The Journey Continues for France

Laurent Blanc becomes one more casualty at the altar of moulding a temperamental bunch of Les Bleus. Ogo Sylla reports on what failed him

It has been six years now since the World Cup 2006 final and France still seem to be struggling to make any real headway in international tournaments. Of course, this may be a harsh view, and a more clement judge might offer some kudos to Laurent Blanc’s side for being the first to have progressed beyond the group stages of an international competition since that fated final in Germany. Beyond such a raw analysis, however, Les Bleus have made very little headway as a team, given their image at home.

Les Bleus under Laurent Blanc played as a completely different outfit from when Raymond Domenech was in charge. Blanc did away with the double-pivot midfield and switched to a 4-3-3 which looked to impose itself technically and open up the pitch. Blanc had often openly expressed his admiration for the Spanish style of play, which was the platform of his discourse upon his appointment and the cornerstone of his projet de jeu (project/style of play).

France opened their Euro 2012 campaign against England, where after completely dominating the match, they could only manage a 1-1 draw. They went on to perform much better though in their second match against tournament hosts, Ukraine, handily brushing them aside in the second half-scoring two quality goals. With four points in the group, it would have taken a miracle for France to get out of the groups and a win against Sweden would secure them top spot. It was perhaps that complacency which saw them fall 2-0 to an inspired and spirited Swedish team. This defeat did not prevent France from securing a quarter-final berth although it did allow England to top the group putting an end to its 23-match unbeaten run under Blanc’s reign. A defeat, ill-timed indeed, as Les Bleus would find themselves pitted against the defending champions, Spain in the next round.

Lax defending cost France the top spot with a defeat against Sweden

Though France had not been the most convincing of teams so far, it certainly showed that Blanc’s projet de jeu had taken hold. Yohan Cabaye was the surprise package and standout player of this French side, as well as symbol of Blanc’s vision: technically gifted, good range of passing, and generous in his contributions on the pitch in terms of team ethics. Franck Ribéry went through a bit of a metamorphosis throughout this Euro. The Bayern München winger had become a prominent hate figure amongst many French fans following his involvement in the Knysna ‘bus of shame’ incident at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, he entered this competition with an irreproachable attitude. Ribéry worked hard for the team and was one of the few consistent and dangerous players on the team. The one individual, who really disappointed both Blanc and the fans, was unquestionably France’s star player: Karim Benzema. The French striker was coming off his best season with Real Madrid and had really matured as a player under Jose Mourinho. However, he showed none of that during the Euro, with only two assists (against Ukraine) to his name.

Ribery and Benzema hardly fired together
Giroud was not utilised

Besides the players though, we also have to assess Blanc and how he managed the team during the Euro. This was Blanc’s first international competition in a young coaching career and this was always going to be a great challenge for the Frenchman. We already mentioned the impressive 23-match unbeaten run Blanc oversaw and how his vision seemed to be finally taking root. Irrespective of the many positives about Blanc’s tenure, there were some negatives as well that many a fan found it difficult to come to terms with. One of them was his deployment of Benzema as a no.9 and his refusal to partner him with Ligue 1 top-scorer, Olivier Giroud. One of Benzema’s main issues as a striker is that he often evacuates the penalty area to link up deeper in midfield. In fact, the striker is more of a neuf-et-demi (nine-and-a-half) and benefits from the presence of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo (in Real Madrid) who fills that space up front when Benzema drops deeper. So Blanc’s system with Benzema operating as a no.9 left the penalty area unguarded. The issue is all the more aberrant when we consider how simply the solution could have been implemented with Giroud or even Jeremy Menez who could have emulated Cristiano Ronaldo’s movement in the final third (when we consider that Carlo Ancelotti played him as a no.9 in the final stages of his season with PSG).

Much of Euro was spent like this

Blanc’s greatest failing, however, came during the fated quarter-final against Spain. The problem is not so much the loss to the most dominant international side of our generation, but Blanc’s decisions during this penultimate game. Against Spain, Blanc attempted to counteract the Andres Iniesta threat down La Roja’s left flank by playing with two right-backs: Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Réveillère. Now there’s nothing too scandalous about this except when we consider the fact that Blanc also stationed a defensive midfielder, Yann M’Vila, slightly to the right of midfield for further reinforcement. It became all the more ironic when both full-backs were beaten and found themselves unable to stop Jordi Alba’s cross from the left which Xabi Alonso turned in for the opening goal.

The more pertinent point though, besides Blanc’s over-cautiousness in his fixation to seal Iniesta, was what his choices on the day let transpire. It had nothing to do with sending the wrong message to his team. It had more to do with going completely counter to his whole projet de jeu. After berating the English for having refused to play and defending throughout the game against France, Blanc turned around and did just the same. After stating that he wanted a team that imposed its style and that did not react or change its style regardless of the opponent, Blanc did just the opposite. Two years at the helm of Les Bleus, yet it was this incoherence which made Blanc’s entire work come to naught. In fact, in this single game against Spain, Blanc willingly and effectively threw away his entire projet de jeu and was unceremoniously thrown out of the Euro for it.

It’s difficult to come away with many positives regarding Les Bleus’ exit from Euro 2012. Besides the 23-match unbeaten run and France managing to come out of the group stages of an international competition, we are really left grasping at straws. One could point out that France did also manage to win its first match in an international competition (France 2-0 Ukraine) since the 2006 World Cup, but at this point it somewhat sounds like a backhanded compliment.

One of the alarming things from it all is that Blanc has failed in his operation to bring the team any closer to the hearts of the supporters. Whether it was the team’s performance against Spain or off-field incidences like Samir Nasri along with a few others publicly taking on the media and causing a rift in the dressing room, there has been a clear disconnect. Nasri, Jérémy Menez, Yann M’Vila, and Hatem Ben Arfa have all been summoned before a disciplinary commission of the French Football Federation (FFF).  Blanc even stepped down from his post following a strained relationship with FFF president, Noël LeGraët. Didier Deschamps is in LeGraët’s line of sight but the former Marseille coach has reportedly temporarily rebuffed the FFF president’s feelers. Of course, Deschamps’ agent, Jean-Pierre Bernès – who is also Blanc’s agent – could become a sticking point in any negotiation knowing LeGraët’s apprehension of the super agent’s closeness to the FFF organization.

Today France finds itself without a coach, is out of another major competition and has sullied their public image before their own fans and the international public. Despite all the talk about Domenech having been a national pariah and Blanc the supposed saviour of French football, the Les Bleus haven’t really climbed out of the trough in the past two years.