Warren Zaïre-Emery can become the heart of France’s midfield at Euro 2024

Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.” When Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his allegorical poem Queen Mab, he was exhorting readers to be in the moment, not to daydream about what could be or what might have been. But his famous line also sums up the exceedingly brief career of the France and PSG midfielder, Warren Zaïre-Emery.

With France already qualified for Euro 2024, and the Real Madrid pair of Aurélien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga missing through injury, Didier Deschamps called up the 17-year-old for their final two qualifiers, against Gibraltar and Greece. Zaïre-Emery’s rise ​has been remarkably quick. He made his professional debut for PSG in August 2022, becoming the club’s youngest ever player at the age of 16 years and 151 days. He only recently made his debut for the France Under-21s, where he was picked as captain by manager Thierry Henry.

When Zaïre-Emery made his full international debut against Gibraltar on Saturday he became France’s youngest player – and goalscorer – since 1914. The game was a bittersweet experience for the teenager. He scored a brilliant goal after 16 minutes, winning the ball and combining well with Kingsley Coman, but he picked up an ankle injury in the process and has since been ruled out for the rest of 2023.

Zaïre-Emery’s debut in the 14-0 victory was brief – and against aninferior opponent – but he showed that he has the potential to be an improvement on the rest of Deschamps’ central options. Luis Enrique, the newly-installed PSG manager, has been rewarded for showing faith in the player, who has been, Kylian Mbappé aside, the club’s standout performer this season. “It’s easy to coach a player like him,” says the PSG manager. “His biggest quality is his humility.”

Luis Enrique has promoted Zaïre-Emery this season, starting him in nearly all of PSG’s matches, but he is not the only one impressed by the youngster’s talent and personality. Though not noted for placing his faith in young talent, Christophe Galtier said of Zaïre-Emery last season: “If a 16-and-a-half-year-old is more capable of playing than the others, he will play.” ( A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J )

When Galtier gave Zaïre-Emery his debut at PSG, he was limited by injuries, suspensions and a lack of form on the part of the club’s other midfielders. But, like Deschamps, he saw strong, consistent evidence that Zaïre-Emery was able to handle a crucial role. Zaïre-Emery has impressed for his club over the past year – including his man of the match display as PSG dismantled Milan in the Champions League – so there was plenty of anticipation before the Gibraltar fixture at the weekend.

His brief performance on the night lived up to the hype. Zaïre-Emery showed both a willingness to take risks in the tackle and to drive forward when play dictated. On this evidence, he has the maturity needed to play in midfield for a team of France’s level. Deschamps has been reluctant to give players their debuts so young. Mbappé, Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé all had to wait longer and, while they sparkle in freer attacking roles, Zaïre-Emery’s remit and responsibilities in the centre of midfielder are quite different.

Admittedly, an own goal and red card in the first 20 minutes settled the match, but the teenager’s poise and maturity on the ball were impressive. Playing as the right of a central pair with Adrien Rabiot, he pushed up eagerly with the ball at his feet, recycled possession comfortably and provided a ready outlet. As he has already shown for PSG, Zaïre-Emery is capable of both holding the ball and distributing it.

Zaïre-Emery has the potential to be the centrepiece of this team’s midfield, a difficult area for Deschamps after Blaise Matuidi’s retirement, Paul Pogba’s suspension and N’Golo Kanté’s loss of form. The manager has other options, not least Camavinga and Tchouaméni, but neither offers Zaïre-Emery’s metronomic presence. He is able to win the ball back and recycle it, ​g​iving ​F​rance’s offensive players more freedom and, crucially, ensuring Antoine Griezmann is more involved in the attack.

The Atlético Madrid ​forward played well as a makeshift central midfielder in Qatar, but he is more effective when having greater involvement in the attack, where he can influence the game more directly and put in the hard yards in terms of pressing and tracking back – not aspects of the game that Mbappé and Dembélé enjoy.

If the youngster continues to develop, France will have a more balanced midfield. With Zaïre-Emery partnering either Rabiot or Youssouf Fofana against lesser opponents, or the more defensively minded Tchouaméni against stronger teams, France will be a more complete side. Deschamps has led France to three finals in the last four major tournaments. His promotion of Zaïre-Emery seven months before the Euros suggests he has taken another Shelley quote to heart: “Nothing wilts faster than laurels that have been rested upon.”

Henry eats his words after humbling defeats
One has to wonder how much mirth was enjoyed by Montpellier manager Michel der Zakarian when France’s Under-21s lost to Austria and South Korea in the international break. Der Zakarian recently sparred in the press with Henry after the Under-21s manager claimed there was a “lack of action” in Ligue 1. Der Zakarian responded bluntly, mocking Henry’s record at Monaco and suggesting that a manager in the France setup should support the French league.

“I do not agree with Thierry Henry,” said Der Zakarian. “Where did he manage? What did he do in Monaco? It was three months and he left. The guy works for the FFF and criticises French football. This is bullshit. It’s easy to denigrate the league when you are coach of the Under-21s. He won twice 4-0, but against who? He didn’t beat anyone. If he wins 5-0 against Spain or Italy then I will then say ‘bravo’.”

The two men have patched things up, according to Montpellier president Laurent Nicollin, but Der Zakarian’s comments about Henry’s team are not without merit after a pair of humbling losses – 2-0 to Austria and 3-0 to South Korea. France still lead their Euro 2025 qualifying group, but they are only above Slovenia on goal difference.

The absence of Zaïre-Emery was a heavy one, but an attack boasting Elye Wahi, Bradley Barcola, Rayan Cherki and Arnaud Kalimuendo should be producing more given their experience. To have lost twice without scoring is troubling, especially so soon before the Olympics in Paris next summer.