Euro 2012 preview: France
Whatever happens at this tournament, Euro 2012 will be an improvement on the sheer embarrassment of World Cup 2010 for France. The off-field problems meant it was almost impossible to determine how good a side France could have been, and therefore it’s difficult to judge how well Laurent Blanc has performed. But then, repairing the morale of the squad was key, and Blanc seems to have handled that well; his side are now on a 21-match unbeaten run.
On the field, there are still problems to solve. In his three pre-tournament qualifiers, Blanc was either indulging himself in widespread experimentation, or he was a little lost. France have a great number of good players, particularly attacking midfielders, but those players are all of a vaguely similar standard – only Franck Ribery seems undroppable – and all are highly versatile.
Blanc seems to have too many options, and while it feels like there’s a winning combination somewhere, France haven’t yet found it (although the 4-0 win over Estonia on Tuesday night was impressive). As a result, they are highly unpredictable – if it all comes together they could win the competition. If Blanc keeps changing things, it could be a disaster.
Hugo Lloris is the undisputed number one, and a fine goalkeeper. Ahead of him, though, there are problems. The centre-back duo, Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami, don’t seem to function well together – they play high up the pitch but seem vulnerable to balls played in behind, and neither seems to be particularly adept at covering for the other, which was particularly obvious in the 3-2 friendly win over Iceland, when France were 2-0 down in the opening half. They play high up the pitch, and don’t have the pace to cover the space in behind.
Laurent Koscielny has been given a brief chance to impress, and because his game is all about pace and covering space in behind at Arsenal, he seems like a good alternative at the back – either centre-back is droppable. However, Blanc’s decision to go with Mexes-Rami in the final friendly against Estonia indicates that they’ll start against England. Strangely, Blanc has only brought three centre-backs to the tournament, none of the full-backs have experience of playing in the middle, and Diarra would be an uncomfortable makeshift centre-back. Koscielny came on as a substitute against Estonia in a holding midfield role, though this was probably simply to give him playing time, rather than a serious tactical option.
Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy will play at full-back. Evra has had an inconsistent two years at Manchester United and is prone to lapses in concentration for his national side too, but has shaken off the challenge of Gael Clichy. Debuchy would have battled the injured Bacary Sagna for the right-back position, although he was probably favourite to start anyway, having played well throughout Sagna’s previous injury. He might surprise opponents with his forward running – he’s a bigger attacking threat than Evra.
Blanc has chopped and changed in the midfield zone, playing a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 and something in between, trying to find the right combination in the centre. He’s basically settled upon a 4-3-3, which means one ball-winner, one passer and one attacking player.
In the first role, Alou Diarra has benefited from Yann M’Vila’s fitness concerns and will play directly ahead of the defence. He’s a solid player – good positionally and decent on the ball, but he can suffer from being stranded ahead of the defence when the other two midfielders move forward, and you get the impression that he’s much more comfortable when paired with another holder, as he is for Marseille, or even simply a ‘passer’ playing deep in a 4-2-3-1, rather than in the Makelele role.
Yohan Cabaye plays ahead of Diarra and plays an efficient, busy role – he’s energetic but patient on the ball, generally looking to supply another creator rather than play the killer ball, as he increasingly did for Newcastle towards the end of 2011/12. He’s essentially an all-rounder.
The third midfielder will be, slightly surprisingly, Florent Malouda. He performed excellently in the friendly against Bosnia, and shuttles forward to link midfield and attack. He’s benefited from the use of a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Whereas Jeremy Menez and Mathieu Valbeuna would have been candidates for the third slot in an attacking band of three in a 4-2-3-1, they’re not able to play as a midfielder in a 4-3-3. Malouda is the obvious choice, although it’s a shame Marvin Martin didn’t get a start in the pre-tournament friendlies, as he seemed suited to that role and would have brought more guile to the midfield.
Further forward, Ribery plays higher up the pitch than he does for Bayern, and has found form at the Euros by combining with the striker whilst cutting inside and driving towards goal. His form for the national side has been inconsistent, but he has a habit of scoring the opening goals in games. On the other side, Samir Nasri’s place is less secure. Valbuena and, in particular, Menez could challenge him for that spot – Menez would be a more direct option, although maybe Blanc wouldn’t want to replicate Ribery’s immediacy on the ball, and wants balance. Valbuena had a disappointing season at Marseille, so Nasri remains first-choice, coming inside and looking for passes from midfield.
Upfront, Karim Benzema has been in superb form at Real Madrid and will start as the lone striker. He’s a terrific all-round forward, able to lead the line with force as well as score goals. There was a brief chance that he would have to play deeper, with Olivier Giroud playing highest up the pitch – Giroud’s hold-up play against Iceland was sensational – but now it seems the Montpellier striker will be a (very good) substitute. He’ll join Valbuena, Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa on a strong bench.
At least, that’s how it will probably be in the opening game. Blanc really doesn’t seem to have a firm idea of what he wants from his side, and it’s very possible that he could change multiple players, and even his formation, between the group games.
Expect a France side that plays out from the back and looks to dominate possession in the centre of the pitch. The difficulty comes in the final third – the transfer of the ball from midfield to attack must be swift and purposeful.
Arguably the most unpredictable side in the competition. In the final two pre-tournament friendlies there was a hint of cohesion and understanding between Malouda, Ribery, Nasri and Benzema, but as a unit these players are yet to be tested against major opposition. France need a couple of attackers to have excellent tournaments.
Coach – Laurent Blanc
Formation – 4-3-3, at least from the start
Key player – Karim Benzema
Strength – plenty of attacking options, lots of creativity
Weakness – a poor centre-back partnership compared to the rest of the side
Key tactical question – What is France’s Plan B?
Key coach quote – “I like passing the ball around and I like to keep the ball. I like it when the ball is played out from the back, and I also like my teams to be efficient.”
Betfair odds – 12.0 (11/1)
Recommended bet - England v France to be a draw at 3.2