Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Merci Titi - France and Arsenal legend Henry announces his retirement

Yes I realize that Titi played for Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona and New York Red Bull, but I think it is safe to say the legendary forward is best known for his time at Arsenal and playing for Les Bleus. It came as no surprise as Henry announced his retirement from football today. So what to make of the French national team all time leading scorer? There have been a number of articles written about how Titi will never be appreciated in his homeland of France, read one of the latest ones here. And there is some element of truth in that statement.

His first issue was he played for France at the same time as a certain Zidane. Hard to command the limelight when one of the greatest players of all time is on the field with you. But I think there is something deeper to this. Unlike his days at Arsenal, Henry rarely took over games for Les Bleus. Yes he is the all time leading goal scorer for Les Bleus with 51 goals in 123 appearances. However strange as this may sound - the only goal I truly remember was the one in the 2006 World Cup 1/4 finals against Brazil from a Zidane free kick. But otherwise it feels like the other 50 goals were...empty. Sounds ridiculous, I realize. But I clearly remember Zidane's brace in the 1998 World
Not what one wants as their defining moment
Cup final, Trezeguet's winner in the 2000 European Cup finals, Wiltord's equalizer in the same game, Blanc's goal against Paraguay in the 1998 World Cup, Platini's winner against Portugal in 1982...I can go on for a while before I get to Henry's memorable strike. I might argue that Ribery's goal against Spain in 2006 was the bigger goal of that tournament for France.

I remember speaking with my father before the 2006 World Cup finals and we both agreed that Henry had to step up - take over the game. Unfortunately he didn't and almost had to come out within the first 5 minutes after a collision early on with an Italian defender.  It could be argued that had Henry stayed in the game, he would have taken a penalty kick before Trezeguet. But I digress. The one defining moment for Henry might be the "hand of frog." When he deliberately handled the ball to allow him to cross to Gallas who scored the equalizing goal and allowed France to defeat Ireland in the 2010 World Cup playoff.

Henry deserves to be in the discussion of greatest players in French national team history. To me Platini, Zidane and Kopa are at the top of that podium. But Henry and his 51 goals has to be the in conversation as one of the all time greats. Top 10 yes....top 5 maybe. Unfortunately, unlike those mentioned, he did not have a defining moment in his career...at least not a positive one since I do not think the "hand of frog" is the type of defining moment you want.

While Henry might not get the accolades he deserves back in France, he remains one of the all time greatest. Watching him at the heights of his power for Arsenal was something amazing to watch. And I know the 51 goals was not empty for Les Bleus.

Merci Titi.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Farewell Landycake...we never really got to know your potential.

Later today will be the finals of the MLS cup between the LA Galaxy and the New England Revolution. For once, I will actually...well maybe...watch an entire MLS game from start to finish. I will admit I have tried to watch Revolution playoff games, but I still cannot seem to bring myself to watching the entire product from start to finish. Call me a football snob, I can take it. But this game will be interesting for more than simply because my soon to be home town team is in the game (the Revolution are rumored to be moving to a soccer only stadium in Boston...currently they play closer to Rhode Island) but because this will be Landy Cakes last professional footy game.

There is much, well as much as there can be for MLS, ballyhoo about the possibility that the US star wins his 6th MLS title. That will elevate him to the stature of this former teammate David Beckham who has also won 6 domestic titles...oh wait those are EPL titles, never mind. But at least that would be more than Ronaldo's domestic haul of 4...what's that? Those 4 are - 3 EPL and and 1 La Liga title...never mind. Well it puts him ahead of Pat Vieira's measly 3 EPL titles....okay okay I realize I am being cheeky in my comparisons. But there is an underlying frustration in these comparisons. Donovan for all the hype he covered himself in over in the United States, never lived up to his supposed potential.

His stints over in Europe are well documented, starting with Bayern Leverkusen where he came back because he complained of the cold and his inability to get in surfing done. Really? He also had a loan stint at Bayern Munich, where a more mature Donovan could have carved out a resurgence in his European career. But once again he failed...and sowed the seeds for his downfall with now US National team coach - Klinsmann. He finally Wondolowski missed a sitter in injury time that would have seen the US through to the next round. You mean to tell me that Landycakes could not have at least put that shot on frame??? But Klinsmann had made it clear, he wanted players that were hungry and to the German I am sure that not wanting to push yourself and try to make it in Europe was a massive strike against Landycakes.
I got this cool kit and a 3 week vacation!
demonstrated some success in back to back loan spells with Everton in the EPL. Yet Donovan never looked to make those loan moves permanent. Fail. Everton seemed to be a good fit for Landycakes. A solid English club, but not a Manchester United or Liverpool where the history would clearly crush the mentally fragile Landycakes. In addition, Everton's best player was their American keeper - Tim Howard. Yet once again Landon Donovan opted to come back the MLS, play in front of 10,000 fans and be relegated to the back pages of the back pages in the newspapers. A major consequence of his decision became clear this past summer, when he watched rather than played in the World Cup. I am sure that he, like many of the US fans, were pulling their hair out when

