France breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when the World Cup draw landed the national side in an eminently navigable group alongside Mexico, Uruguay and hosts South Africa. Things could have been a lot worse for Raymond Domenech’s men, but morale remains low. Any hopes of a successful tournament are tempered by fresh memories of France’s dismal qualification campaign and nowhere was their inadequacy more apparent than in their last match – the second leg of the infamous play-off victory over Ireland.
“We played poorly and it came down to a referee’s mistake, but that’s the way it went,” was the damning analysis of a French Football Federation spokesman. “The Irish were really great, they played brilliantly and we played poorly. We were awful.”
So what’s gone wrong? Thierry Henry has 51 international goals to his name, Nicolas Anelka is in the form of his life, André-Pierre Gignac scored 24 times in Ligue 1 last season and Yoann Gourcuff is widely recognised as one of Europe’s most gifted playmakers, so what prevented them from mustering any kind of sustained goal threat against the Irish?
Domenech will go into next summer’s World Cup as perhaps the most unpopular coach in the tournament, but he is at least consistent with his tactics. France have been lining up in a 4-2-3-1 since the dawn of the 2006 World Cup and the system worked effectively enough to take them to the final.
A look at the team that lined up in that match (right) provides an insight into how the formation knitted together.
Claude Makélélé and Patrick Vieira screen a flat back four, with Zinedine Zidane directing the play in central areas and Henry operating as a lone forward. Right-back Willy Sagnol’s attacking instincts allow Franck Ribéry to tuck in, with Henry’s natural tendency to drift left creating space for Zidane and Ribéry to attack, as Ribéry did when he scored the equaliser in the 3-1 victory over Spain in the last 16.
“Franck Ribéry brings the same qualities Robert Pirès provided in the past: the ability to destabilise defences with his short dribbles and runs,” said Michel Platini prior to the final.
Key to the side’s attacking shape is the fact that Florent Malouda and Ribéry are both midfielders. Though starting from wide positions, both are capable of coming inside from the flanks to link up with Zidane and add weight to the midfield or burst forward in support of Henry.
“Our players were well spread out across the pitch, and we filled every gap,” said Vieira after the 1-0 defeat of Brazil in the quarter-finals. “We were like a wall,” said Malouda.
France lined up against Ireland last month in roughly the same formation (left), but the key difference was that, instead of midfielders like Ribéry and Malouda, their wide players were two converted strikers: Henry and Anelka. Where Malouda and Ribéry’s natural inclination is to come in from the flanks towards the ball, Henry and Anelka are used to playing higher up the pitch. When deployed on the left wing by Barcelona, Henry is happy to hug the touchline because he is supported by three central midfield players who make sure he gets plenty of the ball but against Ireland his reluctance to leave the flank left him isolated.
What Ireland did brilliantly was cluster around Lassana Diarra whenever he got on the ball, cutting off the supply line to Gourcuff and subsequently to the three forwards. France were left to toil in a distended 4-2-1-3, with Gourcuff marooned in midfield, Henry cut off high on the left, Anelka probing from the right with only marginal success and Gignac left waiting for a pass or cross that never came.
“We do not know how to play, where to go, there is no organisation,” is what Henry is reported to have told Domenech prior to the 1-1 draw at home to Romania in September. He moved quickly to deny the rumours but the damage was done and in the performance against Ireland, France were the epitome of aimlessness.
For the 4-2-3-1 to work, the wide players have to be attacking midfielders, like Ribéry, capable of shouldering part of the creative burden rather than pure attackers who typically play high up the pitch and rely almost exclusively on supply from midfield. When France played with two wide players and two forwards, as they did in the 5-0 win over the Faroe Islands and the 3-1 defeat of Austria, they looked far more well-equipped in attack.
Les Bleus had the same problems in the early stages of the 2006 World Cup, when they started out with Sylvain Wiltord, a forward, in the left midfield role and were held to dispiriting draws by Switzerland and South Korea. Malouda was drafted into the team for the 2-0 victory over Togo when Zidane was ruled out by suspension, but when Zidane came back Malouda held onto his place at Wiltord’s expense and the starting XI remained unchanged until the final.
“After the Korea match, we asked ourselves a lot of questions,” said Gallas. “We spoke to each other and that helped a lot. Something clicked between that game and the one against Togo. We were afraid of going out in the first round and that woke us up.”
Domenech will not make himself any more popular by dropping Henry or Anelka, but it might be the only way to wake France up again in time for next summer.