Now that’s what you’d call a good week for France coach Laurent Blanc. While Frances’s first Group D opponents England ended the week none-the-wiser about their permanent coach, captain, or style of play, Blanc extended France’s unbeaten run to 18 matches, notched up a confidence-boosting away win at Euro 2012 favourites Germany, and solved a handful of outstanding issues in the process. No wonder L’Equipe’s front-page headline this morning was:
Germany may have been missing Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Mario Götze but France had their injury problems too: strike pair Karim Benzema and Loic Remy were out, while Abou Diaby, a midfielder whom Blanc highly rates, has only managed 26 minutes all season.
There were more questions than answers going into the match, among them: Who will get the captaincy? How to solve the midfield conundrum? Is France too reliant on Benzema? What is Blanc’s preferred line-up? All these have pretty much now been solved, and barring injury, Blanc should know his starting eleven to face England on June 11.
So, here are those answers:
Blanc has been rotating the armband ever since taking over in August 2010, and his delay in naming a successor to Patrice Evra suggested there was no obvious candidate. Alou Diarra, his captain in Bordeaux’s 2009 title-winning season, was the early favourite, but a dramatic loss of form saw him temporarily dropped from the squad. Florent Malouda was trialed but his place in the team is also uncertain. Blanc whittled the short-list down to three, last week admitting his choice was between Eric Abidal, Hugo Lloris and Philippe Mexes. Abidal would be a short-term choice: now 32, he is expected to retire from international football after the Euros. Mexes, who has blossomed under Blanc into a key part of the team’s spine, might have got the job but for a rush of blood last weekend: he has just been given a three-match ban for punching Juventus’s Marco Boriello, and it’s not the first time he has lost his head.
And so, almost by default, Lloris, seen as mild-mannered and maybe even too nice, got the job. “You don’t know what I’m like in the dressing-room,” he told a press conference before the game. “Whether I’m captain or not, I’m not afraid to speak out.” That much was apparent last April when, after his Lyon team conceded two late goals to draw 2-2 draw at Nice, he was filmed storming down the tunnel shouting, “We shat ourselves! I’ve had it up to here with this shit!” His importance to France shone through again last night, as a smart save from Miroslav Klose stopped Germany going ahead. Maybe Blanc picked the safe option, but there won’t be any Knysna repeat with Lloris as skipper.
The Midfield Conundrum
France’s best performance under Blanc came in September 2010, when Les Bleus won 2-0 in Bosnia-Herzegovina to start this unbeaten run. Back then, the midfield was M’Vila-Diarra-Diaby, and that trio dominated tough opponents physically and technically. Diaby’s injury problems and Diarra’s loss of form forced Blanc to shuffle the pack, and by the time Bosnia came to Paris for the final qualifier last October, that trio was M’Vila-Cabaye-Nasri.
Against Germany, Blanc shifted the system slightly, making it a 4-2-3-1 with M’Vila and Cabaye behind Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri (as the number ten) and Mathieu Valbuena, in for his injured Marseille team-mate Loic Remy. The system worked well, despite M’Vila putting in his weakest performance since making his debut in Blanc’s first game in charge. Nasri continues to divide opinion in France, but he was decent in the second half and deserves to keep his place as France’s go-to man (he’s certainly ahead of Marvin Martin and Yoann Gourcuff, both of whom are having wretched seasons).
The one headache for Blanc came with the performance of Ribery. The left-winger has been trying to rebuild his image after the public fell out of love with him with post-World Cup, and has been in excellent form for Bayern Munich. This was his opportunity to replicate that for his country, something he has struggled to do ever since his knee injury against Italy at Euro 2008. Ribery has always said that left-wing is his position for France, which has left Malouda non-plussed at sometimes being shoved out to the right. (There have been allegations that Jean-Pierre Bernes, the agent of Ribery and Blanc, has more influence than is healthy on the France set-up.) Last night, though, Malouda was much more effective after Ribery went off at half-time. His lack of game-time at Chelsea could have been a problem but last night¹s performance, even though his goal was a tad lucky, should clinch his place in the squad.
Life beyond Benzema
There’s no doubt that Benzema is France’s best player and under Blanc, of whom he said, “I would die for him,” he has scored five goals, and got four assists, in 15 matches. The problem for France is when he’s not around: Kevin Gameiro is out of-form at PSG while Guillaume Hoarau has been injured and so this was the big chance for Ligue 1′s top scorer Olivier Giroud to make his point. He did, and how: a constant problem for Mats Hummels, the Montpellier man scored on his debut, gave a master-class in how to lead the line, and wasn’t shy in tracking back to do his defensive duty. Giroud is on Bayern’s radar for next season and may have increased his transfer fee by a few million euros more importantly, he has given Blanc a new option in attack.
The Starting Eleven
There is still time for players to make a late run (Lassana Diarra and a fit-again Diaby could yet challenge for Cabaye’s place) but there are clear winners and losers from last night’s game. Giroud and Nasri are winners, as is right-back Mathieu Debuchy, who set up both goals and will make life very difficult for Bacary Sagna to regain his place in the side; Valbuena also did well, and he has shown with some cracking goals in the Champions League (notable against Liverpool in and Borussia Dortmund last December) that he saves his best for the big stage; and Jeremy Menez is a good option as an impact sub against tiring defences. Ribery, despite his obvious talent, might start fearing for his place, while Malouda’s cameo should rule out any chance for Hatem Ben Arfa, who hoped to get enough games at Newcastle to force Blanc’s hand.
So, after an extremely successful week’s work, the France team to play England in Donetsk in June could look like this:
Lloris; Debuchy, Mexes, Rami, Abidal; M’Vila, Cabaye; Ribery, Nasri, Remy; Benzema.