In a recent article about Donovan they mention some of his issues with being more mentally tough - click here. After reading the piece I have some empathy for Donovan. I think there is nothing simple about dealing with the psychology of daily life let alone being a professional athlete. But I also wonder how can an athlete get to where Landycakes did, compete on the biggest stage in sports - the World Cup - and not be somewhat more mentally tough than he seems to indicate he isn't.

I hear an interview between him and former MLS and US National team player, Taylor Twellman the other day, and what struck me was how Donovan was talking about the MLS cup finals. As if he was speaking of playing for his 6th Champions League title. And it struck me then, many Landycakes is smarter than all of us. Maybe he knew his limitations. Maybe he knew that for games against Algeria or Costa Rica or Mexico he could compete and he could be the "greatest American soccer player." While it was at a World Cup, he wasn't staring for Italy or Brazil where all the pressure was on. He knew he could do well for a short period of time at Everton, but if he had to battle with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool etc etc on a weekly basis that he would be exposed. Much safer to give all for a handful of games and then go back to the safety of playing Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC - certainly wouldn't want to face the true Real Madrid or even Sporting Lisbon in a European fixture.

So Donovan will put on his boots for a last time in anger today. The end of a career that promised so much more at the beginning. What I find a delicious paradox is another US soccer star that I was looking up this week - Freddy Adu. A player that was suppose to not only surpass Donovan in terms of US star but pass the likes of Pele and Messi as global stars has fallen flat on his face. Yet, Adu is still in Europe, working his craft. Chasing a dream that has taken a massive hit - does anyone think he will ever showcase for the US national team again? But kudos to him, unlike Landycakes, he is taking the challenges and failures of European football...anyone want to guess where he is playing??

So adieu Landycakes. I, as I have tended to do, will be rooting against you this game. For once I will be rooting for the team you are playing not against the hype that you represented.

Oh the game. I think that New England will find a way to win a tough match. Jones and Nguyen will have a huge part to play controlling that midfield and choking out any service to Keane and Donovan. NE 2 - LA 1

And who does Adu play for? Answer - FK Jagodina

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Les Bleus end the season with a solid 1-0 victory over the Zlatanless Swedes.

France close out 2014 on a positive note with a 1-0 defeat of Sweden in Marseilles. Overall a much better game than a few days ago against Albania. Let's dive into the game:

