Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Back from the old country....some thoughts on Les Bleus

I am all worked up, have some pent up thoughts on Les Bleus and their success against Serbia and what that means for Domenech and the gang. I was actually back in the homeland, was suppose to go to the game but family events prevented me from attending...but I was able to watch the game on my DVR as well as read the press in Paris. So here are some thoughts:

The Good:
  • Gourcuff - The young French prodigy has been left out in the waste lands when he made a very ballyhooed move to the San Siro. At the time Grourcuff was seen as the rising star in France the player with the talent and ability to become the next "Zidane." Of course like many hyped players, he became lost in the plethora of stars that he found himself amidst at AC Milan. Especially for the position he played - midfield. AC Milan already had Pirlo, Kaka, and Seedorf sitting in front of Gourcuff. Playing time was obviously going to be hard to come by, and being banished to the substitute bench put him out of site for Domenech. His move to Bordeaux allowed Gourcuff to finally find himself earn first team football as well as find himself playing for one of France's up and coming managers - Laurent Blanc. Probably does not hurt for Yoann to be under the tutelage of one of France's most capped players as well. Of course as usual, Domenech used Yoann in strange ways to start the international season, substituting him for 40 seconds against Sweden in the opening friendly. However after the horrible showing in Vienna, Domenech turned the keys of the offense over to Gourcuff and saw the dividends immediately. Playing a 4-2-3-1, with Yoann playing the #10 role. What was very good for Les Bleus was the ability of Gourcuff to drive at the defenders, to look to make the thru balls and take chances that France needs to break down defenses. Clearly in the second half, Gourcuff also demonstrated a strong understanding with Anelka putting in the Chelsea striker on a few occasions. If they get a chance to develop more of a working relationship you can see that Anelka will feast over the Bordelais' passing ability. While one game does not mean long term success, I think Gourcuff might be the key for France's midfield. More on this later. But for this one game, Yoann definitely gets ranked as good.
  • Anelka - The bad boy of French football, once again demonstrated why he has commanded so much in transfer fees and played for so many top clubs in Europe. Once he came in the game, the dynamics of the match clearly shifted. Serbia had no one that could slow down the Chelsea man. He threaten the Serbian goal from the get go with some long distance bombs, forcing some stellar saves from the Serbian keeper. These long range threats forced Serbian defenders to come up higher on Anelka, which then allowed passing lanes to be opened and for Nico to make some threatening runs. Anelka demonstrated, once again, that when he is on top of his game and motivated he is one of international football's most dangerous striker.
  • Henry - Titi had a very good game, opening up the game with his second half goal. However it was his play on the left and ability to slot wide and drift back to the center that was the key. He floated around the pitch at times but overall stayed true to his role as a left winger in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He also played a much more prominent role in the airial game, he attacked the high balls and looked to threaten the goal from crosses and long balls, a part of his game he has never been known for but did enough to force Serbia to respect that aspect of the French game. While I am still not convinced he can be the tip of the spear for France if they make it to South Africa, he proved that he still has some football left in his legs.
The Bad:
  • The French Defense, okay maybe this is a bit harsh but the French defense was not rock solid. Clichy got his long awaited first cap, much deserved based on his play for Arsenal, but he was nervous at times, took bad angles, and almost got beat early on in the box. Sagna was solid, made some good runs on the flanks. Gallas and Abidal had some issues, what bothered me was Abidal relying too much on his atheletic ability and speed rather than his positioning. When you are on the flanks you need to be quick and keep up with the fast wingers the opposition will throw at you. However as a central defender, speed, while necessary and nice, is not crucial. Positioning and anticipation is much more important for success. France were fortunate not being down a goal or two early on based on Gallas and Abidal making some poor decisions allowing some threatening thru balls. There was clearly still lots of work that needs to be done for the back 4 to become a strength and not a risk. The talent is there, the problem is the proper combination is not necessarily in place. As I have stated before, I think your back 4 should be a combo of Sagna, Gallas, Mexes (or Abidal, but I am not convinced of the Barca man as a central back), Evra/Clichy. Throw in Clerc as a back up to Sagna and I think you have the talent to work with, again France needs to find the right combo, but for now it is a weakness.
  • Benzema - for all his talent and early season success for Lyon, he has been a bit transparent for France the last two games. Yet, this game he was slotted exactly in the role for the young prodigy, he was allowed to play up top supported by Henry, Gourcuff and Gouvou. He really did not threaten the Serbian goal and what was frustrating was watching his replacement - Anelka - torch the Serbian defense. By no means should Benzema be dropped, but he needs to translate his club success to the national team level. Benzema might be pushing too hard for France, it might make sense to put him on the bench for the short term, allow him to come off the bench and run at a tired defense for the last 20 - 30 minutes of a game get his confidence back where it should be.
The Ugly -
  • Set piece defending is terrible. France has now given up 4 goals in 2 games from set pieces, granted one was a penalty kick, but still. And of those 4 goals, at least 2 of them were balls that Mandanda should have come out and attacked. The goal France gave up was off a corner to the 5 meter box, that should be the keeper's home, he needs to own that space. Especially an international level keeper! While the defending was not glorious, it really should have been Mandanda coming out and challenging the Serbian player for the ball rather than allowing a free header. I am not sure if this is a training issue or a philosophy issue, not having keepers come further off their lines to attack high crosses and long balls. France is going to need to improve on this, and soon. Otherwise they will be in trouble. The teams they will face will play a similar style - defend and try to beat France on the counter and set pieces. Mandanda is a big keeper and athletic, he needs to be more aggressive on this balls take some pressure off his defenders, take ownership of his goal box.
The essential was accomplished against Serbia, France secured the full 3 points. There remain some weaknesses and some major gaps for Les Bleus. I do feel a bit better than I did after the Austria game. With Austria losing, the group remains wide open, I am not convinced Lithuania will remain a top the group. France's destiny will really be determined over the next few matches, going to Roumania and then back to back games versus Lithuania. Les Bleus still need to address the defense, figure out how to defend set pieces, and determine where to play Benzema. Here are some ideas:

