Going into Euro 2016, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann were the poster boys for hosts France. Now, less than a week after the tournament kicked off, reports claim coach Didier Deschamps is preparing to drop the pair of them.
Sports daily L’Equipe ran the story on Tuesday morning, writing that Deschamps is considering a 4-2-3-1 for France's second Group A match against Albania in Marseille on Wednesday night. If that happens, Pogba and Griezmann are likely to drop to the bench, with Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman being handed their first starts on the flanks either side of playmaker Dimitri Payet.
It's easy to see why Deschamps is considering the change of formation. France switched from their usual 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 for the final 15 minutes of their 2-1 victory over Romania last Friday, and it was in that shape that Payet grabbed his dramatic late winner.
Payet's stunning winner
The fact that it might be Griezmann and Pogba who make way may come as a shock to fans outside France, but for football followers in the country the news that Pogba's place is under threat is anything but a surprise.
The two players' respective situations are different for the simple reason that many had predicted Griezmann would be rested against Albania before the tournament had even begun.
The Atletico Madrid forward had the longest club season of any France player – he went all the way to the Champions League final on May 28 – and the need to give Griezmann a break at some point was always in Deschamps' thinking.
The 25-year-old was poor against Romania – he hit the post but otherwise had little impact and was substituted after 66 minutes – but he would probably have been rotated out of the side even had he been voted man of the match. Griezmann could have a problem if Martial and Coman come into the team, but for now that is an entirely separate issue.
For Pogba, though, rumours of being dropped against Albania are much more serious – and go back way further than the Romania match. Indeed, the Juventus midfielder has disappointed for so long in national team colours that there is a feeling of inevitably about him potentially losing his place.
Pogba's role has been under scrutiny for several months, with his status as an automatic starter the subject of increasing debate. He was France's biggest disappointment during two years of pre-tournament friendlies; while the team started to take shape around him, French fans were made to wait for him to reproduce his club form – and it never really happened.
He looked out of sorts virtually every time he pulled on the France shirt, and although the media reminded us these were only friendlies, his limited influence was a major concern as the tournament got closer.
Pogba's performances against Holland and Russia in March confirmed there was a serious problem. A host of attacking players shone as France won 3-2 and 4-2 respectively, but Pogba contributed very little as Payet stole the headlines and Griezmann, Coman, Olivier Giroud and Andre-Pierre Gignac all contributed.
Whispers that Pogba didn’t deserve his place in the side were finally loud enough to be heard, and Deschamps could be about to heed those calls. While he did have a few bright moments against Romania, the 23-year-old's overall stats were pretty damning: he lost seven out of 10 duels, gave possession away 19 times and played only 19 forward passes, compared to 30 sideways or backwards.
Deschamps continues to defend the player publicly but reports from the France camp suggest the manager is running out of patience. It's also difficult to see where Pogba would fit into a 4-2-3-1 configuration. His fondness for going walkabout from his right-sided position can be absorbed by a midfield three, but would have more serious repercussions when there are just two men in the engine room, and it's not clear whether he has the defensive maturity to play as one of two midfield anchors.
Run through the France squad and the obvious starters in a 4-2-3-1 would be Blaise Matuidi and N'Golo Kante. That was the midfield pairing in those final 15 minutes against Romania, with the duo demonstrating they can excel alongside one another.
Kante was the major beneficiary of the switch, which allowed him to break forward on occasion due to the security Matuidi's presence provide. The pair provide balance – one is left-footed, the other right-footed – energy, stamina and awareness, and both Kante and Matuidi are comfortable defensively and going forward.
Main man Payet
Match-winner Payet is another factor in the equation. The West Ham man started on the left wing against Romania but struck his stunning late winner after being moved into a No.10 position. His form is so good that he will continue to influence games wherever he plays, but Deschamps must be thinking about how he can get the 29-year-old into a central starting position.
Payet has already put forward a compelling case that the team should be built around him, and if that's to happen Pogba may have to be sacrificed.
Plenty of big teams have faced a similar sort of dilemma in the past. The most obvious comparison is with the 1994 Brazil World Cup side, who were forced to make a big call about Rai, a tall and gifted midfielder who was tipped to be the tournament's star man. Carlos Alberto Parreira boldly decided the team would be better off without the PSG playmaker, though, and Rai was dropped when the knockout stage began.
The decision paid off: Brazil were crowned world champions for a record fourth time, with their more functional midfield quartet of Dunga, Mauro Silva, Zinho and Mazinho providing the ideal platform for strikers Bebeto and Romario to shine. Rai played only 54 minutes of a possible 390 from the last 16 onwards.
It's too soon to say that Pogba will go the same way, but few in France will make a fuss if he does. The midfielder isn't unpopular, but it's fair to say he enjoys a higher billing abroad than he does in France. After all, he left his homeland at 16 for Manchester United and has spent his entire club career abroad.
Pogba won the Best Young Player award at the 2014 World Cup, but many France fans expected more from him. It didn't go unnoticed that he started on the bench when France produced their best performance of the competition, beating Switzerland 5-2.
Revealed! The Euros goalscoring records that are there for the taking
Griezmann has also spent his entire club career abroad but La Liga is far more popular in France than Serie A, with French fans’ natural antipathy towards Italian football doing Pogba few favours.
Major tournaments have many twists and turns, so writing off Pogba at this early stage would be foolish. If he's dropped against Albania on Wednesday, though, his status as a key player for France this summer will suddenly be a lot less clear cut than it was before the tournament began.
FRANCE: STARTING XI vs ALBANIA? (4-2-3-1): Lloris - Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra - Kante, Matuidi - Coman, Payet, Martial - Giroud
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