The French National Team are at a bit of a crossroads and the squad for our Euro 2024 qualifiers against Bosnia and Albania reflects that to some extent. I’ve mentioned before that our golden generation who’ve won 2 consecutive World Cups will mostly be aged around 33 to 35 by the next one, so some sort of transitional period is inevitable. This leaves me with a choice: I can put all of my eggs in the same basket that Arsene Wenger’s been carrying for the last 8 years and try to win Euro 2024 at the expense of long term success, or I can start experimenting with bringing the next generation through. I’ve opted for the latter. Here’s the squad that my coaching staff have recommended to me, bearing in mind that Aymeric Laporte and Ousmane Dembélé are both ruled out through injury:
It’s fine. It’s safe. It’s pretty much the same squad I’ve picked in most of the matches I’ve played so far. I’ve gone a bit off-menu in some areas though:
Absolutely everyone I’ve picked in this squad is playing and in good form for their club sides and everyone has been selected with a balance between the old guard and the next generation in mind, as selecting 23 debutants would be absolutely mental. I want this transition to be as smooth as possible. 2 of the biggest names and unhappiest players to be dropped are N’Golo Kanté and Nabil Fekir, neither of whom are too thrilled. I give both of them a ring to explain my plans and while Fekir understands where I’m coming from, Kanté doesn’t. In all fairness my midfield is one area where there aren’t really any new faces as we’ve just got so many World Class footballers in that area. N’Golo’s unlucky in that he plays in probably the most competitive position in the squad and he’s been outshone domestically by Francis Coquelin, who the media have been begging me to bring back and for good reason.
One player that I do feel uneasy about leaving out is Porto centre back Dayot Upamecano, as I’ve yet to call him up to a squad despite his fantastic form in the Liga Nos. I’m certain he’ll get his chance soon though because I do rate him very highly.
We go into this match, finally, as the World’s top ranked nation. We all know how sketchy those FIFA World Rankings can be and despite having won 2 consecutive World Cups, we’ve only just scraped back up past Brazil into the top spot.
But let’s actually talk about some of these inclusions, because I’m planning on giving most of them a look over these 2 games. Tiémoué Bakayoko, who’s been very impressive for my French side so far, is suspended for the Bosnia match but might play a part against Albania. We will of course be playing Project: Renaissance and aiming to rip both of these teams to shreds. Here’s our starting XI for Bosnia & Herzegovina:
Goalkeeper – Loïc Badiashile – Fenerbahçe
Loïc’s one of the more left-field picks in this squad. At 25 he’s never represented his nation any higher than at U21 level. That changes today. He’s impressed me with his performances in Turkey, where he’s conceded less than a goal per game and has accrued 10 clean sheets this season. He’s not the only man that I’ve got in mind to be Hugo Lloris’ long term replacement, but he’s certainly a contender.
Defenders – Djibril Sidibé (Monaco), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Benjamin Mendy (Atlético Madrid)
Midfield – Corentin Tolisso (Barcelona)
I’m going with tried and tested for now in defence so that Loïc gets a fair crack of the whip in net behind our first choice back line. Mendy gets the nod over Lucas Digne, as I’ve favoured Lucas so far in my tenure and I want to give Benjamin a chance to impress. Tolisso too has been on the fringes, but he’s world class and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s worth a place.
Midfield – Francis Coquelin – AC Milan
As I say, Francis has played himself back into contention ahead of N’Golo Kanté. The thing is that at 31 years old, he’s not exactly one for the future. I want to know all of the options available to me though and it would be criminal for me not to give someone of Coquelin’s quality a look at least once.
Attacking Midfield – Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba (Both Manchester United), Thomas Lemar (Manchester City)
The 3 Manchester lads have arguably been France’s 3 best players since I took over. Coman and Lemar interchanging on the wings is the most natural thing in the World despite their club rivalry and they must be terrifying to go up against, while Paul Pogba has absolutely shone behind the striker, where he’s been able to have everything built around him.
Striker – Neal Maupay – FC Lorient
Neal is a very interesting one and I thank my lucky stars that Lorient signed him when they did – After the 1st match of the season, in which Auxerre beat them 1-0. Since then the 26 year old has been nothing short of a revelation, smashing in 23 goals in 25 games and fully deserving his full debut for the National side. I’m certainly not looking forward to Auxerre’s last match of the season, in which Maupay will undoubtedly line up against us this time.
