Teams of the Decade, #19: France, Euro 2004

January 15, 2010

This side gets in here because of the idea behind it, rather than the actual outcome. France were poor at Euro 2004 – they were outplayed by England in the first game, and were utterly toothless when being dumped out by Greece.

Jacques Santini’s logic was this – he wanted to play two holding players behind Zidane, and he wanted Trezeguet and Henry upfront. He needed width, which was provided from Robert Pires. He also knew he had a left-back with a reputation for getting up and down the line all day, and a forward (Henry) who liked drifting to the left when his team were defending.

So, rather than fielding a standard left-sided midfielder, he came to a compromise. When his side didn’t have the ball, the left-sided width came from Henry. When his side did, the width came from Lizarazu making forward runs, safe in the knowledge that his side had two holding players, and a left-footed centre-back (Silvestre) who was comfortable covering at full-back. Zidane also took up a left-ish role.

Where did it go wrong? To be honest, take your pick. First, France didn’t need two holding players against any of the sides they came up against (with the arguable exception of England). Second, Robert Pires was actually quite uncomfortable on the right-hand side – he may be right-footed, but he couldn’t cut in as he did so effectively for Arsenal, and it broke up the Henry-Pires partnership that worked so well. Third, Bixente Lizarazu was slightly over-the-hill. Not enough to make him an inadequate full-back – far from it – but enough that asking him to play in two positions at once was completely unrealistic, especially in the summer heat of Portugal, and with the games coming thick and fast. (It’s probably no coincidence that the goal which knocked France out of the tournament, in the video below, came from a lazy challenge from Lizarazu). Fourth, when Pires drifted to the left side, as he occasionally did, the team became completely unbalanced because Gallas was reluctant to provide attacking width on the right as Lizarazu could on the left.

Finally – and whisper this quietly – Zinedine Zidane was no longer consistent enough to base a successful team around. He’d just come off the back of an average season where Real Madrid finished a distant fourth place in La Liga, and was used to the easy life of the Galacticos, where it was acceptable to strut around the pitch leaving the defending to the defenders.

In the end, Santini’s admirable attempt to try an unusual system (often needed in international sides) became a classic case of trying to cram your best players into the same team at the expense of balance. France rarely looked like scoring against Greece, simply because they only ever attacked with four players, and Greece defended with eight.

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