, who’s just scored his first international goal at the age of 31. How you like me now, guffawing masses. Don’t answer that actually, this has not been a good match.
Seidel goes close once more with 5 minutes to go and my late introductions of Kingsley Coman and Antoine Griezmann can’t turn the tide. The match ends 1-1, which to be honest I’ll happily take. I’ve just learned an absolute tonne about this squad and not all of it’s good.
*Credit and thanks to Markus on wordpress for “Vive la Franj”. Bloody love that!