Les Bleus Look to Turn It Around
The French were humiliated both on and off the ground in the 2010 World Cup. Ogo Sylla reports on if Euro 2012 is the right tournament to expect a new journey.
Much to my surprise, Les Bleus are coming into EURO 2012 without much fanfare. The French fans and media have become quite disillusioned about their team of late. There was the fiasco of the “bus of Naisna” during the World Cup in South Africa, when the team
revolted against their coach Raymond Domenech. Laurent Blanc thus stepped in, after a successful three years with Bordeaux, where he brought Les Girondins to a second place finish in his first season, then to a first title since a decade as well as a Coupe de la Ligue, and capped it all off with a quarter-final berth in the UEFA Champions League. More so than his successful CV in the early days of his managerial career – when he won the Ligue 1 manager of the year award – Laurent Blanc was a symbol of the much-adored ’98 golden generation that had won the World Cup on home soil. As such, “Le President” (as Laurent Blanc came to be affectionately nicknamed during his stint with Olympique de Marseille) came into the France job with much credit in the bank.
What are France’s real expectations however for the upcoming EURO 2012? According to the French media, a quarter-final berth and according to the French supporters, not even that much. Indeed such pessimism is baffling when you consider the quality of the squad on paper. In every department France has enough to rival the nations being touted as favourites for the EURO 2012.
The solidity & depth of France’s squad is probably best illustrated in its options both in the goalkeeping and fullback options. With Hugo Lloris as the no.1 choice and Steve Mandanda as the backup, Les Bleus possess two world-class custodians who both boast confidence, presence, and quality to single-handedly influence games. The pot is all the more sweetened when you consider that the third option could be Bordeaux’s Cédric Carasso, Saint-Etienne’s Stéphane Ruffier, or even Rennes’ young Benoît Costil.
At the fullback area, it is sad to note that Bacary Sagna will miss out due to the recent leg-break the right-back has suffered. However, Mathieu Debuchy has had a great season for Lille and proven to be one of Europe’s best fullbacks. Of course the loss of Sagna is a blow, but it does leave the door open to Anthony Réveilleère (Lyon) and Christophe Jallet (PSG). The Lyon fullback is more experienced than his PSG counterpart , and so Réveilleère is expected to get the nod as he is a safer bet. On the left, Patrice Evra and Gaël Clichy remain strong choices despite the loss of Eric Abidal, with even Valencia’s Jérémy Mathieu as a wildcard candidate to make the list.
The France midfield is an interesting one to look at as well. In that department, France is blessed with a plethora of great and promising holding midfielders. However, I suspect that Blanc will go with the usual men he picks and trusts. The first name on the list is sure to be Alou Diarra, who was the captain of Bordeaux during Blanc’s stint as manager. Diarra has had a difficult start of his season since his move to Olympique de Marseille. His performances have greatly improved recently, but the 30-year-old is still some distance away from his Bordeaux form. Despite this, I believe Blanc will pick him, as he kept picking him even during his worst spell with Marseille when the whole of the French fans berated him for it. The other obvious pick will be Yann M’Vila, another favourite of Blanc. Despite a really poor season by his standards, it is unlikely for M’Vila to miss out on the EUROs. M’Vila’s dip in form has mostly been due to fatigue and being overplayed. And indeed it would almost be strange to pick M’Vila when you consider that Rio Mavuba is the best holding midfielder in France, with Toulouse’s Étienne Capoue another interesting option albeit with much less experience at international level.
Of course the midfield is not only going to be comprised with defensive midfielders and this is where France’s issues are highlighted. Laurent Blanc likes/aims to play a possession-style game with a lot of movement and ball circulation. Yohan Cabaye and Marvin Martin are two players Blanc is quite fond of and who would be apt to implement his strategy. However Cabaye – despite the great seasons he has enjoyed with Lille and Newcastle – has never been able to carry that form for France and thus always been disappointing. Martin is the more alarming case. After a break-out season when he notched up 17 assists, he only has 5 this year. The dip in form correlating with a mooted transfer that never materialized, a coach he didn’t rate, and so another case of player-power where Martin’s lack of professionalism could have very easily cost him a place at this summer’s EUROs.
You might have noticed that we have not yet discussed France’s attack and central defense. The reason for that is simple, therein lay
all the problems. In attack, only Karim Benzema really jumps out. Moreover, we must consider where to play Benzema who can play as a neuf-et-demi (nine-and-a-half) or as an out-and-out striker. If Blanc opts for the former, then who should be the striker ahead of Benzema? Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud is the obvious choice today: Ligue 1 top-scorer with 19 goals and the skill-set and ability to do the job. However it is Giroud’s lack of experience at this level that is worrisome. He only counts three caps for Les Bleus, albeit one in an impressive win against Germany when he really showed his class. Of course the problem remains that, if not Giroud then who? Kevin Gameiro has had a poor season for his new club PSG this year alongside Guillaume Hoarau, to the point that Carlo Ancelotti does not even line them up anymore (which is pertinent considering they are the only two strikers at the club). Loïc Rémy looked to have cemented his place, but inopportune hamstring injuries and poor morale (due to a disastrous season from Marseille this year) makes it difficult to justify his place in the starting eleven today.
The central defence is yet another issue France needs to sort out. However it seems strange to mention this when considering some of the candidates Blanc has to choose from- Adil Rami, Philippe Mexès, Laurent Koscielny, Mamadou Sakho among others. The problem with the aforementioned names is that they were all in line to be picked but have all suffered dips in form, especially Mexès and Rami. Mèxes is no longer trusted by AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri and has effectively been phased out, with Mario Yepes taking his place in the pecking order. Rami had a blistering start to his Valencia career but has really fallen some ways since the rumours of an interest from Barcelona came about and destabilized him. Sakho’s form is the most alarming of the three, having strung along a series of very poor performances that led to Ancelotti freezing him out of the line-up. Indeed Sakho’s dip in form coincidentally manifested with the arrival of Ancelotti, as the French defender maybe failed to cope with the pressure of the Italian’s expectations. Koscielny is by far the most secure of the three mentioned above. As such, we might see possible surprise inclusions of the young Montpellier captain, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, or even of Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane.
In the end however, Blanc has lost much of the credit and indeed popularity he had when he took the France job. His contractual saga, when he more or less threatened to quit if he was not signed on, only created more critics amongst the French fans. What further irritates Les Bleus fans however are the unfulfilled promises regarding Blanc’s projet de jeu (style of play). Indeed Blanc has often spoken of his admiration for the Spanish style and has made it his goal to emulate it with this team. However, France is quite some ways off from that and has not produced anything remotely close to it. Finally, but certainly not the least, is Blanc’s insistence to include Frank Ribéry in the team. Indeed Ribéry has a terrible reputation in France since the Naisna incident and many are simply calling for him not to be included in the EURO squad. In a way, an omission would be justified given that his performances for Les Bleus have always inexplicably been much poorer than for his club. But in another way as well, the Ribéry case is one that applies to many of Les Bleus’ players. Samir Nasri and Patrice Evra are the more notable examples. This issue has polarized the fans from the players, with the French public labeling them as nothing more than overpaid superstars who don’t care about playing for the shirt. This is France’s biggest stumbling block and challenge for Blanc at the EUROs indeed, to turn the hearts of the French people.
In conclusion, Blanc has a tough battle ahead of him. Le President has to not only win the hearts of the French people but also his team has to perform on the pitch. But then again, both are intrinsically linked and should follow through naturally. Blanc does boast of the ultimate ace-in-the-hole however- a transformed Benzema who possesses all the skills, maturity and leadership to bring this team to a semi-final berth at this summer’s EUROs.