During the 8 p.m. live news bulletin on Nov. 9 on TF1, France's biggest TV channel, Didier Deschamps will announce his 26-man squad for the World Cup. The France head coach is meticulous when it comes to building a squad, always considering the structure of his group, the mix of egos, the personality dynamics and the balance of skills. But his task has been made more difficult this time around by the players he keeps losing to injuries.
Paul Pogba is the latest France star to have withdrawn from the World Cup after suffering another problem in his recovery from a knee injury. His fellow midfielder N'Golo Kanté preceded him, ruled out by a recurring hamstring issue. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan is a huge doubt too given nagging calf issues, while it's still not certain defender Raphael Varane will be fit in time after limping off during Man United's 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Oct. 22. There are question marks over the fitness of defenders Lucas Hernandez and Presnel Kimpembe, while veteran forward Karim Benzema has not been 100% for a while, either, missing Real Madrid's past three games.
It is a big headache for Deschamps, and the loss of Pogba and Kante in particular is a huge blow. Even if they haven't been at their best for months, and even if they are not the same players than they were four years ago when they led this team to World Cup glory in Russia, not having them in Qatar is massive.
Within his preferred 3-4-1-2 formation, Deschamps will have to replace Pogba's leadership, swag and character both on and off the pitch. He will have to replace Kanté's activity, unselfish effort and his positional intelligence. The French have depth, of course: Aurélien Tchouaméni was always seen as the heir to Pogba and Kanté, but his time has perhaps arrived earlier than we anticipated. At 22, he will now have a huge role to play.
What Tchouaméni is showing with Real Madrid so far this season is very encouraging and he has taken his game to the next level, gaining tactical knowledge, presence, experience and confidence. But is he ready to start and star at a World Cup? It might be a bit early, but you would not put it past him to have an amazing tournament given his abundant talent.
Next to him in that midfield should be Adrien Rabiot. Deschamps has always liked him. They have had their ups and downs, like when the Paris-born and bred midfielder refused to be on the reserve list before the 2018 World Cup -- which Deschamps called a massive mistake" -- but the France boss appreciates his activity and his intelligence, as well as the fact that he is left-footed. Rabiot's even performing well now at Juventus and has been one of their best players so far this season after his move to Manchester United fell through in the summer.
At 27, he also has good experience. With Tchouaméni and Rabiot, Deschamps believes that the middle of the pitch will be solid, efficient, proactive and full of energy. If he did alter his tactical formation and revert to a 4-3-3, for example, or even a 3-5-2, then that third midfielder is harder to figure out. Of all the options -- Matteo Guendouzi, Youssouf Fofana, Boubacar Kamara, Jordan Veretout, Eduardo Camavinga, Khephren Thuram -- not one is ahead of the others or a clear favourite for Deschamps. Fofana made a good impression on his debut back in September. Deschamps likes Guendouzi. Kamara is just back from injury, and Camavinga has not been playing well so far with Real Madrid.
Regardless of who he chooses, Deschamps knows that 2018 is definitely ancient history now. Thirteen players from that 23-man squad will not be in Qatar -- Steve Mandanda, Samuel Umtiti, Adil Rami, Djibril Sidibé, Benjamin Mendy, Pogba, Kanté, Blaise Matuidi, Steven N'zonzi, Thomas Lemar, Nabil Fekir, Florian Thauvin are all out or hurt -- while Varane or Hernandez could be No. 14 and 15 by the time the squad is announced. This is a massive turnover. Deschamps had not planned for it to be so big and while some of those absences have been forced on him, the form of others has dropped significantly and a few aren't even active players anymore.
Of course, Deschamps' Les Bleus squad that does travel to Doha on Nov. 16 will know all about what made France 2018 so successful, as returning veterans like Hugo Lloris will transmit what they learned in Russia. What Deschamps wants to avoid is what France experienced in 2002 after 1998, and what Italy (2006 after 2010), Spain (2010 after 2014) and Germany (2014 after 2018) went through in recent years: the World Cup holders suffering the ignominy of being knocked out in the group stages.
To avoid such an embarrassment, Deschamps will obviously rely on his two superstars, Kylian Mbappe and Benzema. It has to be their World Cup if France want to retain their trophy, which Brazil was the last country to do ... back in 1962! Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner, has had to wait eight years to play again in this tournament after his exile from the team, and he's ready to make his mark. In his quest to be the best of the best and to write history all the time, Mbappé has the same ambition. Winning a second World Cup at such a young age would be something else.
It has, of course, been noted by the two forwards that the final this year is on Dec. 18, a day before Benzema's 35th birthday and two days before Mbappé's 24th birthday. What a present winning the whole thing would be!
Finally, Deschamps will need to use every ounce of skill to make sure this is a successful four weeks: in particular, his man-management. He will use adversity and all the negativity and problems around the team to really unite his group of players, to get them even more together and fired up. Pogba has already texted some of his teammates to tell them to bring the Jules Rimet trophy back to Paris again for him, for Kante and for the others who will miss the tournament. Time will tell if they'll get it done.