The Good:
  • Ending the year on a victory - that is always a positive.  Les Bleus end the 2014 season on an overall positive record. They scored in every game but two - against Ecuador in the last group game of the World Cup and against Germany in the 1/4 finals. Without needing to qualify, they have still faced off against some larger footballing sides, notably Portugal and Spain, but victories. 2015 will be a big year for Les Bleus as they build up to the Euros in 2016.
  • The captain for the day - Varane - demonstrated why many peg him as the likely candidate to becoming the permanent national side captain in the near future. It was his goal that liberated Les Bleus, but it was his defensive play that is what continues to impressive. His pace is world class and his command of the back line shows signs of maturity beyond his youthful age. It is
    Not a bad night - captain and first goal for Les Bleus
    at times amazing to think he doesn't have a fill time starting role at Real Madrid. France are in good hands with him at center back. The question becomes - who will become his center back partner? There are lots of options, but none have distinguished themselves as the clear cut partner for Varane. 
  • Les Bleus overall game. Unlike the match against Albania, France came out with a greater determination and carried the game to the Swedes. They dominated the first half possession, having the ball for over 60% of the time. The second half was a little more balanced but France continued to carry the game. Granted Sweden's side was depleted of many of their starters. But it was positive to see France impose their will on the game.
  • It was a good showing from France's left back - Kurzawa.  The AS Monaco left back showed well for himself. After dealing with a minor storm of controversy surrounding him from his poor showing at the U20 qualifier versus Sweden, it was good to see him show well for his first start with the senior squad. His pace was on full display, really giving the Swedes problems. He also provided a number of sumptuous crosses. He clearly will have something to say when it comes to who becomes Frances' #1 left back.
The Bad:
  •  The French right side....okay okay okay...I know that I have been writing this for about 4 years now. But it remains an issue. Valbuena was lined up on the right side and about 5 minutes into the game guess where he was? Yup. On the left. Yes Payet and Griezmann tried to slot back out to the right but really they were all stuck left of center. The one option on the right were the runs from the French right back - Sagna. He did a decent job keeping some balance but whether it is Sagna or Debuchy there has to be more than just the full backs as offensive options. Not sure whether it is Valbuena, Payet, Sissoko, Remy, Menez, Benzema etc etc, but this has to be solved in 2015. 
  • Please please please find me another regular penalty kick taker. Benzema did his best job of trying to give a fan a souvenir when he took the penalty kick - blasting his shot into row Z.
    Row Z...LOOK OUT!!!
    Remember the weak kick he took against Switzerland during the World Cup? Since Ribery has taken his international retirement, France have not had a penalty taker that I am 100% confident in. Yes we have been spoiled in the past with the likes of Zidane, Henry and even Ribery. But Deschamps needs to figure out who can take these set pieces. I am not sure who on the roster can step up and take these on a regular basis. Reality is Benzema might be the default option...but if he is, then he better practice them on a regular basis.
The Ugly:
  • I realize that Digne plays for the hated PSG, but the whistling and booing rained down on the French left back was ugly. Yes maybe my PSG bias might be showing, but seriously.  Digne is representing the national side, fans need to focus on that rather than which club he plays for. I would hate to think that if France were playing a European Cup game in Marseille that the PSG players would be subjected to the same treatment. 
Overall a good way to end the international season. France should have come out with a more comfortable victory - especially if Benzema could take a PK - but a win is a win.  Heading into 2015 Deschamps will have to think about his left back, who will partner with Varane and which formation to lean on? Of course he has time and how his players evolve with their clubs will dictate some of his choices. Good end of 2014, on to 2015...

Allez les Bleus.

Deschamps with a 4-2-3-1 to face Sweden...at least not the 4-4-2 again.

Without much surprise, Deschamps has made some changes to the starting line that will take on the Ibra-less Sweden today at Marseilles' Velodrome. Not going back to the 4-3-3 but at least changing the 4-4-2 that was so bland against Albania. He is also leaning heavily on the OM contingent of his roster. The line up:


No surprise in goal, or on defense as DD gets the players that were on the bench against Albania a start - I wonder if we will see Zouma at some point making his debut for the senior squad. The midfield duo of Pogba and Guilavogui will be one to watch. Pogba had a mediocre game against Albania and the Wolfsburg midfielder Guilavogui will be looking to score some points as that position has some serious competition - Cabaye, Matuidi, Sissoko, Mavuba, Scheiderlin to name a few.

Griezmann and Valbuena will assume their familiar roles out wide, the question will be can Payet play that #10 role? And how will he interact with his former Marseille teammate Valbuena who tends to drift inside. Gignac up front will look to continue to reestablish himself as a legitimate international level striker. Something I still have my doubts about. The reality is that there is a role to find behind Benzema. With Giroud out until the new year, players like Gignac have  card to play to secure their role on the national side.

Sweden will be without Zlatan, so might not be the side fans want to see without their superstar. Regardless, the game should be a good one in the raucous Marseille stadium. I look for Les Bleus to play with a little more urgency than they did against Albania. They should be motivated for this game - last international of the year, at Marseilles with 3 current players from OM and against a team they have struggled against recently.

Les Bleus 2 - Zlatanless Sweden 1 Goals from Griezmann and Pogba.

Allez les Bleus!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Which line up for France v Sweden for DD?

Les Bleus will face off against Sweden tomorrow in their final international match of the year. After a tepid showing against Albania, much will be expected from this match. Do France need to come out and give us a scintillating 3-0 win? No. It would be nice...but not to be expected. Les Bleus need to come out and show more than they  did against Albania. Last time the French faced the Swedes they left with a 2-0 defeat in the last group game of the Euros in Ukraine/Poland. Deschamps also faces a number of players that have dropped out due to injury - Yanga-Mbiwa and Schneiderlin most notable. So what could the French formation look like tomorrow?

First I think that DD will go back to his 4-3-3. I also expect some new faces on the field.

We already know that in goal we will have Mandanda in place of Lloris, a nice reward for the OM keeper to get a start on his home pitch.

