The debris from the slow-motion car crash that has been the last two years in the life of the France team is unlikely to settle for some time. The fall-out from their spectacularly ugly World Cup failure will rumble long into the summer, with players promising to reveal the full story behind their ill-tempered campaign and government ministers poised to carry out a searching investigation into the failings of the French Football Federation.
French football fans want a line to be drawn under this World Cup as swiftly as possible and in the imminent arrival of Laurent Blanc as new head coach they have at least an opportunity to start afresh. Le Président has not yet signed his contract but France’s next game, a friendly against Norway in Oslo on August 11, is less than two months anyway and he will already have formulated strong ideas about how he is going to approach his gargantuan task. What next, then, for France?
Blanc would not be the first international coach to turn to trusted players from his tenure as a club manager and in that respect his arrival is good news for the Bordeaux contingent, namely Alou Diarra and, in particular, Yoann Gourcuff. The latter’s wretched tournament was ended by a harsh red card in the 2-1 defeat by South Africa on Tuesday, but Gourcuff already carried the look of a haunted man. Amid rumours of discord between him and some of the team’s high-profile senior players, Gourcuff produced an uncharacteristically shaky performance in the 0-0 draw with Uruguay and lost his place for the 2-0 loss against Mexico. His composure was badly disturbed by the atmosphere surrounding the team and Blanc’s first job will be to restore him to the level of confidence he enjoyed during Bordeaux’s annus mirabilis in 2009.
That Blanc’s France will be built around Gourcuff is almost certain, but the new coach could also call on his Bordeaux charges in other areas. Patrice Evra may struggle to regain public confidence after his leading role in the player revolt and should he fall from grace, Benoît Trémoulinas is one of a number of enterprising left-backs who could succeed him. Arsenal’s Gaël Clichy heads the queue to replace Evra though and at 24 he will theoretically be reaching his prime by the time the next World Cup comes around. Should he disappoint, Lyon’s Aly Cissokho and Valencia’s Jérémy Mathieu would also come into contention.
Of the other France defenders, Clichy’s clubmate Bacary Sagna could be the only player to survive the post-Domenech cull. William Gallas and Eric Abidal may never pull on a France shirt again and Sagna, though far from irreproachable for his performances in South Africa, profits from a lack of competition. Rod Fanni can expect a higher profile if he joins Atletico Madrid and Sevilla’s 26-year-old Abdoulay Konko is another candidate for the right-back slot.
Centre-backs Sébastien Squillaci and Julien Escudé, both also from Sevilla, will hope to benefit from the defensive reshuffle, but Blanc could turn to Roma’s long-overlooked Philippe Mexès. Lille’s Adil Rami and Bordeaux’s Marc Planus are strong candidates for a starting berth, while Laurent Koscielny will be able to advance a much stronger case for inclusion when he completes his expected move from Lorient to Arsenal. Michaël Ciani, another Bordeaux man, may also get a chance to redeem himself after a nervy performance against Spain in March.
A key feature of Bordeaux’s title-winning side was the attacking role of full-backs Trémoulinas and Matthieu Chalmé. Didier Deschamps estimated in January that “50 percent of their goals [come] from crosses from their full-backs” and Blanc is likely to encourage his wide defenders to get forward as much as possible. Sagna was notably deficient in this regard during the World Cup.
Despite the anticipated upheaval, core elements of the side are unlikely to change. Hugo Lloris may have flapped against South Africa but he remains one of Europe’s best young goalkeepers, while Jérémy Toulalan’s industry and reading of the game make him an indispensable component of the midfield. Lassana Diarra offers a combination of defensive diligence and attacking intent that no other French holding midfielder can provide, but he lost his place at Real Madrid towards the end of last season and missed the World Cup owing to a genetic blood condition.
Competition for Diarra’s place is fierce, with his Bordeaux namesake Alou, Arsenal’s Abou Diaby, Mathieu Flamini of Milan and 19-year-old Rennes starlet Yann M’Vila – called into France’s initial 30-man squad – leading the charge. Moussa Sissoko of Toulouse is another contender, although he tends to play further forward.