France needs to figure out the central pairing for defense. I think that Mexes needs to be back in the mix with Gallas. The Roman defender has too much talent and ability not to be successful, he just needs the time and trust to build the central anchor with Gallas. Defensive midfield needs to be more offensive, Toulalan and Diarra did a good job breaking up Serbian attacks but need to be more of a linkage between the defense and the offense. Vieira can provide this solution, when healthy....and that is a huge IF. But Diarra has the ability, based on his play at Portsmouth, to play that role. The offensive midfield has some talent but also needs to find the proper system. I think that the attacking midfield should be built around Gourcuff pulling the strings, with Nasri/Ben Afra on the left and Ribery on the right. Potentially throw in Malouda/Gouvou to shore up one of the wings and you have what could be a very potent attacking midfield. Finally, the question is who to have at the top of the diamond - Anelka, Henry or Benzema? Les Bleus need to find the right system. They have the talent, but need the system. The Serbian win gives them some breathing room, but the next game is away to Roumania which will be a huge match. France has always struggled traveling East. Domenech remains on the hot seat. Les Bleus have some work ahead of them, but parts are emerging that might be very solid for the future.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Les Bleus - Le Terrible

OMG the unthinkable happened today, France got slapped around in Vienna 3-1 against an Austrian team that had nothing to lose and played France physically and took their chances. Ok first a caveat, I did not get to see the game...for some reason TV5 did not carry the feed, but I "watched" it on line, saw the "highlights" and have been reading the post game commentary.

Unfortunately the defense has conceded 5 goals in their last two games, if we include the Euros they have given up 11 goals in 5 games ... including a 0-0 draw with the Romanians...this is completely unacceptable for a nation that is ranked 11th in the world. France lost to a nation, that prior to the Euros, their own fans put together a petition to pull out of their own tournament! What frightens me is the central defensive pairing, it appears that Mexes is not taking his high level of play from AS Roma to the French team, maybe he is pushing too much, nervous that Domenech has never really been a fan of the Roman defender. Mexes might be constantly looking over his shoulder, afraid to play his game always concerned about his place on the squad. Frankly on the first and last goal Mexes is directly to blame. The opening goal, Mexes allowed the Austrian striker to back him down rather than aggressively attacking the ball. Mexes then inexplicably tackled an Austrian player on a corner kick. Plus he pulled down the player at the PK spot when the corner was a tight inswinger and the player fouled would most likely not have been in the play!!! Gallas has not taken the reigns of the defense. With Thuram retired, I thought this would be the opportunity for Gallas to step up and become the "patron" for the French defense. Maybe the Gunner, while a top notch defender, needs a Desailly, Terry or Thuram to take the leadership of the defense, for he is not comfortable leading the back 4. Maybe all the rumors that were coming out of the Emirates locker room last year that Gallas was letting his teammates down with his lack of leadership, is rearing its ugly head under the blue shirt of France. Mandanda is also not to escape some blame. On the second goal he should have attacked the ball while in the air, the long indirect kick was floated into the top of this 5 yard box where France messed up the clearance allowing the Austrians to smash home the goal from point blank range. The French keeper really should have attacked the first ball in the air.

It also sounds as if Diarra and Toulalan were not the defensive forces they need to be for this system to work, maybe Les Bleus miss Vieira more than they thought. What really drives me crazy is the fact France gave up all goals off set pieces, once again Les Bleus could not defend two 40 yard indirect kicks that, by all accord, were just dumped into the French 18 yard box. Ugh.

This does not bode well, at all. France now hosts Serbia next week. Which will not be a walk in the park. Serbia will play more physically than Austria, and will be tighter defensively than the Austrians. France have no choice but to win on Wednesday....if they come out of these two games with 1 or 0 points, it would be disastrous. They would then have to go to Roumania who would be on 3 points, having played the Faroe Islands next. Serbia would be clearly in the driver seat, with surprise Austria and Lithuania either one at 6 points or both at 4 (they play each other next round). France could conceivable find themselves in last, behind the Faroe Islands.

Of course all is not lost, this is but one game. France lost twice to the Scots in the last qualifiers, and still squeaked in. But the road does not get any easier. The only good thing is that the other group favorite, Romania lost, and they lost at home. But if that is the one straw I get to is a pretty sad day in French football.

Hopefully Deschamps has his list of players, he might find himself as France manager very shortly.