France: surprisingly promising
Of all the players omitted from their nation’s World Cup squad, Samir Nasri was the biggest-name absence.
Whereas some players, like Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, had been ignored by their national team manager for years, Nasri had recently been involved for his country, and seemed to have a decent chance of making the first XI. But Didier Deschamps chose to leave him out completely. “When he doesn’t start, he is not happy, and when he is not happy, it shows. And it affects the team.”
Deschamps’ decision has been severely criticised in some quarters, but if there was a question about Nasri affecting the mood of the squad, it was entirely correct to leave him out. France’s major problem throughout the past decade has been the lack of harmony in the squad and the petty squabbles between star players.
The events of the 2010 World Cup were farcical, and there were also issues in 2008 and 2012. Nasri, a player who has managed to get into an argument with his national team captain about who sits where on the team bus, is exactly the sort of player they can’t afford to risk. Especially, as Deschamps says, if he wasn’t going to be a first-choice anyway.
That point shouldn’t ignored. France’s qualification campaign ended with a two-legged play-off against Ukraine, where France were embarrassed 2-0 in the away leg with Nasri in the side, playing in a pivotal number ten position. He probably received too much criticism for that performance, because he was handed far too much responsibility, and the entire side lacked shape and structure. Nasri was often forced to drop between the two holding midfielders, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, to collect the ball, which completely altered the system.
For the second leg, Nasri was dropped, Yohan Cabaye came into the side and France’s midfield trio flipped so they used Cabaye as a deep-lying playmaker (deeper than Pogba and Matuidi) rather than Nasri as a number ten in advance of them. Everything was better – the shape, the passing, the roles of the forwards. France won 3-0, and the formation and personnel used in that victory instantly became Deschamps’ default system.
The first leg was a great game to miss, the second leg was great to be selected for. Cabaye over Nasri was one change, but Karim Benzema replaced Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena replaced Loic Remy too, and those players have been in pole position to start ever since. Deschamps might rotate the players in the attacking trio, but the key to France’s transformation was the shape of the midfield.
Cabaye, Matuidi and Pogba is an odd midfield trio. All three possess both technical and physical quality, but it feels a strange unit. They’re probably all best in the same role, as the ’second’ midfielder in a triangle, preferably with a pure holder behind, and a dedicated playmaker just ahead. There’s a worry they could all cover roughly the same responsibilities, but if these players click, they’re a fearsome midfield.
Particularly notable in the warm-up matches has been France’s midfield press. Pogba and Matuidi are both extremely powerful, energetic players comfortable pushing up and shutting down the opposition, which works well in combination with a centre-back pairing happy playing high up the pitch, and the best sweeper-keeper around.
Cabaye in the holding role is the biggest anomaly, especially considering he played best in a number ten position at Newcastle. Still, he has the qualities to play that deep role – he always wants to be involved in possession, admitting he wants to pass the ball more than 100 times per game. He’s also a very feisty tackler.
Deschamps has the same decision upfront as at Euro 2012 – Benzema or Giroud upfront. Benzema had a fine season at Real Madrid and therefore seems likely to get the nod, but Giroud is the sort of player that does well at World Cups – he’s not as prolific, but his selfless hold-up play works perfectly with onrushing midfielders.
On the right, Mathieu Valbuena is vital for the cohesion and balance of the side. A brilliantly talented little playmaker, his movement is superb and his passing both reliable and penetrative, and when he’s in the France side, almost everything goes through him.
On the other flank, France have been rocked by the loss of Franck Ribery, their star man coming into the competition. His role will probably be taken by Antoine Griezmann, a brilliantly tricky wide man who is the closest thing to Ribery.
In the amazing 8-0 thrashing of Jamaica shortly before the competition, however, Deschamps played Benzema from the left, and Giroud upfront – which seemed to work quite well, and could be used against the minnows in France’s group. Alternatively, Loic Remy can be used in a basic role by Deschamps, told to stay high up the pitch and relentlessly make runs in behind the defence, which makes sense when Giroud is in the side, as the Arsenal striker lacks pace.
In the 1-1 warm-up draw against Paraguay, Valbuena became a number ten from the right, and Remy a second striker from the left (the role Benzema could play), so it often appeared more like a midfield diamond with two upfront.
Strangely, none of the back four are certain of their place for the duration of the tournament. France have a lot of 7/10 and 8/10 players in this zone, but no world-class defenders. At right-back, Bacary Sagna is a steady defender and a good crosser, while Mathieu Debuchy is more dynamic going forward and good at covering behind his centre-backs. At left-back, Patrice Evra has great experience but Lucas Digne offers more thrust and attacking width.
At centre-back, Laurent Koscielny is a great man-marker but can make mistakes, Mamadou Sakho is good in the air and quick across the floor but poor in possession while Raphael Varane is a great all-round defender but lacks experience. Eliaquim Mangala, a decent all-round centre-back, is the least likely defender to start.
In truth, the major concern isn’t that Deschamps might pick the wrong defenders – there’s not that much difference in terms of quality – but the fact he hasn’t settled on a first-choice unit. Defending is all about cohesion, and Deschamps could end up using a backline that has barely played together.
Lloris loves playing behind a high defensive line and charges out of his box to make interceptions when the opposition play through-balls, and therefore unlike many sides in this competition, France should play a high line. They also have a habit, as shown by a concession against Paraguay recently, of defending very high up the pitch when defending free-kicks, too.
France go between extremes – at the past five tournaments, they’re DNQ (1994), champions (1998), R1 (2002), runners-up (2006), R1 (2010). They’re unpredictable at this tournament – good on paper, probably good on the pitch, but what about in the dressing room?
Tactically, France will offer something different to other sides, with an energetic midfield press and a high defensive line, which means their matches should be enjoyable. The question mark is about the lack of variety in midfield, and the unfamiliarity in the back four, but they should reach the quarter-final.
Coach: Didier Deschamps, World Cup-winning captain yet to prove himself a great tactician.
Formation: 4-3-3ish, with a hint of 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-1-2 depending upon the movement of attackers.
Key player: Valbuena – his movement is great, and he connects the whole side with clever passing.
Strength: Great energy, mobility and technical quality in midfield.
Weakness: The lingering suspicion that star players could fall out.
Key tactical question: How effective is France’s pressing?France: surprisingly promising