No team at the World Cup has more pure entertainers than France. And yet, for fans who want nothing more than to be entertained, watching Les Bleus is an exercise in frustration. France beat Peru, 1-0, in their second group game, but their performance was mostly flat, and that was down to the lineup selected. Things didn’t get better on Tuesday, when Les Bleus drew Denmark, 0-0.
France manager Didier Deschamps seems committed to creating a team in his own image. A no-nonsense defensive midfielder, Deschamps captained France to a 1998 World Cup title, sitting back and allowing players like Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff to create. His countryman, stylish attacker Eric Cantona, once spoke about him derisively, saying he only exists to give the ball to more talented players.
“Deschamps gets by because he always gives 100 percent, but he will never be anything more than a water carrier,” Cantona said. “You can find players like him on every street corner.”
The term water carrier has endured through the last 22 years and is now commonly used to refer to a Deschamps-like player who sits in a defensive position and plays simple passes to avoid turnovers.
Subsequent defensive midfielders, and especially French ones, have improved on the role. Deschamps’ successor Claude Makélélé might be the least fancy player to ever make it as a top-level midfielder — he was jettisoned by Real Madrid because, as president Florentino Perez put it, “he rarely passed the ball more than three meters” — but Makélélé got so good at keeping the ball moving with simple passes and thwarting opposition attacks with good positioning that you will often hear defensive midfield referred to as “the Makélélé role.”
Now, a decade after Makélélé’s retirement from international football, N’Golo Kante has arrived on the scene with a further improvement on the position. His seemingly superhuman anticipation, speed, and stamina mean he’s able to cover an entire midfield on his own. His teammates can take as many risks as they want and they’ll always be protected.
But rather than seeing Kante’s skills as offering an opportunity to play a free-flowing, stylish style of soccer, Deschamps sets up his team as if Kante is average defensively and needs a lot of help. A psychologist with significant soccer knowledge might look at France’s squad and see a manager trying to fight a crippling insecurity that still lingers from his playing days.
“Players like me don’t just exist to pass the ball to the real talents,” screams the Deschamps that I’m imagining. “WE ARE THE REAL TALENTS! I’ll show you! We’ll put THREE so-called ‘water carriers’ on the pitch and I’ll make everyone play like me!”
And so Blaise Matuidi, a redundant defensive midfielder, plays on the left wing over dribbling machine Ousmane Dembele. Paul Pogba, one of the most entertaining creative talents on the planet, is asked to sit deep. Plodding target man Olivier Giroud plays up top instead of Antoine Griezmann, while stylish players like Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar sit on the bench.
France’s non-water carriers look like they’re almost in rebellion against their own coach. Whenever Pogba has an opportunity to get forward, he does things like this.
Kylian Mbappe is just dying to try swaggy stuff and combine with swaggy teammates. He does it at every opportunity.
But there are so many of these brilliant moves that don’t quite work because Pogba is too deep to combine with the forwards, or because the ball eventually has to end up at the feet of Giroud or Matuidi. They’re perfectly decent players, but not ones capable of matching Pogba, Griezmann, and Mbappe’s level of technique and creativity. They’re not going to help France put together the big highlights of this tournament.
When France plays with two defensive midfielders and Pogba, a creator asked to be a third water carrier, it really feels like we’re losing something with the potential to be an all-time level of great. Uruguay is similarly frustrating for a lot of people, but they’re not exactly a team filled with YouTube highlight tricksters; most of their good players are really just effective at beating the crap out of people. It’s not like there’s a huge missed opportunity there. Les Bleus, to the contrary, have the potential to be something truly special.
With the right coach, we could be looking at our generation’s 1970 Brazil. France really are that talented. But instead of using one unselfish, conservative role player to glue five spectacular creative talents together, Deschamps is seemingly committed to ruining everyone’s fun and proving water carriers are the important part of football, even while his own players try their best to show him the way with their nutmegs and rainbow flicks.
For the greater good of the beautiful game, Eric Cantona should apologize.