The press pack accompanying the France squad to England may have been slightly miffed at the lack of attention given to Les Bleus in Fabio Capello’s pre-match press conference, but Laurent Blanc’s side will have plenty of opportunities to make themselves headline news when tonight’s match at Wembley kicks off.
France lost 2-1 to Norway in Blanc’s first game in charge and were then stunned 1-0 by Belarus in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier at the Stade de France, but have since recorded consecutive 2-0 victories against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Luxembourg. Upon taking the reins following the World Cup debacle, Blanc spoke of his desire to create a France team “that opposes its style upon its opponents”, and although we are still in the early days of his tenure, his vision for the national team is beginning to emerge.
In France’s last game, a rather laboured 2-0 defeat of Luxembourg in Metz, Blanc set France out in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield supporting Karim Benzema and Guillaume Hoarau in attack. He occasionally used a similar system during his time at Bordeaux, but against strong opposition his preference is for a midfield configuration that makes sure France cannot be outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.
“Playing with two strikers does not allow us to have numerical superiority in midfield,” Blanc explained in September. “You can use it against weaker teams. Against strong teams it’s vital to win the midfield battle. You have more options with two strikers but you can only play with one holding midfielder. That can weaken your team.”
The 2-0 win against Bosnia in Sarajevo in September was one of France’s most impressive performances of the last four years and the victory was built upon a powerful midfield combination of Alou Diarra, Yann M’Vila and Abou Diaby. The convincing nature of France’s win prompted speculation that Blanc was considering operating without a conventional playmaker, but those rumours were abruptly scotched when Samir Nasri and Yoann Gourcuff strolled back into the squad upon their returns from injury and suspension respectively. Nasri started against Romania, before being replaced by Gourcuff, who made the starting XI at Nasri’s expense against Luxembourg. Blanc’s desire to build the side around a central creative presence means that one of the two (if not both) seems guaranteed to start against England.
Diarra, Blanc’s captain at Bordeaux, has firmly established himself as France’s first-choice sentinelle and his height makes him particularly adept at dropping back alongside the centre-backs when France commit players forward. He is also an adept man-marker at dead-ball situations and would appear an obvious candidate to tackle English debutant Andy Carroll, but his ongoing six-game suspension for pushing a referee in a recent Ligue 1 game means he may be judged too short of sharpness to merit a starting berth at Wembley.
M’Vila has been the revelation of the French domestic football scene over the past six months and although he anchors the midfield for Rennes, playing alongside Diarra for France allows him to adopt slightly more advanced positions. The 20-year-old is not a conventionally creative midfielder, but he plays with an impressive thoughtfulness characterised by the very deliberate way he passes the ball.
One problem for France is the high proportion of players in Blanc’s first-choice XI who like to be actively involved in the build-up process. Both Florent Malouda and Mathieu Valbuena tend to roam infield from the flanks and Gourcuff often drops well inside his own half to set attacking moves in motion. Benzema, too, occasionally finds himself drawn towards the flanks in search of the ball, sometimes dropping deep in a manner that earned Nicolas Anelka no end of scorn during his wretched World Cup.
The result of all that lateral movement among France’s attacking players means that much of their build-up play originates in the inside-right and inside-left channels. Valbuena’s furrowing habits leave plenty of space on the right-hand side for the full-back to attack, but Bacary Sagna’s poor delivery means that this is an area that France are yet to fully exploit and Sagna’s place is now under threat from improving Lyon right-back Anthony Réveillère. Gaël Clichy, on the opposite flank, is a more natural attacker, but Benzema’s habit of drawing to the left to receive the ball can sometimes block his route down the wing. Conversely, it is Clichy’s defensive inattentiveness – as opposed to Sagna’s conservatism – that has put him at risk of losing his place to the recalled Éric Abidal.
As befitting a coach who was once one of Europe’s most elegant centre-backs, both Adil Rami and Philippe Mexès are comfortable in possession and capable of stepping into midfield with the ball. If anything they can be guilty of over-playing at times, and both Norway’s second goal in Oslo and the only clear-cut chance that Romania created last month stemmed from defenders being caught out of position after France lost the ball in their own half.
France’s default modus operandi in this 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid system is to circulate the ball in midfield and probe for opportunities to slip a pass down the channels to Benzema or one of the wide players. “The coach is someone who likes to see his team play good football and who places lots of emphasis on possession of the ball,” said Abidal. “It reminds me of Barca.”
Blanc likes his full-backs to get forward as much possible, and Malouda and Gourcuff can be relied upon for testing deliveries at set-pieces, but high crosses into the penalty area are not a central component of their play. France also possess attacking variety on the bench. The pace and directness of Loïc Rémy and Dimitri Payet changed the game against Romania, with able link-up man Guillaume Hoarau partnering Benzema to useful effect against Luxembourg.