Euro 2016 has so far been devoid of shocks, yet the first could arrive on Thursday. Rather than a surprise result, it may come by way of team selection, as France might leave out one of their aces, Paul Pogba or Antoine Griezmann.
Didier Deschamps is a pragmatic coach. He has a long history of making hard-nosed decisions and there is no reason to suggest that this will change during Euro 2016. If one of his players is not coming up to standard, the 1998 World Cup winner will pay no heed to his stature in the side.
The former Olympique de Marseille boss will not distinguish between performances on the field and their influence off it. The two things are united in his view and allow him to fine-tune his selection. A leader like Patrice Evra, for example, is always in the team because he is a player capable of rallying his squad when they come under pressure.
For the opening match of the European Championship between France and Romania, Antoine Griezmann played 66 minutes and Paul Pogba 78. It was a strong signal from the coach that he finished in a 4-2-3-1 formation, having replaced his side’s two greatest stars, who failed to accomplish their respective missions.
“I made a choice,” Deschamps said after the match. “I wanted to bring a new spark to the offence of the team. I wanted to put Dimitri Payet in the middle, so that meant I had to take off one of my midfielders. I could not do that with Kante – you know why.”
The coach’s decision was logical. The two men were far from their devastating best, which they showed regularly for Atletico Madrid and Juventus this season.
Could Deschamps now go further and drop one or both for the match against Albania on Wednesday? In the World Cup of 2014 in Brazil, he did not hesitate to cut the Juventus man to the bench after a disappointing match against Honduras in the opening game of the competition.
“You have a fixation on Paul,” Moussa Sissoko said, taking a swipe at the media. “That match was not easy for the whole team, but you have called out names. Paul is a big player for us. The coach has choices to make, and I’m ready to be a starter of a substitute.”
Even if the suggestion of one of the star pairing dropping to the bench remains no more than speculation for now, the two men know they have to reach a higher level. Deschamps is a coach very close to his players and he will not hesitate to tell them his thoughts to their face when their performance or attitude is not suitable to a situation.
Pogba has often been rapped on the knuckles by the coach, who would like his midfielder to play in a simpler fashion at times.
Rarely has this been clearer than during the encounter at Stade de France last week. It seemed every time he was in possession, he tried something overly extravagant, as if playing to entertain in an exhibition match. On too many occasions it did not come off, and there was certainly a sense that his decision making was influenced by the pressure placed on him prior to the tournament. He cannot afford for it to happen again.
Friday’s win over Romania might only have been a warning, but if the same episode occurs against Albania, it would be no surprise to see one of the two men pushed to the bench for the final group match against Switzerland.