On defense, I would like to see Kurzawa on the left start for Les Bleus. In his 20 minutes on the field against Albania he showed some pace and offensive ability otherwise not there with the other options. He made one turn that looked more like a strikers' move then a left back. Of course it might be Mangala as the center back pairing.  It would be surprising to see Zouma as a starter, unless Managala's calf is not 100%.
Sophomoric behavior!
interesting to see the Monaco left back getting a start against the nation he acted in such a sophomoric manner against with the U20s. I expect to see Jallet back on the right, Varane in the middle and

The middle 3 will look familiar - Cabaye, Pogba and Sissoko as the middle three. Cabaye will have the role of sitting deeper of the three while I expect Pogba and Sissoko to "split" the field between the right and the left.

For the top three offensive players - I would like to see Griezmann on the left and Valbuena on the right. Look for Gignac to get a start in the middle as the lone striker - another opportunity to have a OM player on his home field. DD could also insert Payet on the right in place of Valbuena for the same reason. And see if Payet can offer a real solution out on the right side.

It would be good to see both Guilavogui and Zouma get some time in the match during the second half. See how the Wolfsburg midfielder can integrate with the likes of Cabaye/Pogba/Sissoko as well as if the Chelsea central defender can provide cover or partner with Varane.

I will be interesting to see what DD is thinking with his line up and formation.

Allez les Bleus!


Friday, November 14, 2014

France v Albania...Les Bleus lucky to escape with a draw.

Thankfully that game did not count towards France's qualification efforts...what a bland bland bland effort from Les Bleus. Albania, gasp, were the better team on the night. From the start it was apparent that the team Deschamps rolled out onto the pitch was only there physically and certainly not mentally. Anyways...the game was a friendly...end of the season...at least they didn't lose.

The Good:
  • Lloris was world class. He was not at fault on the Albanian goal, a impeccably placed header after France failed to clear the corner kick. Otherwise the Tottenham keeper played a solid game, making some very good saves. One on a long range shot that came down the right flank. The save looked decent in real time, when you saw the replay one realizes what a difficult save it turned out to be as the ball was dancing all over the place and Lloris showed great skill in
    Big save that kept it a one goal deficit
    parrying the shot. He made another huge save on a defensive breakdown where he had to parry a bullet of a shot that was heading for the upper corner. The Spurs' keeper was also in command of his area. In a bland showing he was the one bright spot...and without him it could easily have been 3 or 2 goals to the Eastern Europeans. 
  • The insertion of Griezmann changed the game. Coming on late in the game, the Atletico Madrid winger quickly placed his stamp on the game. Bringing pace and some offensive punch that was otherwise absent from the French attack. His goal was a perfect two man game on the wing. He and the French right back, Jallet, played a give and go game that sprung Griezmann into the Albanian penalty area where he clinically finish. 
  • The Albanians. For a team I thought would pack it in, they took the game to the French. for some stretches they were outclassing the hosts. Ever dangerous on set pieces and smart with their counter attacking. Their fullbacks were dangerous down the flanks and their center backs a constant threat in the air on set pieces. The midfield did a good job collapsing to thwart any French offensive forays. They are a sneaky side that could find a way to the Euros, don't forget they already took 3 points off of the Portuguese.
The Bad:
  • The French 4-4-2...was abysmal.  I had written about this earlier but I was not convinced that the 2 striker formation would work. And I feel as if it didn't. The high line was clogged up by both Benzema and Lacazette operating in the same space. The midfield had no width. And the fullbacks were able to push up but  their offensive forays were too often "one and done" runs, which then left a lot of room behind them for Albania counters. Cabaye seemed to be asked to scramble to much to fill in the spaces left by the fullbacks. Les Bleus used to be able to run out  strikers, when those strikers were named Henry and Trezeguet...and they had a certain Zidane in the midfield. Henry was really more of a roaming striker, while Trez was a true #9. France do not have those players. I hope that DD rolled out this formation based on necessity. I certainly do not expect to see it again in the near future. 
  • Finishing...stop me if you have heard this before....Les Bleus just lack any clinical finishing, other than the Griezmann goal. Benzema had the 2-1 ball on his foot but inexplicably ballooned it from 10 yard out. Otherwise there just was not finishing threat. Concerning. 
The Ugly:
  • Lack of rhythm...Les Bleus looked like they were sleep walking, had zero consistency with they play. They never really controlled the match. Even when they were mounting some sustained threats to the Albanian goal, it did not feel like the French had their finger on the pulse of the game. They still looked like they were chasing the Albanians. Yes Les Bleus were missing the likes of Matuidi, but the apparent lack of consistency and ability to dictate the game was a bit disconcerting. If they play like this against Zlatan and his merry band from Sweden, it might get ugly.
Okay so France move on with a "point" from this game. Thankfully it does not mean anything, but there were more areas of concern than of good. Let us hope that their next match, against a much larger fish, is better than what we saw in Rennes.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

DD back to the 4-4-2...out of necessity or a real option moving forward?

