George Orwell once wrote: “The English are not happy unless they are miserable.” They are not the only ones. France may be within four points of a place at Euro 2012, having also beaten both England and Brazil in friendlies over the last 12 months, but the French sports media are not satisfied.
Critical of the team’s play and piqued by the supposed egotism of certain players, some members of the French press pack have even dared to make ominous comparisons with the atmosphere in the months that led up to last year’s fateful World Cup campaign. To the neutral observer France appear to have come on in leaps and bounds since the end of the Raymond Domenech era, but fissures remain.
The focal point of much of the criticism over the international break has been Samir Nasri, who stands accused of wilfully slowing France’s play by dwelling on the ball and intruding into areas of the pitch that should be the exclusive domain of his defensive midfield colleagues.
Told by Laurent Blanc that he could “do more” for the national team, Nasri responded that he would prefer to be told about the coach’s concerns “face to face”. Largely anonymous in the 2-1 win in Albania last Friday, he was among five players dropped to the bench for Tuesday’s instantly forgettable 0-0 draw with Romania.
Ineffective in his recent appearances, Nasri also faces increasingly strong competition for his place in the starting XI. Heading the charge to tear the number 10 shirt from his back is Marvin Martin, whose league-high 17 assists last season saw him called into the France fold for the first time. He took to international football more quickly than anyone could have expected, netting two goals and supplying an assist on his debut in a 4-1 defeat of Ukraine in June.
The performance prompted comparisons with Zinedine Zidane, another two-goal debutant for Les Bleus, but it is another esteemed playmaker – Xavi – to whom Martin is most often compared. Teasingly nicknamed ‘Petit Xavi’ by his Sochaux team-mates after L’Équipe highlighted the similarities between the two players last November, Martin has attracted plaudits for his ability to play simply and directly while still keeping an eye open for the killer pass.
The accusation levelled at Nasri is that he cannot play the same way. A montage put together by Téléfoot on Sunday highlighted how often, in the game against Albania, he received the ball in advanced positions, only to turn back on himself, ignoring calls from his team-mates and allowing himself to be pushed away from the opponents’ goal before finally offloading the ball. Quizzed later in the programme by his former France team-mate Bixente Lizarazu, Blanc was asked whether Nasri should try to play more first-time passes, like Xavi or Andrés Iniesta. “No,” was the reply. “He’s a different kind of player.”
For L’Équipe, however, moving the ball quickly is paramount and the newspaper’s journalists have been tumbling over themselves in their haste to highlight how Nasri’s rivals continue to outdo him in the ball retention stakes. Despite having to play on a disgraceful cabbage patch of a pitch at Romania’s brand new National Stadium in Bucharest, Martin’s pass completion ratio was an admirable 92 percent. Yohan Cabaye, positioned slightly deeper than Martin, received a rating of 7/10 for his performance. Nasri’s score against Albania was 3/10.
Watching Nasri play for France, it is impossible to avoid the verdict that he does dwell on the ball too much at times. It is as if the mere fact of playing as the nominal playmaker makes him feel obliged to artificially impose his own rhythm on the game by slowing it down at every available opportunity.
He may claim it is where he feels “most effective”, but his critics disagree. “Why did Nasri keep stepping on [Alou] Diarra and [Yann] M’Vila’s toes, rather than getting closer to [Karim] Benzema?” asked L’Équipe after the Albania game, before asserting that Nasri’s reluctance to release the ball quickly creates the impression he is “desperate to prove what he is capable of”.
Nasri proved last season how effective he can be when deployed in wide areas and the three assists he supplied on his Manchester City debut proved he is capable of playing more directly. With Florent Malouda still to convince as an inside-out winger playing on the right-hand side (he was also dropped for the Romania game) and Martin advancing an increasingly attractive case for selection, Nasri may realise that he would stand a better chance of nailing down a first-team place if he accepts playing on the right flank.
France are clearly in better health than their native media’s coverage would have you believe, but this is make-or-break time for Samir Nasri. Generally admired while at Arsenal, particularly during his scintillating burst of form in the first half of last season, he has become a magnet for criticism since joining City. Not content with suggesting that the fans of his new club are more passionate than those at Arsenal, he also jeopardised years of goodwill built up at Marseille by revealing that he had considered a move to their sworn enemies, Paris Saint-Germain, during the summer.
Lacklustre on the pitch while sporting the colours of his country and increasingly unpopular in the public eye, Nasri’s place in the national team may not survive further damage to his reputation.