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France’s Group-Stage Tuneup Will Tell Us Whether It’s A Contender

Over the next few days, FiveThirtyEight will be examining each of the eight groups in the 2018 World Cup, which begins June 14 in Russia. Read about Group A and Group B.

Group C is all about France. The issue isn’t so much whether the team will qualify for the knockout stage of the World Cup. Rather, it’s what France’s play over its matches with Peru, Denmark and Australia will say about its chances of winning the whole tournament.

Paper tiger or legit contender?

France ranks fifth in the world in FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index, behind Brazil, Germany and Spain and just a hair past Argentina. Les Bleus have stars distributed all across the field, footballers who play for the biggest club teams in the world at the absolute top of the game. Calling out each one by name would just be a list of their starting 11 players. And yet, despite all that, the French have still been somewhat disappointing.

France’s major problem is that the team both plays slowly and crosses the ball a lot, meaning that the majority of its goal-scoring chances come from contested headers in a crowded penalty area. That’s a waste of all that talent. Crosses make up 23.5 percent of France’s successful passes into an opponent’s penalty area — the 15th highest share in the tournament. Its ratio of speedy direct attacks1 to slow, methodical ones2 is about 1-1. This ranks only 11th among the 32 teams in the World Cup, meaning France’s pace of attack is relatively average.

Put all that together, and France is neither getting the ball ahead quickly for phenomenal attackers like Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe to work in space, nor is it patiently working the ball into the box and letting skilled passers like Paul Pogba and Corentin Tolisso find killer passes to free up those strikers. Rather, the side tends to play at a medium pace, feeding the ball out to the wings for attackers to play crosses into a set defense. That’s not a recipe for success. If Les Bleus fix that problem, they could win the tournament. If not, they’ll likely lose during the knockout stage to a truly great side.

Underdog or also-ran?

It’s hard to imagine the rest of this group making too much noise in the tournament. Assuming France wins the group, whoever else comes out will be playing the winner of Group D, likely Lionel Messi’s Argentina squad. That second team is expected to be either Denmark, ranked 14th in SPI, or Peru, ranked 19th. Likely to finish fourth is Australia, ranked 28th in the tournament; the Socceroos have only an 18 percent chance of making it through the group stage.

A shock run to the quarterfinals wouldn’t be impossible for either Denmark, with Tottenham Hotspur star Christian Eriksen leading the way, or Peru, which just saw 34-year-old striker Paolo Guerrero reinstated after a drug ban controversy. Peru did manage to play Argentina to a draw twice in South American qualifying, but it would take something deeply unexpected for the Incas to overtake Messi & Co. in Russia. Denmark and Peru are both fun teams that have some attacking flair; Peru in particular played a high-scoring style in qualifying, but that’s precisely what makes it unlikely to stage a major upset. When big teams lose, it tends to be to smaller squads that play extremely defensively, and that’s just not these teams.

Player to watch

At only 25 years old, Paul Pogba has already played in the finals of the UEFA European Championships and the Champions League. He won titles with Juventus, and after transferring to Manchester United for a whopping $116.4 million, he has become a fixture in the center of the midfield at Old Trafford. But no matter how much he accomplishes, there are still questions about exactly how big a superstar he is. His technical ability and range are a rare combination. Whether French manager Didier Deschamps unleashes him to get forward and contribute to the attack or keeps him chained to a more disciplined midfield role will likely influence perceptions of Pogba’s performance at this World Cup.

Questions about just how great great players are can get tiresome. But this is Pogba’s moment on the international stage. By the time the next World Cup comes around, he’ll be 29 and starting the downslope of his career. He’s at the height of his ability right now. A big tournament, as part of an expansive French side that scores highlight reel goals by the handful, will cement his legacy. But if the team plays more conservatively and exits early without any signature Pogba moments, or if Pogba ends up with a more limited role, those legacy questions will continue to surround him — however unfair they may be.

Check out our latest World Cup predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Attacks of the penalty area when 50 percent of the ball movement in a possession is forward.

  2. When at least 10 passes are played before the ball enters the penalty area.

Mike Goodman is half of the Double Pivot Podcast and has written at ESPNFC, ESPN Insider and Grantland, among other outlets.

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