“Les Bleuets” kick off their u21 campaign tomorrow against Denmark and with the star quality that runs through their entire squad, they have to be considered one of the favourites for the competition.
They are in an interesting situation in that respect, given that they have not been a big feature historically in the tournament. In the last 7 tournaments held, they have only qualified once and that was last time out in 2019. They came joint-top of a group stage that saw them beat England that year but were later knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual winners, Spain.
In qualifying for the 2021 tournament, they won 9 out of their 10 games and have looked a seriously impressive outfit under coach Sylvain Ripoll. They’ve alternated between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 but look to have settled on the latter as the formation of choice moving forward. It looks to be one that complements their players’ strengths the best.
There are a few players selected this time round who have experience in the competition having appeared in 2019, which should stand France in good stead. These players are Konaté and Dagba at the back, Guendouzi in the middle and Ikoné upfront. You’d expect at least 2 or 3 of these players to feature heavily which should give “Les Bleuets” an advantage. They’ll be gutted to miss Jeff Reine-Adelaide who is one of their most influential players, but there is serious quality running throughout the entire squad and Ripoll certainly has some tough choices to make – let’s have a look at some of the players in more detail:
Ripoll does seem to have a preference in net when it comes to the 3 keepers he has to choose from. That preference comes in the form of 22-year-old Alban Lafont. He’s been a mainstay in the U21 side throughout the qualifying process and has been putting in some impressive performances this season at Nantes in Ligue 1, where he’s currently on loan from Fiorentina. The choice to go out on loan and prove himself looks to be a smart one and he’s gaining attention from the likes of Madrid and Arsenal.
Premier League fans will recognise Ilan Meslier from his impressive performances at Leeds this season, but he looks set to deputise to the in-form Lafont.
Like in goal, the full-backs look to pick themselves with Adrien Truffert of Rennes likely to start on the left. On the right, Colin Dagba has been consistently picked during qualifying and he looks nailed on to continue there for this tournament (he’ll miss the first game through suspension so expect Kalulu to take his place). He’s been impressive in the last few years at right-back for PSG where he battles with Florenzi for a place in the starting XI. He’s played 19 times in the league this year and looks to have a bright future in Paris under Pochettino.
Where do we start? France’s U21 centre-back options read like a who’s who of up-and-coming stars. All 4 selections can build a case to start and Ripoll has been rotating them throughout the qualification process. Badiashile has played the majority of games for Monaco this season and looked impressive, also offering a much sought after left-footed option. Jules Koundé has spent the season at Sevilla gathering admirers. Ibrahima Konaté is a well-established young centre half with Champions League pedigree while Wesley Fofana has looked imperious at the back for Leicester this year. I’m not sure many would envy the decision Ripoll has to make, but he can be sure that whatever combination he picks will probably be the strongest in the competition.
Another position, another ridiculous pool of talent. Mattéo Guendouzi splits opinion often – just ask the Touchline cast members – but he has been trusted by the head coach throughout qualification and will be hoping for an impressive tournament to re-establish himself after being shipped out to Hertha on loan this year. Boubacar Kamara and Boubakary Soumaré offer resilience and quality in defensive midfield with the former featuring more heavily for his club this season. In Eduardo Camavinga, France has one of the most promising young players in world football and all eyes will be on him this tournament. With Aouar withdrawing through injury, the stage is set for the young man to show the world what he’s made of.
As mentioned, France have switched between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in qualification and a number of their forwards can take up both wide and central positions, so it remains to be seen who will be starting out wide. One name that looks nailed on is Amine Gouiri. He plays centrally for his club, Nice, where he has 12 goals in 29 games this year but has appeared out wide in a Salah-esque role under Ripoll. At 21 years old he’s been carrying Nice on his shoulders this year after leaving Lyon on loan for playing time and we should all be excited to see what he can show in the tournament. Ikoné and Laurienté will battle it out on the right.
There’s one name that stands out here and that is Odsonne Edouard. In an underwhelming season for Celtic, he’s still managed to contribute 16 goals and 5 assists in 26 league games. In qualifying, he scored 11 in 8. Be surprised if Edouard doesn’t end up challenging for the golden boot – he knows where the goal is.
It’s always difficult to make a prediction in these tournaments. You see quite often that the team with the best players doesn’t always win. Add to that the sheer amount of quality on show amongst other favourites – England, Portugal, Spain & Netherlands – and it’s a very hard one to call.
But I didn’t come here to sit on the fence. Should France get through the group stages, they’d likely face either Germany or the Netherlands in the quarterfinals in May. You’d expect them to get past either of those teams and momentum will build if that’s the case. For that reason I expect to see them reach the Final on the 6th June.