As the 15th instalment of the European Championships gets underway, France embark on the tournament with an abundance of young talent in their ranks, which could see them climb to the summit of international football once again. A Golden Generation, the products of the once-famous Clairefontaine Academy, could be on the horizon for Les Bleus.
A New Golden Generation – Time To Shine
The French have long been renowned for producing individual quality, from the likes of Zinedine Zidane’s development at Cannes and Bordeaux, and Thierry Henry at AS Monaco. Now, the development of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, still only 23 and 20 respectively, has borne fruit in the form of experienced performances beyond their years. In the process, the two in question have acquired 37 full international caps between them already, and each play their club football for European giants Juventus and Manchester United. Both are likely to start the opening fixture of Euro 2016 on 10th June against Romania; Pogba dictating the tempo of the game from the centre of midfield, and Martial most likely to be deployed on the wing of a three-pronged attack.
A spectacle that may feature on occasion at this summer’s Championships is that of Bayern Munich loanee, Kingsley Coman. Still only 19, the former Paris Saint-Germain trainee has quite a trophy cabinet already. After acquiring the 2013-14 Ligue 1 title with PSG at the age of 17, a Coupe de la Ligue and a Trophée des Champions title also to his name, he moved onto Italian giants Juventus following the expiry of his contract at his boyhood club. Still only a mere teenager, Coman was not a regular first-team starter in his first season in Serie A, but featured frequently from the substitutes’ bench, making 20 appearances in total, scoring once. To display this level of maturity at the top level of European football was something relatively unprecedented at such a young age, replicated only by masters of the game before him. While he did not play in the title-winning matches at PSG, that was very different a year later in Turin, playing four times on the road to the Coppa Italia title, whilst helping to secure yet another Serie A triumph, before making a late substitute appearance in the Champions League Final defeat to FC Barcelona.
Ushering in the 2015-16 season, Coman began at Juventus, before quickly being loaned out to Pep Guardiola’s domineering Bayern Munich side, where he has enjoyed his most prosperous season to date. Six goals in 35 appearances in all competitions has seen Coman become a mainstay in the Bavarian’s title-winning side, and seen him make his full international debut, with talk of a proposed permanent move to Bayern gathering pace after an impressive year.
The Parisien’s future for the national side looks bright, with three caps already to his name and a first international goal coming in March against Russia in a 4-2 victory. His quick-footed wing-play, and ability to whip in a mean, inviting cross for the likes of Andre-Pierre Gignac and Olivier Giroud this summer, could potentially be a Didier Deschamps-led, masterstroke of a tactic late on in matches if the hosts are searching for a killer breakthrough.
While former captain and now manager, Didier Deschamps’ squad selection this summer has centred on experience and a close-knit side who have been tried and tested on numerous occasions previously; the mix of raw, unadulterated talent in their ranks and reserve list is a testament to the magnificent youth production that has prevailed in French football, despite the financial difficulties that massive clubs such as Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique Marseille have endured over the past few seasons.
To the dismay of many French football enthusiasts, the omission of Alexandre Lacazette, Adrien Rabiot and Nabil Fekir from Deschamps’ final squad of 23 has been seen as a neglect of the obvious fledgling Frenchmen that could really make an impact at the tournament, hungry and eager to see in a new era of French footballing domination. The diminutive Fekir’s 2015/16 season was stifled by serious injury, which is a possible reason for his omission from the squad, yet his 2014/15 form alone was a shining light in what has been a dismal few campaigns for his hometown side Lyon.
Rabiot is yet to make his full international bow, but at the age of 21 and having made over 100 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain in the competitive position of central midfield, surely his pedigree in Ligue 1 and especially some impressive performances in the Champions League, will mean a call-up is only a matter of time. At 23, the 2018 World Cup will surely see Rabiot feature in a starting role, when the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Lassana Diarra have faded away from the international scene.
Deschamps’ selection may prove to be astute, balancing their wealth of experience with a select number of young talents, and despite the criticism, the home nation could go far in this summer’s European Championships. What is clear though is that the dawn of a new era of French football is on the horizon, emerging from the mist of a poorly competitive domestic league, individual flair and creativity is still being nurtured inside plenty of France’s renowned footballing academies.
Deschamps has selected Anthony Martial (20), Kingsley Coman (19), Paul Pogba (23), Samuel Umtiti (22) and Lucas Digne (22) for Euro 2016.
Real Madrid’s pacey centre-back Raphaël Varane (23) would have made the cut, if it wasn’t for a late injury ruling him out of the tournament squad and the club’s victorious Champions League Final.
Despite Varane’s absence, a young defender aiming to impress this summer will be Lyon’s Samuel Umtiti, frequently linked with moves to the Premier League. Called up from the reserve list to replace FC Barcelona’s Jeremy Mathieu, Umtiti will not want to disappoint Deschamps. Versatile across the back-four, but primarily operating as a centre-back, Umtiti is somewhat experienced despite being only 22 years of age, having featured in a number of Lyon’s UEFA Champions League campaigns after making his club debut in 2011. If he is to make an appearance for Les Bleus this summer, it will be his international debut, after starring at every youth level for France since he was a mere 16-year old.
A mainstay in the centre of defence for many years has led to an albeit late, but deserving call-up, as alongside fellow Frenchman Mapou Yanga-M’biwa, Umtiti has shown excellent leadership steering club side Lyon into a respectable 2nd place in the 2015/16 Ligue 1 season, behind only the rampant PSG side which stormed to victory. In 28 league appearances this term, Umtiti has shone, especially in a run where Lyon only succumbed to defeat twice between February and the end of the season, which included a sequence of ten matches unbeaten.
Such a backbone of untapped potential is frightening for the opposition and exciting for the neutral, meaning that Euro 2016 could be the first tournament in which France showcases its abundant youth for quite some time, but also in future tournaments to come, when the aforementioned players are still relatively young and in their prime.
This summer’s tournament could see France’s newest Golden Generation thrive amongst the experience of the old guard, pioneering the way for more young stars to break through from the Under 21s to the full national side, in the months and years to come.