Manager Didier Deschamps' chosen centre-back pairing for France's opening World Cup match against Honduras could be one that sparks a fair amount of debate.
Deschamps is reportedly set to go with Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho as his first-choice duo for the game in Porto Alegre on Sunday, leaving Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny the odd man out, in a decision which may come as a surprise to some.
Koscielny played the full 90 minutes in friendlies against Norway and Paraguay in the run-up to the tournament, but the former World Cup-winning captain’s noted admiration for both youngster Varane and the physically-imposing Sakho is likely to see the 28-year-old confined to a bench role.
Varane and Sakho both notably started the second leg of the play-off qualifier against Ukraine last November, as Les Bleus overcame a 2-0 deficit to pull off a thrilling 3-2 aggregate win in Paris and book their place to Brazil.
The latter scored twice in that game to cement temporary hero status in France, but is coming off what has been regarded a largely underwhelming and injury-hit season at Liverpool, leading some to wonder whether his place in the lineup could be in jeopardy.
The same could also be said for Real Madrid’s Varane who, though undeniably one of the top young defenders in world football, has arguably taken a step back under Carlo Ancelotti over the past year.
On other hand, Koscielny has been widely lauded for his performances during the 2013-14 campaign, in which he helped seal the Gunners their first major trophy in nine years with victory in the FA Cup final and had many labelling him one of the best centre-backs in England.
Add into the mix Porto’s promising Eliaquim Mangala and it’s clear that Deschamps has a number of credible options at his disposal, but also a group which is untested on the big stage for France.
None of those players previously mentioned have ever been to a World Cup, while Koscielny is the only one with major international tournament experience, having appeared at Euro 2012. At 28, he may be the veteran of the group but also has two fewer caps to his name than 24-year-old Sakho, with just 17 since making his debut in 2011.
Much like Varane, Sakho burst into the scene at an early age in French football and, although he has not quite reached the heights many expected him to at Paris Saint-Germain, he still possesses an enormous amount of potential.
While most using the eye test would instantly point towards Koscielny enjoying a far superior past season to his Premier League compatriot, the stats in fact paint a very positive picture of Sakho in comparison:
|Team||Pos||Effective Clearance / apps||Effective Head Clearance / apps||Interception Won / apps||Duel Won / apps||Aerial Won / apps||Apps||Mins|
It’s only a small sampling of data of course, but in those key areas at least Sahko compares very favorably to his rival when fit. In that sense, if the in-form Koscielny deserves a place in the lineup, then perhaps it’s the Champions League-winning Madrid starlet who should be making way?
Ultimately, one can see the logic in Deschamps's decision should be go with the upside pairing and, in a group with Honduras, Switzerland and Ecuador, it will likely be enough to see them safely through to the last 16. Against the superior opposition of the knockout phases, however, is where his decision will truly be tested.