Reports coming out of Clairefontaine would have us believe that Les Bleus will come out tomorrow back in a traditional 4-4-2. Hmmm. Not sure what to make of that. Readers of this blog will know that I think France plays better when they play a 4-3-3, taking advantage of their depth and quality in the midfield trident and allowing their wide players to carry the attack - leaning on a lone striker to roam around the penalty box. Starting with 2 high strikers might create a lot of congestion in the attacking 1/3. The potential line up -

Lloris - Jallet, Varane, Yanga Mbiwa, Digne - Sissoko, Cabaye, Valbuena, Pogba - Lacazette, Benzema

Some items to watch:
  • Deschamps is putting the former and current Lyon strikers together. How will Benzema function with someone playing off his shoulder. Karim seems to function better as the lone striker, even at Real Madrid when he is partnering with the likes of Ronaldo, the Portuguese is more of a winger. Lacazette has been lined up as a striker for Lyon, even though he is believed to have a future on the wing. Will the two strikers compliment one another...or get in each
    The OL connection - will it succeed?
    others' way?
  • Is that really a 4 man midfield? Or more of a 3 deep lying midfield with a false #9 in Valbuena? The formation reads 4-4-2, but I can see Valbuena being asked to push higher on the pitch, sitting in the space right behind the two strikers, with the trio of Sissoko, Cabaye and Pogba as the defensive/linking midfield. I could even see Cabaye being the deeper lying player, right in front of the defensive back 4, Sissoko being given responsibility for the right and Pogba the left side of the formation. It will be interesting to see how this midfield evolves. But I certainly doubt it will be a flat 4.
  • Where will the wide play come from? With out the usual wingers or formation rolled out, where will the offense come from the wings? Expect Digne and Jallet to be instructed to push high and wide on the pitch. They will be asked to provide the bulk of the crosses and wide runs, overlapping the midfielders to offer wide options for Valbuena.
I am not sure how much we will be able to deduce from this first game, they are not playing the metal of world football. It should be a good test as I expect Albania to pack it in and look to strike on the counter. That will shine the light on how well the fullbacks are able to bring some dangerous crosses, how does Benzema and Lacazette attack the Albania goal as a tandem and can Valbuena break down the defense as the #10?

Prediction - France 2: Albania 0 goals from Cabaye and Benzema.

Allez Les Bleus!!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Deschamps has to back track with his views on the U20s

Well well well...a few injuries and suddenly Deschamps has to backtrack on his stance with regards to including any of the French U20s. The latest is Kurt Zouma from Chelsea who has been brought into the senior squad. This after Kurzawa was brought in to replace the injured Tremoulinas. That might have been the more awkward call up for DD, as it was the Monaco left back that was the leader of the sophomoric behavior of the French U20 team against Sweden...how juicy that France will be playing Sweden during this international break.

Overall I think this is actually a good thing for Deschamps. He needs to start looking at some of the young talent he has at the U20 level. Players like Zouma and especially Kurzawa have legitimate ambitions to being part of the squad that plays on home soil the 2016 Euros. Kurzawa in particular as the French left back role, I believe, is a position ripe for new blood.

Another name that has pulled out is Matuidi, Gonalons was called up in reinforcement. This will open the door for Schneiderlin to assume greater time on the pitch. Could this be to the detriment of Cabaye, who is not getting much time at PSG?

With so many names missing, will Deschamps use these two games for some experimental
More celebrations to come in blue?
sides? I hope so. Players like Lacazette, Guilavogui, Scheiderlin, Yanga-Mbiwa and Kurzawa should get substantial time over the two games. Rotate some of the midfielders along side Pogba to see how they function with the emerging main stay of the French midfield. In the back it would be good to find out what Kurzawa can do on the left as well as Yanga-Mbiwa in the center paired with the likes of Varane. Up front it would be good to see if Lacazette is an option, either as a striker or out on the wing.

 I do not believe that many of the starting roles are in question if Deschamps has his full roster. The places I see some question marks - left back, right wing and possibly left wing (but that is Griezmanns for now). The real questions are the second level players. Who are the ones that provide the depth needed? That would be across the field, but really at the striker role and creative midfielder. It will be interesting to see what DD does with these two games.

Allez les Bleus!

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