It’s not just Logan Roy who has been trying to figure out succession lately. Like the antagonist of the exceptional TV series, the French national team had to deal with a period of uncertainty and soul-searching, with head coach Didier Deschamps having to figure out how to replace Hugo Lloris and Raphael Varane given their international retirements, as well as sorting out his new captain.
We are not talking here about a global media empire, but about arguably the best national team on earth — with one World Cup title, a second-place finish and a 2016 European Championship final appearance — over the past eight years. The pressure is not the same and Deschamps is not Roy, but there was a lot at stake here for the French manager.
Getting the succession wrong could have damaged the foundation of this formidable generation, and it’s never easy to start a new dawn. It’s equally tough for France to try and maintain their level of performance after the pain of losing the 2022 World Cup on penalties to Argentina, but things are trending in a good direction: Deschamps was rewarded with a new deal and, since then, the head of the France Football Federation (FFF), Noel Le Graet, resigned from the role following investigations into misconduct.
More than ever, Deschamps had to get his choices right and start the Euro 2024 qualification campaign with positive results. On paper, they faced two potentially tricky games, hosting the Netherlands — and their new manager, Ronald Koeman — at the Stade de France before heading to Dublin for a date with a Republic of Ireland side hungry to get back to a major tournament. It is fair to say that a little over a week after the start of the international break, the new era started in the best way possible, with one very convincing win (4-0) and a solid one to finish it off (1-0).
First to note is that Deschamps may have got the succession plan right in terms of players. Lloris finished his France career with trophies, finals and 145 caps, but Mike Maignan has already managed to make people forget about the Spurs shot-stopper. The AC Milan goalkeeper stopped a Memphis Depay penalty against the Dutch in the 4-0 rout, following it with an unbelievable effort to deny Nathan Collins and preserve France’s win in Ireland.
MAGIC MIKE 🧤
WHAT A SAVE BY MAIGNAN! 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/gdqCmUu750
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 27, 2023
After the full-time whistle in Dublin, defender Jean-Clair Todibo was shouting “Merci, Mikey,” as Les Bleus were coming back into their dressing room, while forward Marcus Thuram screamed, “It is not Magique Mike here; it is Magic Mike!” in reference to the Parisian’s nickname. To see all his teammates celebrating and congratulating him after both games showed how much he is already established after only 180 minutes in the job. Others might get time between the posts for France in future call-ups, but Maignan is clearly the next full-time man for the No. 1 job.
Varane has been a huge part of France’s success over the past decade, too, but of all the positions France need to fill, central defence arguably has the most abundant options. Deschamps decided to call on Ibrahima Konate to partner Dayot Upamecano for this break — they’re great friends since their years together at RB Leipzig and impressed in these two games. But will it change when Presnel Kimpembe or Lucas Hernandez come back from injury? Maybe not, but it could be a headache for Deschamps.
William Saliba and Wesley Fofana will keep putting pressure on more established players if they continue to be excellent with their respective clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea. Then you also have emerging talent like Axel Disasi (Monaco), Evan N’Dicka (Eintracht Frankfurt), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Nordi Mukiele (Paris Saint-Germain), Mohamed Simakan (RB Leipzig), Benoit Badiashile (Chelsea) and Pierre Kalulu (AC Milan), with many others hoping for a look as France head into this new chapter.
But maybe the most important was who to pick as captain in the absence of Lloris. As discussed last week, the three names on Deschamps’ likely shortlist — Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe — became two very quickly considering Pogba’s issues at the moment. So: Grizi or Ky, longevity or the prodigy? Who would be the most upset by not getting the armband? Who does Deschamps need the most as an ally at his side? Who would be the most boosted by the captaincy?
Every question yielded the same answer: Mbappe. Of course, Griezmann was upset and hurt. He never thought about quitting the national team, but he did feel snubbed. There were no issues between him and Mbappe, and they quickly had a grown-up discussion about it anyway, but he’d been convinced it could be him. At 32 years old, he’ll still be a senior figure as Mbappe’s vice-captain, but the Atletico Madrid forward has already moved on.
For Mbappe, though, this is a dream come true. To be France’s captain — like Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry before him — at only 24 years old means the world to the PSG superstar. Deschamps considers him to be the best player in the world and thinks the armband will make him even more mature, more decisive and more of a leader. In two games, Mbappe led by example, with two goals and an assist against the Netherlands and a frustrated outing vs. Ireland, but he is talking more and getting more involved beyond his individual role on the pitch. He also communicates more with the media as we saw him doing a news conference before each game.
We’d been used to Lloris being very cautious when it came to what he would say as captain. So far, Kylian is the opposite. He is honest and open. His best line so far: “When France fans look at our team on paper, they must be thinking: how can they not win the 2024 Euros?”
Mbappe is confident, and with good reason. The French will be the heavy favourites and have an impressive squad with few evident flaws: there’s a compelling blend of youth, physicality, technical skill, defensive nous and attacking versatility. They don’t have flaws right now and they could get even better if Pogba, Kimpembe and N’Golo Kanté come back at their best from their injuries.
We won’t know for a few weeks how “Succession” the series will end, of course, and for Les Bleus, we won’t know for a while just how they will fare at the 2024 Euros. But the international break showed that Deschamps’ succession plans have been successfully executed — for now, anyway.