For a team protecting an unbeaten record that now stretches to 543 days, France will approach Wednesday night’s friendly against Germany in Bremen with a surprising degree of uncertainty.
Since going down 1-0 at home to Belarus in Laurent Blanc’s first competitive game in charge in September 2010, France have qualified for Euro 2012 – without recourse to the play-offs – and enjoyed friendly wins over England, Brazil and the United States (as well as some forgettable draws against Croatia, Chile and Belgium).
Viewed from the outside, and against a backdrop of the self-inflicted humiliation of the 2010 World Cup, Les Bleus are turning things around. Bubbling beneath the statistics, however, are a multitude of concerns about the team’s style of play and a lack of both experience and leadership within the squad, while an ongoing contract dispute between Blanc and French Football Federation president Noël Le Graët suggests Blanc’s employers remain to be convinced by the direction the team is taking.
Blanc pledged to introduced panache and risk-taking to France’s football following his appointment in the aftermath of the infamous Knysna training ground mutiny, but although France have become solid and difficult to beat, their play has not captured the imagination since the first game of their current 17-match unbeaten run – a 2-0 victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo that came four days after the setback against Belarus.
Then, a team anchored by a midfield pairing of Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra, driven forward by the lolloping raids of Abou Diaby and centred around the new-found efficacy of Karim Benzema had hinted at a glorious future for Blanc’s France. Now, although Benzema has gone from strength to strength at Real Madrid, the team has lost its way.
A key absentee has been Philippe Mexès, who has not played for his country since damaging ligaments in his left knee while playing for Roma in April last year. He had begun to establish an effective centre-back partnership with Adil Rami, but in Mexès’ absence, the Valencia man has often been found wanting. Rami’s last competitive appearance came in the nervy 1-1 draw at home to Bosnia in October that secured France’s place at Euro 2012, when his manhandling by Edin Džeko earned him a score of 3/10 in L’Équipe the following day. Even so, France conceded just four goals in qualifying – a figure matched by Russia and bettered only by Group C winners Italy (two).
Mexès is set to return against Germany, and his importance has been underlined by Blanc’s disclosure that he features alongside Hugo Lloris and Éric Abidal on a three-man shortlist for the captaincy. Blanc has waited long enough for leaders “to emerge naturally” and having tested out the armband on Lloris and Diarra (among others), the former Bordeaux coach is thought to have decided that Mexès possesses the requisite authority and experience to take up the role on a full-time basis.
It is in midfield, however, where Blanc says he has “the most problems”. M’Vila, 21, remains a certain starter, despite having tired badly towards the end of last season, but Diarra has paid the price for taking a little too long to adapt to last summer’s move to Marseille. Blanc appears to have settled on a central midfield pairing of M’Vila and Newcastle United’s Yohan Cabaye (another player bereft of major tournament experience) but neither of the two players tipped to play ahead of them – Yoann Gourcuff, the joint-top scorer in qualifying, and Samir Nasri – has advanced a compelling case for inclusion in the starting XI of late.
After a horrendous 2010 and a 2011 disrupted by injuries following his €22 million move to Lyon, Gourcuff has become a shadow of the player who inspired Bordeaux to the French title two years ago and has slipped behind both Ederson and 21-year-old Clément Grenier in the pecking order at Stade Gerland. Nasri is still a likely starter – having netted the penalty against Bosnia that took France to the Euro – but he has regularly been reminded by Blanc of the need for him to “do more” when playing for his country. In any case, his position has been strengthened by Marvin Martin’s travails at Sochaux, who have sunk to the bottom of Ligue 1 after coach Francis Gillot left for Bordeaux following last season’s superb fifth-place finish. Diaby, meanwhile, remains chained to the treatment table.
Michel Platini remarked over the weekend that “Benzema and Franck Ribéry are France’s only very good players” (the rest being merely “average”) but although Benzema is establishing himself as one of the world’s leading centre-forwards at both club and international level, Ribéry is still to convert his frequently scintillating form for Bayern Munich into match-winning performances for France and has not scored for the national side since April 2009.
Goals have, in general, been in short supply. France averaged 1.5 per game during qualifying, a worse ratio than any other major European nation and worse than the 1.7 goals per game scored on average under Raymond Domenech during qualifying for the last World Cup. France regularly enjoyed more than 60 percent of possession in their qualifying games but that possession was often sterile. “Some of the attacking players hold on to the ball too much,” says coach turned media pundit Rolland Courbis. “If you accumulate players who like to touch the ball 10 times before making a pass, it’s difficult to have fluid circulation.”
Both Benzema and Marseille striker Loïc Rémy will miss Wednesday’s game, which has only served to highlight the lack of depth in Blanc’s pool of strikers. Kévin Gameiro has scored only twice in the league since the end of October, his Paris Saint-Germain club-mate Guillaume Hoarau is on the comeback trail after a shoulder injury, and although Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud has emerged as the leading marksman in Ligue 1 with 16 goals to date this season, he has just two caps to his name and looked slightly out of his depth on his debut against the USA. As for the returning Louis Saha, he has played only 10 minutes of international football in the last five years.
The draw for Euro 2012, which placed France with England, Sweden and Ukraine, was met with widespread insistence that England would be the favourites to progress from Group D, followed by a creeping optimism prompted by the realisation that, with France drawn from the fourth pool of seeds, things could have been a lot worse.
Dogging Blanc’s preparations, however, has been the dispute with Le Graët, who has refused to grant Blanc the one-year contract extension he covets until after the Euro. Relations have thawed between the two men since a public exchange of views earlier this year, but Blanc has warned about the dangers of a squad going into a major international tournament knowing that the man in charge might only be around for a few more weeks.
Faced with widespread concern about his team’s readiness, Blanc has once again resorted to the humility card by insisting that France can ‘do a Greece’. “It could happen to us too but we’re not among the favourites,” he told L’Équipe TV on Sunday night, citing Greece’s backs-to-the-wall triumph at Euro 2004. “Getting past the first round is the minimum requirement to have. After that, anything can happen.”
The quality in France’s squad is enough to nourish hope of something more enduring than the sorry group-stage exits witnessed in the last two major tournaments, but the post-Knysna reality is that France are ranked 17th in the world and are likely to find their route to the semi-finals in Poland and Ukraine blocked by either Italy or Spain even if they manage to get through their group.
Before that, there is Germany – a team built, with appropriate irony, upon the emphasis on youth coaching that took France to the summit of the world game between 1998 and 2000, before the slow, irregular descent that culminated in their capitulation in South Africa. Since then, France have only fractionally closed the gap on Joachim Löw’s young side, but if there is one glimmer of hope it is that in recent history, successful French campaigns have traditionally been prefaced by a wave of pessimism in the national media. By that score, at least, they are firmly on track.