Didier Deschamps revealed as much ahead of the World Cup: France would be leaving their back-three experiment behind.
He was a little snappy in the pre-tournament press conference, reluctant to elaborate on why it had failed or indeed why it had lasted so long. Indeed, ditching the idea was not a straightforward decision. Something resembling 3-4-1-2 had been France’s predominant formation throughout 2022, which created the enticing possibility of Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema paired up front, but it had brought mixed results: a couple of friendly wins over Ivory Coast and South Africa before a woeful Nations League campaign in which they won only one of their six group games against Croatia, Austria and Denmark.
In contrast, a back four had brought the World Cup trophy home from Russia four years ago. Yet the three games this year in which Deschamps deployed a back four were not exactly encouraging: 1-1 in Croatia where France were second best; a 1-1 draw with Austria which required a late Mbappe equaliser to salvage something; and a dismal 1-0 defeat by Croatia in Paris.
Even so, Deschamps decided that 4-2-3-1 would get the best out of his squad in Qatar. It would mean trusting the inexperience of Aurelien Tchouameni in a midfield two, in the absence of the injured World Cup winners N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, but on the evidence of this dominant win over Australia, that will not be a problem.
Tchouameni was supreme in midfield, marshalling his defence and snuffing out the meerest hint of counterattack, while simultaneously dictating France’s play from deep. If you were peering casually on a mobile phone screen you would have been forgiven for mistaking the 22-year-old for both Kante and Pogba at different moments.
Either side, the French full-backs pushed high and wide as auxiliary wingers, leaving room in the centre of the pitch for Tchouameni, his central midfield partner Adrien Rabiot and their No 10 Antoine Griezmann to drop into pockets of space and run the game at a tempo of their choosing.
The full-backs racing forwards was a constant theme, pinning Australia in their defensive half. It was left-back Theo Hernandez who teed up Olivier Giroud for an almost-brilliant bicycle kick just after half-time, and it was him again instigating a one-two with the electric Kylian Mbappe that led to a Griezmann shot cleared off the line. On the other side Benjamin Pavard was the player best placed in the box to finish off a counterattack late in the first period, though the ball never reached him. Deschamps may need to rein in their adventure a little against tougher opponents, like Denmark who await on Saturday, but this front-foot approach will blow most sides away.
What was noticeable was just how many different threats France carried, from every direction. With Tchouameni acting as backstop, his fellow midfielder Rabiot had the freedom to surge forwards and it was Rabiot who not only scored the first goal with a well placed header but pinched the ball high up the pitch to set up the second, a Giroud tap-in.
Then there was the guile of Griezmann in tight spaces, the penalty box presence of Giroud, and the sheer unadulterated speed of Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele racing around the tips of the Australian back line. Mbappe was particularly dangerous, and his pace created the fourth goal for Giroud to head home his 51st France goal, matching Thierry Henry’s national record.
It was not all perfect for France. Theo’s brother Lucas Hernandez went off following Australia’s early goal with what looked like a nasty knee injury, and World Cups do not afford much time for recovery. Theo Hernandez was excellent from the bench and Deschamps will be desperate for him to stay fit and cover a potential weakness in an otherwise blistering squad.
Centre-backs Dayot Upamencano and Ibrahima Konate were largely untroubled, though their full-backs were at fault for Australia’s goal and in particular the aimlessly wandering Pavard. Time will tell whether Deshcamps leans on the experience of Raphael Varane in defence later in the tournament.
This game showed that there certainly will be a ‘later’: France have too good a squad with too many weapons not to make their mark on Qatar 2022. Perhaps their inexperience will eventually count against them in a bid to defend their crown, but this young team will face Denmark bristling with confidence after a display full of attacking intent.