We’ll get onto the rest as and when they get involved, but for now let’s get our Euro 2024 qualifying campaign underway.
The referee blows his whistle and Neal Maupay kicks us off, passing to Kingsley Coman. Coman proceeds to go on a fantastic mazy run before laying the ball off for Maupay on the edge of the box, but the debutant striker’s shot is caught by Piric. Bloody hell, a debut goal after 18 seconds would’ve been some feat.
5 minutes in we are absolutely camped in Bosnia’s half and have 8 players around their box. They’re going to be difficult to break down with 2 holding men and a central midfielder in front of their back 4 and so it proves when Mendy’s dispossessed by Lazarevic, who hoofs the ball over the top for Husic to run onto. Husic has our defenders sprinting desperately back to catch him, but he runs through one on one with Badiashile. Husic shoots – But the keeper makes a great diving save and gets a rapturous ovation from the travelling fans.
In the 9th minute Kingsley Coman picks out Sidibé, who’s making one of his surging runs down the right wing, with an excellent pass. The fullback hits a driven cross into the box on the half-volley and Maupay latches on, volleying the ball into the net via a hefty deflection off Sanicanin which wrong-foots the keeper. They all count though. Maupay’s off the mark 9 minutes into his International career.
What’s really pleasing apart from Neal’s goal in these early stages is how brightly Coquelin’s started. He’s really dictating the game from midfield. A few minutes after the first goal, the ball winner finds a bit of space and sprays a fantastic pass out to Lemar on the left, who crosses from the byline. Coman meets it and heads at goal from close range, but he hits the bar and Piric smothers the rebound.
The energetic start to the match continues when our corner breaks down after a quarter of an hour and Bosnia counter. Duljevic wriggles clear of Varane on the left wing and slides a pass into the box for Husic, who equalises from close range. In another situation I might rearrange slightly, pulling us back a bit to try and stop Bosnia’s ability to counter, but this is France and this is Project: Renaissance. Let Bosnia counter. We’ll just have to score even more goals in reply.
Neal Maupay agrees. In the 22nd minute, we score a very similar goal to our first when Coman pings the ball out to Sidibé, who drills a cross in for the debutant striker, who slots the ball under the keeper this time without the need of a deflection.
It could be 3 inside half an hour but after Coquelin passes to Coman, he shrugs off Lazarevic’s challenge inside the box and fires a shot just wide of the far post.
We carry on attacking as half time edges closer: First Thomas Lemar’s corner is flicked on by Umtiti and volleyed just wide at the far post by Coquelin, who’s so close to bagging his first goal for France. Then with a minute to play of the first half, a beautiful move ends with Maupay pulling the ball back for Sidibé, who chips a cross to the far post and Coman again hits the woodwork, heading against the angle. We go in at the break 2-1 up but it should be more.
After a quick word of encouragement, the second half gets underway and begins with a rare Bosnian foray into our half. We win the ball and counter quickly though, with Coman leading the charge. He races to the right byline and chips the ball into the box for Maupay, whose initial volley is blocked, but Coquelin’s there to knock in the rebound. There’s his first goal.
The second half on the whole is much quieter than the first but Maupay does go achingly close to completing a debut hat trick when he hits the ball against the post following a cross from Lemar, but the score remains at 3-1. Hervin Ongenda and Francis Obin make late debut cameos.
Not bad. Not perfect, but not bad at all. The win could have been more comfortable but the lads I brought in to impress did exactly that. Neal Maupay even picked up the Player of the Match award in recognition of his brace. Albania are up next, 3 days after Bosnia. They’ve started with a win too, taking all 3 points from Liechtenstein. Although I too intend to beat Liechtenstein, I feel like I’ve earned that right. Albania defeating my former Nation weirdly makes me want to hammer them all the more.
