Didier Deschamps may have been overlooked for the France job in both 2008 and 2010, but upon finally taking up the role in July this year, he found the problems facing the national coach had barely changed.
As in 2010 and, to a lesser extent, 2008, France emerged from this year’s major tournament chastened by sporting underachievement and embarrassed by reports of off-pitch turmoil. The fall-out from Euro 2012 was nowhere near as painful as it was after the rank humiliation of the 2010 World Cup, nor were the performances as poor as they were either in South Africa or at Euro 2008, but Deschamps knows that there is nonetheless, if not a full rebuilding process, then a period of recalibration to be undertaken.
For all the criticism of France’s conservative approach against Spain in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and all the tales of changing-room unrest that abounded, Laurent Blanc clearly left the team in a far healthier state than he had found it. Three months after taking up the reins from his former international team-mate, Deschamps is already making his mark by attempting to create a side that packs more of a punch on the pitch, but generates fewer headlines off it.
In his first press conference after taking over, Deschamps said he wanted to build a side that “imposes itself on its opponents”, and the most striking thing about the teams that he has fielded in his three games so far has been their physicality.
In all those matches he paired Paris Saint-Germain’s Mamadou Sakho with Montpellier’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa at centre-back, an inexperienced alliance with an average age of just 22.5, but one that bristles with raw power and brute strength. Olivier Giroud, the strapping Arsenal target man, has started two of those games, and Deschamps is so eager to find a place for him in his starting XI that he has obliged Karim Benzema to vacate his preferred starting position at the tip of the attack. The Real Madrid striker played slightly behind Giroud in the 0-0 draw with Uruguay in August, Deschamps’ first game in charge, and in last month’s 3-1 win at home to Belarus, he started the game on the right flank.
Bafétimbi Gomis, another very direct centre-forward, has also been recalled, and when injury prevented Abou Diaby from taking his place in the squad for the forthcoming games against Japan and Spain, Deschamps turned to Moussa Sissoko, the Toulouse powerhouse who was called up just once by Blanc, in August 2010.
In many ways, Deschamps’ approach is at cross-purposes to Blanc’s. Deschamps’ 2010 title-winning Marseille side were seen by some as unworthy successors to the swash-buckling Bordeaux team that Blanc had led to the Ligue 1 crown 12 months earlier, and Deschamps’ reputation for pragmatism does not seem likely to desert him anytime soon. Where Blanc sought to flood his squad with small, technical players, Deschamps’ teams are all about physical impact. You suspect you would not catch the former Marseille coach lamenting the preponderance of big, black players in France’s centres de formation, as Blanc did in the secretly taped conversation that sparked last year’s race row.
Deschamps has also taken steps to improve the mood in a changing room that became the subject of keen media focus after reports emerged of confrontations between Samir Nasri and Alou Diarra and Blanc and Hatem Ben Arfa following France’s damaging loss to Sweden at the Euro.
Deschamps’ first squad was notable for the inclusion of the Lille pair Rio Mavuba and Mickaël Landreau, both of whom are reputed to have a calming influence in the changing room, both of whom were repeatedly overlooked by Blanc. While Mavuba, 28, hopes to construct a France career à la Makelele (Claude Makelele, a fellow holding midfielder, did not impose himself in the national set-up until he was 27), Landreau’s role seems to reside strictly behind the scenes.
Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda are firmly established as the top two goalkeepers in the squad, but although Lloris was initially confined to the bench at Tottenham and Mandanda, like Landreau, has gone through a dip in form, it is former third-choice goalkeeper Cédric Carrasso who has had to make way. “It’s a personal choice, not a sporting choice,” said the Bordeaux man. “I understand.”
Sanctions fell on Nasri, Ben Arfa, Jérémy Menez and Yann M’Vila after the Euro (suspensions for Nasri and Menez, while all four players had their bonuses withheld), and Deschamps is not a man to indulge troublemakers. Nasri’s three-game ban for his petulant behaviour in Ukraine has now expired, but he was left out of the most recent squad. “It is not the right time for him to return. I prefer to wait a little,” explained Deschamps. M’Vila has been demoted to the under-21s, while Ben Arfa – who had several clashes with Deschamps during his time at Marseille – was overlooked entirely. Symbolically, Deschamps has also introduced heavier fines for misdemeanours than those in place during Blanc’s tenure.
It would appear that Nasri now has legitimate cause to fear for his international future, but Adil Rami feels the controversy whipped up by the Manchester City midfielder’s various outbursts at the media should not be overstated. The Valencia centre-back told L’Équipe earlier this week: “It’s a shame what happened at the end [of Euro 2012], this story of the image of the France team. Because the objective set by [French Football Federation president] Noel Le Graët was to get through the group phase. We did that, and we lost in the quarter-finals against the best team in Europe and the world. During the warm-up matches, in France, the 23 players were exemplary. We spent time with the fans, we signed autographs. We were supported, and I felt that. Then a player had a problem, which happens… But I think that everything was exaggerated.”
Having imposed his authority on the squad, the obstacle now looming on Deschamps’ horizon is the World Cup qualifier against Spain in Madrid next week. Injuries and suspensions have already forced his hand. Yanga-Mbiwa’s suspension means a new centre-back partnership will need to be tested against Japan at Stade de France on Friday, while injuries to Mavuba, Diaby and Lassana Diarra leave France worryingly short of experience in central midfield.
With 18 caps, Yohan Cabaye is Les Bleus’ most experienced available player in that area of the pitch, and he is likely to be joined by PSG’s Blaise Matuidi (six caps) and either Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons or Étienne Capoue of Toulouse, who have only five caps between them. “It’s not a worry, it’s a reality,” says Deschamps. “I’m not worried and I don’t want my players to be. We’ll fight with the weapons we have.”
Blanc was castigated for sending France out to face Spain in Donetsk in a completely untested configuration that saw full-backs Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Réveillère lined up one in front of the other on the right flank in a vain attempt to limit the influence of Jordi Alba. Never one to shy away from a daunting confrontation, Deschamps will hope his carefully galvanised side do not give in quite so meekly when the teams resume hostilities next week, but with six points from their first two qualifying matches, France already appear to be in tune with his winning mentality.
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