A matter of weeks before the start of the 2010 World Cup, Raymond Domenech made perhaps the most radical move of his four-year tenure as France coach by completely altering the team’s shape. When first-choice defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra was forced out of the squad by a stomach complaint linked to a genetic blood condition, Domenech scrapped the 4-2-3-1 that has been France’s default tactical system since the beginning of the last World Cup and began to experiment with a 4-3-3.
The new formation features Lyon’s Jérémy Toulalan as the sole holding midfielder, with Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff on either side of him, Franck Ribéry and Sidney Govou on the flanks and either Thierry Henry or Nicolas Anelka as a lone centre forward.
France premiered the new system in their first World Cup warm-up game against Costa Rica in Lens last week and produced their most coherent attacking performance in a long time. A late strike from debutant Mathieu Valbuena, the Marseille wildcard, secured a 2-1 victory that procured a timely surge in optimism for a side that laboured through qualifying and needed one of the most controversial goals in football history to see off a resolute Republic of Ireland in the European zone qualifying play-offs.
Against Costa Rica, France circulated the ball better than they had throughout the entire qualifying campaign, with Ribéry a persistent threat in his preferred left-wing role, Malouda and Gourcuff regular contributors in attack and substitutes Valbuena and Abou Diaby making decisive contributions when they came on in the second period.
“In our play, it was much better,” said Gourcuff. “There was much more movement around the ball carrier, which hasn’t been the case in recent France matches. Now, whoever had the ball had two or three options.”
It may have only been a friendly game against a side that hasn’t qualified for the World Cup, but it demonstrated that France were capable of playing insistent and expansive attacking football. It was also a far cry from their wretched performance in the home leg of the play-off against Ireland (see right), when Gourcuff was left marooned in a central playmaking role by Ireland’s superb shackling of Diarra and the unwillingness, or inability, of Henry, Anelka and André-Pierre Gignac to play a role in the creative process.
Playing alongside Toulalan allows Gourcuff more time on the ball to pick a pass and gives him a much better view of what’s happening ahead of him. The 4-3-3 means that he has three other notionally attacking midfielders – Malouda, Ribéry and Govou – to shoulder part of the creative burden, whereas against Ireland he had been the sole offensive midfielder in the XI. With three central midfielders France are able to recycle the ball much more effectively, enabling them to maintain an attacking presence closer to the edge of the opposition penalty area.
The new shape also solves the problem of how to accommodate Ribéry and Malouda in the same team. Both players are at their best on the left flank, but the Bayern Munich man has been more insistent about his desire to play there and Malouda demonstrated in the latter stages of Chelsea’s season that he was fully capable of playing in a deeper, more central position.
So far, so good. But then came the uninspiring 1-1 draw in Tunisia on Sunday (see below) and suddenly the team was beset by doubts. Centre-backs William Gallas and Eric Abidal put in a wobbly performance that suggests the Barcelona left-back is not fully at home in the middle, while Anelka resolutely refused to occupy the role of a centre forward by dropping deeper and deeper in search of the ball and robbing the players behind him of the central attacking reference point that is essential for the system to work.
Tunisia took an early lead when Gallas allowed Fahid Ben Khalfallah to step past him and centre for the unmarked Issam Jemâa to tap home and it could have been 2-0 shortly afterwards, had Ben Khalfallah not overcooked his pass to Jemâa when clean through after the France defence had been caught out high up the pitch.
Ribéry ceded his place to Henry after a lively first-half showing but France’s record goalscorer turned in a largely ineffective performance, illuminated nonetheless by some deft touches, while Govou was anonymous as an attacking presence on the right. France dominated possession and crafted numerous chances, but there was no hiding the problems in both defence and attack.
Domenech had foreseen as much after the Costa Rica game. “We played an encouraging match in terms of our offensive configuration but I’d like us to be tighter defensively,” he said. “This system creates situations where we can be put under pressure more quickly than with three defensive midfielders.”
The performance against Costa Rica raised hopes that were quickly tempered by the draw against Tunisia. Ahead of the final World Cup warm-up against China on Friday, there are some important questions to be answered. Can Abidal be relied upon at centre-back? Do Malouda and Gourcuff possess the defensive qualities to adequately support Toulalan when France lose the ball? Is Govou really the best option on the right? And, perhaps most pressingly, can Anelka be made to play as an orthodox centre forward, or would Domenech be better off drafting Gignac or Djibril Cissé into the side?
The problem with Anelka is that he is unable to rein in his natural inclination to drop deep in search of the ball. He played up front on his own with great success for Chelsea last season, but at the tip of a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree with Malouda and Joe Cole playing in narrow roles behind him. For France, the two players nearest to him are on the flanks. With Chelsea he could drop deep because both Cole and Malouda were able to break beyond him to attack the penalty area. In France’s new system he plays well in advance of the central midfield three and when he goes looking for the ball, all he does is get in their way.
The thought persists that France would be much more effective with a genuine penalty box predator such as Cissé, or perhaps Gignac, in the central striking role. Gignac took up much more orthodox positions when he came on for Anelka and also exchanged positions intelligently with Henry. Regarding the flanks, moving Ribéry to the right and restoring Malouda to the left would give France better balance, while also creating room for the impressive Diaby to occupy a starting role alongside Toulalan, but Govou brings valued defensive discipline to the midfield and Ribéry is a markedly more dangerous player on the left.
It is also worth remembering that, in the run-up to the last World Cup, Domenech tested a 4-3-1-2 formation in the pre-tournament friendly matches before jettisoning it in favour of the 4-2-3-1 that took Les Bleus to the final. Should the 4-3-3 falter against China, the 4-2-3-1 may return, but with Toulalan and Alou Diarra as the only true defensive midfielders in the squad after Domenech decided not to summon a direct replacement for Lassana Diarra, it would leave France with scant cover in a key position.
For all these seemingly unsolved conundrums, France will arrive in South Africa in good heart. Domenech was pilloried for overlooking Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, but both players were accused of sowing disharmony in the squad at Euro 2008 and in their absence France enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive training camp in Tignes that appears to have created a genuine sense of shared purpose. The players say they are happy with the new system and Domenech has diplomatically addressed the decline of Henry by quietly relegating him to the bench and handing the captain’s armband to the popular Patrice Evra.
To achieve success at a World Cup, a team needs good players, a clearly defined tactical system, alternatives on the bench and a bit of luck. In the latter stages of the competition, matches are decided by details. France have the quality to reach the semi-finals at least. Domenech’s handling of the Anelka problem might ultimately dictate how far they go.