It was in attack that France laboured most obviously in their short-lived World Cup adventure and it is here that we should perhaps expect the most change. Thierry Henry’s international career is over and Nicolas Anelka’s stock has plunged so low it is impossible to see how he could ever recover in the eyes of the French fans. At 28, Djibril Cissé may have played his last major tournament. André-Pierre Gignac once again failed to convince when it mattered, although his case will be bolstered if a mooted move to Marseille materialises.
The most obvious beneficiary will be Karim Benzema. He is the only world-class centre forward on Blanc’s radar and, despite his difficulties bedding down at Real Madrid, he is sure to be given a chance to make the number nine shirt his own. He can also expect more playing time at the Bernabéu next season. A Real director told L’Equipe earlier this month: “Not only are Inter not interested in Benzema but even if they were, we wouldn’t sell him. Real count on him.” Blanc may have concerns about Benzema’s ability to lead the line on his own, but with the right support he can be lethal. France are not currently blessed with a wealth of top-rank striking talent, but Blanc is certain to look at Lorient livewire Kévin Gameiro – recently linked with a move to Valencia – and Nice frontman Loïc Rémy.
Goals may have been hard to come by for France in recent times but the composition of the midfield was equally as responsible as the bluntness of the strikers. Franck Ribéry disappointed in South Africa despite being restored to his favoured left-wing role and was outshone by Florent Malouda whenever the Chelsea man was given a chance to stake a claim to the position. At 27, Ribéry is three years Malouda’s junior but the Bayern Munich winger has just cause to fear for his international future.
Sidney Govou’s appalling tournament highlighted France’s dearth of options on the right of midfield, but competition to succeed him will be fierce. Recovered from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and fresh from a €6 million move from Rennes to Lyon, Jimmy Briand can be expected to mount a strong challenge. With a dynamic player like Ribéry or Malouda likely to feature on the left, however, France may be better served by deploying a more thoughtful midfielder on the right and Samir Nasri would certainly enable them to recycle the ball more easily in advanced areas. So much of France’s offensive play at the World Cup relied on flashes of skill or pace from individuals, but a midfield containing Gourcuff and Nasri would give Blanc’s France much better command of the play in advanced areas. Beyond the players already named, Marseille’s Hatem Ben Arfa and Roma’s Jérémy Menez could also have a say in the configuration of Les Bleus’ new attack.
In terms of shape, Blanc used both 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 during his last two seasons at Bordeaux, with the former typically seen against lesser opposition in domestic competition and the latter used for tricky away trips and European ties. Blanc would love to be able to call upon France-born Marouane Chamakh to lead his line, given the Moroccan’s physicality in a lone striking role, but elsewhere he will find components not dissimilar to that with which he worked at Bordeaux. Malouda offers the same directness and athleticism on the left as Wendel, while Nasri’s versatility and ability to play in both advanced and withdrawn positions makes him a similar player to Jaroslav Plašil. Toulalan would in all probability be the holding midfielder to retain his place if Blanc switched to 4-1-3-2, with the rangy Rémy an intriguing potential partner for Benzema due to his pace and his penchant for working the channels.
By the time the next major tournament rolls around, however, Toulalan could be a centre-back. He played there impressively at times for Lyon last season and there were even reports prior to the World Cup that he would be asked to fulfil the role for his country. If he continues to play there next season, Blanc may look to deploy him as a central defender alongside a more classic centre-back such as Mexès or Squillaci. Drawing Toulalan back would enable Blanc to field Gourcuff in a deeper midfield position – a role which many pundits, including his own father, believe would suit him better. That would allow Nasri to occupy the central playmaking role – where he says he feels “most effective” – thereby freeing up space on the right for a more direct player such as Briand, Ben Arfa or Menez.
French football is in crisis but, just like last season, the 2010-2011 campaign will start with French players plying their trade at the grandest clubs in Europe. Blanc crucially arrives with the support of the entire French football community – not least the ever-pervasive alumni of the great 1998 team – but will not be expected to work miracles immediately.
Speaking about Blanc’s reaction to his dismissal in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, which ruled him out of the final against Brazil, Deschamps said: “He let nothing show. No emotion, no sadness. That’s him completely. He has this way of detaching himself from things. There’s a lot of that in the way he coaches, too.” One suspects Blanc will need to draw upon all his reserves of sangfroid in the months and years ahead.