The team that Laurent Blanc aligns against Romania on Saturday may herald a significant change of direction in the tactical evolution of the French national side. Teams representing the country have long been built around a single, richly talented creative player, from Raymond Kopa in the 1950s through Michel Platini in the 1980s to Zinedine Zidane at the turn of the last century. But that could be about to change.
France’s 2-0 victory over Bosnia-Hercegovina in Sarajevo last month was probably their most impressive performance in a competitive match for four years and they achieved it without a playmaker in sight. Instead, Alou Diarra anchored a muscular midfield with Yann M’Vila alongside him and Abou Diaby operating slightly further forward. Florent Malouda and Mathieu Valbuena were deployed on the flanks, in support of lone striker Karim Benzema.
Diaby has long been typecast as a defensive midfielder, presumably because of his height, his build and his physical resemblance to Patrick Vieira, but against Bosnia he was given the freedom to express his attacking gifts, embarking on lolloping runs into opposition territory and making a number of incisive passes. A playmaker, however, he is not.
Yoann Gourcuff, the heir apparent to Zidane, and Samir Nasri missed the game in Sarajevo, through suspension and injury respectively. Both are now back in the fold, but Blanc has promised that the players who starred against Bosnia will be given an opportunity to stake a claim to a first-team place.
“Nothing forces us to play with a number 10,” said Blanc this week. “In Bosnia, because we couldn’t do anything else, there wasn’t one. The train had passed, the team was put in place and it did a pleasing job.”
Blanc has admitted, however, that “players who are capable of making the team play better [i.e. playmakers] are always useful” and he has also expressed a conviction that Gourcuff and Nasri can be fitted into the same starting XI, most probably with Nasri playing wide on the right and Gourcuff in the centre.
The prototype 4-3-3 that breathed new life into the French national team’s play in Sarajevo was a world away from the stodgy, unimaginative football associated with the 4-2-3-1 of the Raymond Domenech era, but Blanc’s stated mission to create a side that “imposes its style upon its opponents” would perhaps be best served by a team containing at least one playmaker. In any case, Diaby’s ankle injury suggests at least one of Gourcuff and Nasri will make the starting XI against Romania.
Nevertheless, the performances of Diaby, M’Vila and co against Bosnia proved that France can function perfectly well without a number 10. The team-sheet at the Stade de France on Saturday could give the clearest indication yet that France’s love affair with the playmaker is about to be put on indefinite hold.