Robbie Brady’s 85th minute winner at Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy sparked jubilant scenes across France on Wednesday night. Not only had the Republic of Ireland secured their place in the last 16 of the 2016 European Championships, but they set up a revenge grudge match in Lyon against Didier Deschamps’ much-fancied side.
It was back in 2009 when Thierry Henry’s handball helped William Gallas score in extra-time of the second leg of their World Cup play-off, denying Ireland a place in South Africa. It was a moment the Irish nation will never forget.
France have failed to convince in the tournament so far, with late goals helping them squeeze past both Romania and Albania. The performances and individual disappointments have sparked debate in the host nation and if Deschamps wants to stop the march of the green army, he needs to get him team selection right on Sunday afternoon.
The form and impact of Paul Pogba has been the biggest talking point, notably how ex-Juventus coach Deschamos can get the best out of the mercurial Bianconeri midfielder.
“You have been too hard on him,” club team-mate and Switzerland international Stephan Lichtsteiner said after the draw with France last Sunday. “Still, he’s played good matches, he’s always present. We cannot compare. It’s not the same to play for Juventus and France. The critics were not justified.”
The Switzerland game was Pogba’s best of the tournament and it was no coincidence.
With Blaise Matuidi rested, France started with Pogba on the left, his natural position for Juve. Yohan Cabaye played as a No. 6 in the three-man midfield with Newcastle United’s Moussa Sissoko on the right.
It may have previously seemed unthinkable to drop the PSG midfielder for the last-16, but the maths seems simple: France minus Matuidi equals a better Pogba.
Matuidi is left-footed, extremely left-footed in fact, and unlike Pogba he doesn’t have the versatility to at least try and play on the opposite side, meaning it’s been the former Manchester United man that has had to adapt for France.
It’s a position Pogba can play, his impact from the bench against Albania came from playing on the right. Pogba is naturally right-footed, his long diagonal pass from right to left set up Dimitri Payet’s goal that evening in Marseille.
Given the nod on the left against Switzerland, Pogba started like a man possessed. He went the closest to opening the scoring twice, beating Yann Sommer and hitting the crossbar on two occasions – one a stunning curling left-foot effort from distance.
For Juventus fans, the solution is simple, to get the best from the 23-year-old you have to play him on the left. For Les Bleus, however it isn’t quite as simple.
Matuidi, for both Paris Saint-Germain and France, has seemingly become indispensable. Despite the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva, Matuidi was regarded as one of PSG’s most influential players last season.
Two years ago in Brazil, it was the then 27-year-old who drove his country forward. His energy and influence from the midfield was key to France reaching the quarter-finals.
However in recent months, his form his dropped dramatically.
Due to his continued success for both club and country, he has become one of the first names on both team sheets. Coupled with the fact he is also a player that misses very few games through injury, he is picked week after week and has had very little rest.
Since last summer Matuidi started 50 matches for PSG and France, playing over 4,300 minutes. In comparison Pogba has started 54 games and played 5072 minutes. But he is six years younger.
Before the tournament, the midfield of Matuidi, N’Golo Kante and Pogba was undoubtedly the best trio to start. But with Deschamps struggling to get the best out of Pogba as part of that trio, the pressure is now on the coach to keep him on the side on which he starred against Switzerland.
There is no way Matuidi can play on the right, with his weaker foot only used for standing, so in order to create a balanced trio, the PSG star must be dropped.
Before Sunday’s 0-0 draw against the Swiss, it would have seemed ridiculous to suggest such a change due to the apparent ability of the replacements. due to
But Moussa Sissoko shone in Lens. The much maligned Newcastle United midfielder has a reputation for not showing a positive attitude and mostly importantly, effort for the North East club, yet he looked a different man on Sunday.
— FFW (@FrenchFtWeekly) June 23, 2016
He made bursting runs down the right, set up the chance that saw Payet smash a shot off the crossbar and was a constant presence across the middle of the park.
Although just one performance, it was enough to suggest that he can add the same presence as Matuidi, while allowing Pogba a greater opportunity to impress on the left.
Bringing Kanté back into the No.6 role will also provide more protection in the midfield and Pogba won’t have to worry as much about tracking back.
“Paul was the game’s life force during the first half – he’s got a great shot on him, he was our heart and soul,” admitted Deschamps after the game. “He didn’t get forward as much in the second half but he’s a player with huge potential and I’ve got great faith in him. We need Paul Pogba at the top level.”
Deschamps initial decision to start with Matuidi was the right move for the team, but to continue with the PSG man on the left against Ireland would be a bad call.
Martin O’Neill’s side will provide a tough and spirited challenge, so Deschamps needs to find the right combination quickly before it’s too late.
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