One of the most winsome things about Bordeaux’s rise to the crest of French football last year was the fact they did so with a proper, old-fashioned playmaker in Yoann Gourcuff, who rediscovered his touch after a frustrating spell at Milan to fire Les Girondins to the Ligue 1 title and the Coupe de la Ligue and into the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League.
Bordeaux’s subsequent collapse in 2010 – elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Lyon and a dismal run of domestic defeats that has put paid to any hope of a successful title defence – owes much to the thinness of Laurent Blanc’s squad and the inevitable fatigue induced by challenging for trophies on multiple fronts, but Gourcuff’s powerlessness to prevent their abrupt breakdown is also symptomatic of the demise of the classic number 10.
Gourcuff was the irresistible driving force behind Bordeaux’s title charge last spring and it was hoped by many observers that his efficacy in an advanced, central role might prefigure a renaissance in the kind of traditional playmaker whose decline in recent years has been a keen source of regret to anyone who enjoys seeing the game played with patience, wit and flair.
“I think we’re losing that position, that number 10. It feels like there are none left and that’s a great pity,” said Lionel Messi in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine in August last year. “Football is harder now; it’s more physical, there is more contact. It’s a shame. Number 10s were players who participated more in the game, got a lot of the ball and who made the game beautiful.”
After last season’s glittering exploits, momentum carried Gourcuff through to the autumn and he played a central role in Bordeaux’s superb Champions League group phase performance, but he has been unable to reverse his side’s slump in recent weeks and is struggling to exert the same influence as he did last term.
It is notable that, while Bordeaux have kept faith with the 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 systems that served them so well last year, the two teams to have gazumped them this season – Marseille in the league and Lyon in Europe – both play 4-3-3. Against a traditional 4-4-2 a playmaker can often exploit the space between the defence and midfield but both Marseille and Lyon have crowded that area with defensive players in their games with Bordeaux this year and Gourcuff’s influence has diminished accordingly.
The most surprising thing about Bordeaux’s 3-1 defeat to Marseille in the Coupe de la Ligue final last month was the apparent ease with which Didier Deschamps’s side closed out victory after taking the lead in the 61st minute. With the muscular pairing of Edouard Cissé and Charles Kaboré patrolling in front of the Marseille defence, Gourcuff had no room in which to manoeuvre and he was forced to retreat in similar fashion when faced with Jérémy Toulalan and Maxime Gonalons in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon:
Confronted by physically imposing and well-drilled opponents who effectively shut off space in their own defensive third, Gourcuff was made to play further and further from the Lyon penalty area and, despite Bordeaux’s desperate need for goals, spent much of his time trying to coax his team-mates into life from inside his own half.
Originally held up as the heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane as France’s playmaker-in-chief, doubts are beginning to creep in about Gourcuff’s suitability as a true number 10. L’Equipe’s football writers last week published their France XI for the World Cup (below) and it featured Gourcuff alongside Lassana Diarra in a midfield holding role, with Franck Ribéry granted attacking freedom in central areas behind Thierry Henry. A panel of experts on French TV show Téléfoot reached a similar conclusion about where Gourcuff should play, while his own father, Lorient coach Christian, feels his son would be better suited to the role of a deep-lying midfielder organiser akin to Milan’s Andrea Pirlo or Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.
To date Gourcuff has failed to convince in a playmaking role for France. He is not helped by Raymond Domenech’s persistent use of strikers rather than midfielders in the wide areas of his 4-2-3-1, who shirk their role in the creative process because they are unaccustomed to playing in midfield, but existing trends have already highlighted the need for central creative players to adapt to the quicker pace of the game by changing their position or changing the way they play.
Lacking the pace to re-locate to the flanks, Gourcuff’s only option appears to be to ‘do a Pirlo’ and retreat into the kind of deeper role in which he operated during his formative years at Rennes and where he has already played on occasion for his current club. At 23 he and his coaches have a decision to make.
“It’s the best position for Gourcuff in the future,” said Domenech at the end of last year when asked if Gourcuff could play in a deep midfield position for Les Bleus. “I enjoyed playing further back,” admitted the player himself, meanwhile, after slotting in alongside Alou Diarra in Bordeaux’s 1-0 home win over Paris Saint-Germain in December.
Should Blanc leave Bordeaux, Gourcuff is bound to follow suit. His likely destination remains unknown but his future position on the pitch may require even more thoughtful deliberation.