Reigning World Cup champions France get their title defense underway in just over one month when they face Australia in Group D at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah. Didier Deschamps has just over four weeks left to concoct the ideal starting XI that he will send Les Bleus into the tournament with as they seek to avoid the curse of the titleholders which has seen the likes of Germany and Spain fall victims in recent editions and exit in the group stage. N’Golo Kante and Mike Maignan have already been ruled out of the Qatar event so some players and positions will start to pick themselves while Raphael Varane has suffered a significant injury scare.
Let’s get to the lineup breakdown, and how I think the French team sheet will look in a rough 3-4-1-2 system:
Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur): Deschamps‘ captain of choice and France’s most senior shot-stopper. Had Maignan been fit, there might have been a little pressure on the 35-year-old. However, with the AC Milan man now out, there will be absolutely zero debate on this position unless Lloris’ availability is compromised between now and the Australia game.
Right center-back — Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich): Arguably the weakest link in France’s defense, this is where Deschamps’ loyalty factor comes into play. Up until the start of this season, the 26-year-old’s starting role claims were dubious along with many of his defensive teammates. A solid start to the campaign in Germany has quelled some of those concerns, though. Assuming that he is deployed in the central defensive unit and not in an advanced role on the right, Pavard provides continuity alongside Raphael Varane and Presnel Kimpembe.
Center-back — Raphael Varane (Manchester United): Currently a doubt given his reaction to going off injured in the 1-1 draw away at Chelsea, the 29-year-old would be a major blow for Deschamps. Form and fitness issues aside, Varane would start as he is one of the most trusted on-pitch lieutenants his manager has. Life post-Real Madrid has been a bit of a struggle, but the RC Lens youth academy graduate remains a defender of great quality when at his best. If he is fit enough to start, expect him to form the cornerstone of this back line. Without him, it will look massively different.
Left center-back — Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain): Returning from injury at just the right time, the 27-year-old should take his place in the defense alongside Varane and Pavard. Should Kimpembe or the Bayern man be unavailable, then Lucas Hernandez might step in. However, the PSG star is trusted by Deschamps and will likely be in the XI from the off against Australia. Kimpembe also benefits from the fact that Deschamps has not truly been able to battle test other defensive options like Jules Kounde and Wesley Fofana.
Right wing-back — Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich): Primarily an attacker, Deschamps has experimented with the 26-year-old in something of a wing-back role and will likely favor Coman over a newcomer like Jonathan Clauss. The Olympique de Marseille man might be a more natural fit in this role, but the Bayern star has been in Les Bleus’ ranks for longer and Deschamps will bank on that trust and understanding.
Right central midfield — Paul Pogba (Juventus): Currently battling to be fit to feature in a midfield that will not include N’Golo Kante, the 29-year-old’s availability will be key to Deschamps’ plans. Without Pogba, not only does the midfield complexion change entirely, but the chemistry also built up over the years loses another critical element. The Juve man played a key role in France’s 2018 success and will be relied upon again here.
Left central midfield — Adrien Rabiot (Juventus): Along with Pavard, arguably one of the players most at risk of losing their starting role mid-World Cup. The 27-year-old is struggling with a poor Juve side and Rabiot has flattered to deceive since returning to the French ranks. Had Kante been fit, it would have likely been a bench role for the former PSG youth academy graduate with Theo Hernandez a better fit on the left. Should Rabiot’s form continue to suffer, Real Madrid’s Aurelien Tchouameni is ready to assume a starting role.
Left wing-back — Theo Hernandez (AC Milan): Has emerged as arguably the most suitable profile to occupy the left side of the pitch with Kylian Mbappe likely to spend less time out wide as part of a front two backed up by Antoine Griezmann. Hernandez has already shown his quality in that position as France won the UEFA Nations League and depending upon central defensive availability, his brother Lucas could also occupy the left-sided defensive berth.
Central attacking midfielder — Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid): Back in the game now that Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have settled their differences. Expect the 31-year-old to feature heavily in Deschamps’ plans once more and to be the link between Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and the Pogba-marshaled midfield. Given his limited game time up until recently, Griezmann might be fresher than most which could be a blessing in disguise as he likes to grow into these tournaments.
Right-sided striker — Karim Benzema (Real Madrid): Fresh from his Ballon d’Or success, the 34-year-old will be expected to play the focal point role in attack which should enable Mbappe to locate space to exploit with his searing pace. It has not been as complimentary as many expected thus far, but this is the tournament where Benzema and the PSG superstar need to get it right. As of one month before kick-off, there are more questions over Mbappe than his Real counterpart.
Left-sided striker — Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain): It is rarely dull in the 23-year-old’s world at present and Deschamps would surely be grateful for a little less controversy than in recent years. Whether with France or PSG, Mbappe is the center of attention and that has not necessarily been conducive to his best form this season. However, he has spoken publicly of his preference for Les Bleus’ system over Les Parisiens’ and all eyes will be on how he and Benzema coexist in the early fixtures.