We’re going to be making a few changes in Parc Olympique Lyonais, partly due to fitness, partly due to experimentation. Here’s the XI:
Goalkeeper – Lionel Gauthier – FC Sochaux
Lionel’s caught my eye for many reasons lately. He’s had an outstanding breakthrough season at Sochaux, letting in only a goal per game and keeping 5 clean sheets at the age of 19. Plus, the wound from my Auxerre side’s hammering at the hands of his Sochaux is still extremely raw and as devastating as that result was, Sochaux and Gauthier were very impressive. Leo’s definitely another contender to take the gloves from Lloris.
Defenders – Sebastien Corchia (Stoke City), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Benjamin Mendy (Atlético Madrid)
Corchia comes in for Sidibé, who could do with a rest, but Umtiti and Mendy keep their places.
Centre Back – Francis Obin – Toulouse FC (On loan from Chelsea)
Francis is an interesting prospect, so much so that I’ve picked him over Dayot Upamecano, who’s 6 years his senior and far more experienced. Francis’ skillset is not that of the rest of the French defenders in that he’s not much of a ball player, he’s more of an old fashioned no-nonsense centre back. Given that he’s only 18 and he’s showing as much ability as he is though, he could easily be the best no-nonsense centre back in the World in a few years.
Midfielders – Adrien Rabiot, Tiémoué Bakayoko (Both AS Monaco)
2 more extremely high quality players that are contributing to our headache in central midfield. They play alongside each other at club level too since Rabiot’s switch from Barcelona and that should give us a built-in partnership in the centre.
Right Winger – Yann Karamoh – Everton FC
Given the quality of some of the players in this squad, it’s odd that the player who makes me feel like a bit of a fan-boy is Yann, because of the club he plays for. The Evertonian winger has been in my thoughts since I took over as France Head Coach, but his recent form has put him in contention for a squad place. He’s an extremely good option to have either up front or off the right, as he’s quick, strong, good on and off the ball and absolutely driven.
Attacking Midfielders – Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Kylien Mbappé (AS Monaco)
Pogba I’ve mentioned, Mbappé I don’t really need to. These are 2 of the best players in the World and not being able to fit them, Coman and Lemar into the same side is another headache I’m having to contend with.
Striker – Hervin Ongenda – Standard Liège
Hervin’s another uncapped striker who’ll be hoping to follow in Maupay’s footsteps by getting off the mark for his country at the ripe-ish age of 27. For me, the position of striker has yet to be locked down by anyone, with Antoine Griezmann, 32 next week, the closest player we have to being first choice. Hervin’s had a good season in Belgium so let’s see if he can stake a claim.
In a moment of unbelievable symmetry from our previous match, Mbappé drives straight at the Albanian defence, passes to Karamoh, who lays the ball off for Corchia on the overlap. Corchia crosses it into the box and Hervin Ongenda strokes the ball past Berisha on the half-volley to open his account for his country – 18 seconds in.
Within 5 minutes we’ve doubled it and it’s another player who’s off the mark for his country: Samuel Umtiti meets Kylien Mbappé’s cross after his initial corner’s cleared and flicks the ball into the net.
On the half hour Albania take a leaf out of Bosnia’s book and resort to hoofing the ball downfield on the counter attack. Manaj chases the pass, turns past Obin skilfully and cuts inside from the left flank. He shoots from 20 yards but Gauthier shows safe hands to hold onto the ball.
A few minutes more pass before Bakayoko pings the ball over to Mendy on the left wing. The Atleti man floats a cross in towards the far post and Mbappé slams it home on the volley for 3-0.
The rest of the match passes without many more incidents apart from Karamoh taking a knock to the noggin with 20 minutes to go and having to go off for treatment. Albania actually take advantage of our going down to 10 men and pull one back when Berisha escapes the attention of Mendy and cuts the ball back for Ahmedi, who powers it in.
Griezmann and Maupay make late appearances as I flex the ridiculous muscle that is our bench, but it’s Albania that go close soon after when Ferati plays the ball over top for Mucolli to chase. He gets into the box and blasts it, but Gauthier tips the ball acrobatically over the bar.
Taulant Xhaka gets a needless straight red in the 89th minute for trying to hack off most of Mbappé’s leg, otherwise Albania would have probably been relatively pleased with the outcome of the match. It’s difficult to argue with the result from our point of view too. 2 wins from our first 2 qualifiers and we’re well on our way to Euro 2024.