Even when you win, sometimes you just can’t win. France coach Laurent Blanc goes into Euro 2012 with his side having enjoyed an 21-game unbeaten run, which includes friendly wins over England (2-1), Brazil (1-0) and Germany (2-1). He has succeeded in several of the targets he set out after replacing Raymond Domenech following the catastrophic 2010 World Cup campaign: among them, overcoming the players’ fear factor at home matches, developing a team spirit devoid of cliques and, crucially, improving the French public’s relationship with the team.
And yet the biggest issue surrounding a France team that, at the very least, is a dark horse going into Euro 2012, is the lack of an obvious style of play under the coach. “I want to build a team that can control matches as much as possible and that will impose its own style, a team game focused on attacking play, on its opponents,” said Blanc when he took over 22 months ago. His appointment came on the back of an astonishing title success in his first coaching job at Bordeaux, who won its last 11 matches to pip Marseille to the 2009 French title.
“France has not really progressed, there is still a gap between what the coach wants and the reality,” Blanc’s former World Cup-winning team-mate Bixente Lizarazu said on RMC. “Laurent had 18 months to impose his style at Bordeaux, perhaps he just hasn’t had enough time yet.” Blanc has admitted that having the players “for three days, here and there” is not ideal but then he knew that when he took over.
For France, the most important thing is that he is still in charge. Twelve months ago, Blanc thought about quitting after reports that he supported a French football federation proposal to introduce an ethnic quota at training academies to prevent dual-nationality players learning their trade in France before representing other countries.
What started off as a quota scandal quickly developed into a race row, when Blanc’s comments at a French football federation meeting in November 2010 were seized upon. “You have the impression the academies really train the same prototype of players, big, strong, powerful. Big, strong, powerful. Big, strong, powerful. What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. And that’s how it is. It is a current fact. In the training-centres, in the football schools, well, there are many.”
Blanc said his comment was not racist though accepted that his comments were ambiguous “when taken out of context”. He added that he was not trying to reduce the number of black or north African players in French football, merely grappling with the issue of dual-nationality players. After all, he also said at the meeting: “If we only develop black players, and they feel French and want to play for France, that suits me fine.”
The row spiraled and the image of the 1998 multi-cultural ‘blanc-noir-beur’ team was shattered when his former team-mates Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira took one side, and Lizarazu was joined by Christophe Dugarry, Emmanuel Petit, Marcel Desailly and Aime Jacquet in the pro-Blanc camp.
Blanc survived (he was forced to apologise by his bosses even though he still believes he did nothing wrong), and since then has been forced to find solutions in the France team after injury and loss of form ruled out Abou Diaby and Alou Diarra, respectively, from his midfield. Both were outstanding in France’s 2-0 qualifying win in Bosnia & Herzegovina, but Blanc has preferred Yohan Cabaye in the last 12 months alongside Yann M’Vila as the holding player.
He has brought through other players, like Cabaye, his former Lille team-mate Mathieu Debuchy and Montpellier’s title-winning top scorer Olivier Giroud. “Opening the door to the boys like Debuchy and Giroud has given the team a breath of fresh air,” admitted Lille coach Rudi Garcia. The team still suffers from a lack of leaders and charisma though: look at France’s successful teams and there’s no obvious equivalent to Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini, Didier Deschamps or Zinedine Zidane to inspire them.
No-one who coached Blanc as a player is surprised by the success of the man nicknamed Le Président. At Auxerre, where Guy Roux converted him from an attacking midfielder into a sweeper, Blanc inspired his team to the 1996 title, despite being ten points behind Paris Saint-Germain at Christmas. “Laurent had been injured but he came back in January and with him in the side, we only lost one game and won the double,” said coach Guy Roux. “Laurent was the leader of the group, always totally serene.”
Blanc himself has spoken of filling notebooks brimming with ideas from his previous coaches. One of his most instructive spells came at Barcelona, where he would often sit with then-assistant coach Jose Mourinho and team-mates Luis Figo, Gica Popescu and Pep Guardiola, swapping ideas about the game.
This is the part of his career that is instructing him today, believes Javier Irureta, former coach of Deportiva La Coruna. “Blanc is a player who grew at Barcelona, who perfectly understands the Guardiola philosophy,” he said. “He wants defenders to start attacks, he wants a pressing game. The game Barcelona and Spain play, it’s tiki-taka. Tiki, I give; taka, I receive. At the moment, I get the sense there’s not enough taka in the France team. For sure, Blanc picks small and quick players, like Samir Nasri, Marvin Martin and Mathieu Valbuena. The problem is not that they aren’t small. It’s that Nasri is not Xavi.”
“We used to talk a lot about football, about tactics and we worked together to resolve the teams problems,” remembered Marcello Lippi of his days together with Blanc at Inter. “He was always trying to find solutions and it’s clear he is made to be a manager.” Ferguson had his eye on Blanc ever since United beat his Montpellier side in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, and has spoken of the reassurance that he would generate to his team-mates. “That gave him the potential to become a great manager,” he said.
Ferguson has been a great influence on the Frenchman, as was apparent when Blanc discussed his coaching philosophy. “Our job as manager is to help the players assume a certain amount of responsibility,” he said. “I didn’t become a manager to spend my time checking my players eat salad. The most important quality for a manager is in knowing how to manage his group. That’s the only reason I chose this profession: to deal with a group, to improve them, to know your men so you can better anticipate their reactions.”
The cloud on the horizon for Blanc is his relationship with federation president Noel Le Graet. Conscious that his predecessor extended Domenech’s contract before Euro 2008 to run to 2010, Le Graet has held back on prolonging Blanc’s current deal, which expires at the end of the tournament. “My position has not changed, Blanc’s continuation will depend on how we do at the Euros,” he said. But how do you quantify that, he was asked. Just on results, or quality of play, or the attitude of the players? “All of it,” said Le Graet.
The pair have clashed over the number of people Blanc has in his backroom staff, 23, fewer than Domenech’s 25 (and Germany’s 31); also the cost of the France team staying in Paris’s Hotel Enghien before home matches; and the choice of camp at the Euros. Blanc wanted the team based in Poland, Le Graet made the decision to base France in Donetsk.
In theory, Blanc is still free to sign a contract with a club team for next season before the tournament begins. He has reportedly had talks with Chelsea and Inter Milan, and it would be typical of the federation to lose their best appointment in years. Blanc had applied to be France coach back in 2004, and missed out. “If you have a second chance and miss it, there may not be a third chance,” he said. Those words could apply to Le Graet now.
One thing seems certain: Blanc the coach will not be around for as long as some of his former bosses, like Roux (Auxerre coach for 44 years) or Ferguson (Manchester United coach for 26 years). “Being a coach is extremely tiring and I can’t see myself doing for this years and years like Guy Roux,” Blanc said.
“You might run into me in ten years time and say, ‘oh you’re still around,’ but I think that would be miraculous. I remember that when I began my coaching career, some managers said to me, ‘Welcome to our mad world’. They were right.” In the next few weeks, Blanc might begin to realise just how right they were.
This is an edited extract from the ebook ‘Best XI Insider: England vs France’, which contains exclusive profiles of Scott Parker, Roy Hodgson, Franck Ribery and Laurent Blanc, tactical analysis by Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox, and Robert Pires picking his best ‘Frangland XI’. It’s available to buy here: