Thursday, August 12, 2010

France v Norway: The Blanc era starts with a 2-1 loss, but lots of positive to take from the match.

The Laurent Blanc era started...unfortunately with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Norway. Then again Norway is ranked 22nd and France 21st so not a huge upset! There were some encouraging aspects of the match, some usual problems but overall a better outlook than when we last saw Les Bleus. Some thoughts:

The Good:
  • Fresh faces - Once Laurent Blanc decided to leave the World Cup 23 at home we knew there would have to be an infusion of new talent. With Ruffier, Rami, M'Vila, Hourau, N'Zogbia, Menez, Cissokho and Cabaye getting their first caps it was refreshing to see a team with the drive and effort that comes from new blood. A much better site to see than what we last saw from Les Bleus. Maybe the World Cup 23 can learn something from this match in terms of what it means to put on your nation's jersey.
  • Speaking of fresh faces, the central defensive tandem of Mexes and Rami was very promising. The Lille central defender was solid in the back and was very strong in the air clearing a number of crosses and high
    passes into the box. He also brought an aerial threat on offense. What was most refreshing about watching him play was his lack of fear when it comes to sticking his cranium in hazardous places, a skill I am sure his manager respects since that was a strength of Laurent Blanc when he played. The pairing with Mexes worked well with the AS Roma player showing his quality bringing the ball out of the defensive end of the pitch for France. On many occasions Mexes was used as a launching pad for the offense, and he was very comfortable pushing into the offensive side of the pitch to bring his support to the attack. Mexes is at time overly aggressive on defense, but in the end he gets the job done. 
  • Mexes as captain. While I am not sure this is a long term solution, the fact Blanc gave the arm band to Mexes was brilliant. To me it was a statement to Mexes who has long lived with the label of great potential for France but not living up to the hype. Blanc sent the message: "Act and play like a captain and you will have a chance to build with this team, now is your chance, seize it." Clearly the message resonated with the AS Roma player, and it might be the very thing he needs to take the next step with Les Bleus.
  • The generation 87, since winning the U17 Euros in 2004, much has been expected of this generation. For whatever reason, Domenech could not find a way of building around the likes of Menez, Benzema, Nasri and
    Ben Arfa. It was encouraging to see all of them on the pitch together for the senior France team. Each brings his individual skill set that Blanc and Les Bleus can lean up. The qualities of Benzema and Nasri are well documented - although the Real Madrid man needs to demonstrate he is back on the path we saw when he was at Lyon as a pure goal scorer. Menez demonstrated his ability to play on the wing and bring width and pace to the attack. While Ben Arfa demonstrated his pure dribbling talents, breaking down the Norwegian defense and creating his own shots. Now up to them to demonstrate their value and worth for the national side. 
  • M'Vila, the Rennes central midfielder and U21 France captain provide a glimpse at his vast talents and potential. He played better in the first half as the lone holding midfielder, more on that later, but overall gave a slight glimpse of the potential he possess. He was strong in his tackles and linked well with the attack. At 20 years old the future for him is very bright. 
  • No more Domenech!!!!! All together now "The Domenech era is OFFICIALLY over!!!" Even suffering through a loss the fact that when the camera panned to the side lines I saw Laurent Blanc standing there and not inspector Clouseau, made me feel good. In just the past 3 days I feel a breath of fresh air has been infused into the FFF. You can see the difference in the press conferences, interviews, the tactics and the in game management. I saw a Laurent Blanc that took advantage of every minute he had with this squad, understanding that for him to do his job well he cannot afford to waste caps on players, waste a practice or a game. This is no more evident in the fact Blanc clearly wanted to work two systems in the Norway game, he wanted to allow his back 4 (especially the central pairing) to get as much real game action as possible and he wanted to ensure he used his substitutes wisely to have the combination of players on the field in the system that would allow him the most information. Unlike Domenech who in one of his last games in charge prior to the World Cup called up some new faces, but rather than put them on the pitch to at least see what they could do in game situations used the same old tired tactics that had gotten him ... nothing. What a novel idea, if you call up them. Of course, and I am sure Blanc is well aware of this, France cannot afford to lose games come September 3rd otherwise this good will towards Blanc will rapidly evaporate.
The Bad:
  • France lost 2-1. That is bad. No game should be seen as a throw away, where the result does not matter. Clearly Blanc is of the same opinion. France had their chances: a great 50 - 50 ball won by N'Zogbia in the 17th minute which he then put a perfect left footed cross on the head of a diving Remy, forcing an emergency save from Knudsen. Had the OGC Nice striker hit his shot a foot either direction it would have beaten the keeper. 13 minutes later the Toulouse midfielder Sissoko forced another strong save on a volley destined for the upper 90. Ruffier did make a strong save in the first 15 minutes to keep the game level. However overall the first half belonged to Les Bleus. Unfortunately the second half saw the Norwegians take advantage of two defensive errors leading to the 2 goals for the victory. Never good as a manager to start your tenure 0-1, but I am sure Blanc will build from the positive we saw today.
  • 4-2-3-1 formation. Just when you thought the favorite formation from the Domenech era would be long makes another appearance. Blanc switched from the 4-4-2 diamond to the 4-2-3-1 in the second half. Clearly it was not a formation that fit well with the French side. Granted they held the lead briefly through a laser from Ben Arfa, but overall the formation seemed to cause more problems. First, it put Diarra and M'Vila together. M'Vila quickly seemed out of sorts compared to what he showed in the first half. And not sure what Diarra brought to the table. M'Vila was doing more than an adequate job in the first half as the sole holding midfielder, with a partner on his shoulder it appeared to stifle the young Rennes' game. He was not as free to roam as he had been in the first half. Second, Menez and Ben Arfa's tendencies at times were to drift too far into the center, thereby clogging up the lanes and the midfield. Couple this with the fact Hourau and then Benzema, as the lone strikers, drifted back to try to pick up the ball. This created at times, 3 players to be right on top of one another with little spacing. While I am sure this formation can work, Blanc, if he wants to use it, will need to make sure the personnel he runs out there is more appropriate. 
The Ugly:
  • Defending set pieces. Well this problem has been around Les Bleus for a few years. Some teams just seem to have trouble with set pieces (see Arsenal). Rami seems to bring one element that could change this - his
    The Norwegian bagged his brace
    command in the air. But Ruffier did nothing to solve this, especially end of the match when he appeared lost on a few corners. The first goal from Norway was on a set piece, where Hourau was inexplicably defending on Huseklepp and was easily turned by the striker. This has been France's Achilles heel for a few years now, hopefully Blanc can find a solution.
  • Huseklepp's second goal. Not ugly from his stand point as the Norwegian striker bagged his brace, but what was Diarra doing? A botched pass at the center circle led to the Norwegian striker waltzing in one on one against Ruffier. My one area of nit picking is that I think the Monaco keeper should have held his ground for a split second more. Why? Rami was sprinting back to try and close down the break, had Ruffier forced Huseklepp to either shoot or take another touch it might have allowed the French central defender to get back into the play. Instead Ruffier went to ground quickly trying to guess where the Norway man was heading and instead allowed himself to be easily side stepped and the ball gently tapped into an open net. Again, nit picking I realize.
  • Lack of finishing for France. Any game you approach 20 shots on goal, granted less than half were on net, and only show 1 goal for your efforts you need to consider getting some goal scoring lessons. The silver lining is that there were some quality chances and it was good to see players taking their opportunities. Too often you see teams try to pass and wait for the "perfect" shooting chance. However, France will have to improve on this aspect. Question is what striker or striker combo to remedy this? With Henry retiring, Anelka out in international Siberia, no Trezeguet and who knows if Cisse can replicate his scoring form for Les Bleus there are a lot of up and coming strikers - Hourau, Benzema, Remy, Briand to name a few - but no established international caliber striker. Of course it is difficult to fill the boots of both Henry and Trezeguet when you consider both are top 3 goal scorers all time for France, with Henry being #1. This will be an ongoing quest, it will be interesting to see how it gets resolved. The talent is there, but what is the right system and combination.
    Overall I think what Les Bleus showed to me was encouraging, then again after 6 years of Domenech almost anything would be better! Next steps will be how Blanc integrates some of the World Cup 23 back into the side. The players I think scored the most points to stick around - Rami, M'Vila, Hourau, Mexes, Sissoko, Menez and Ben Arfa. I did like what I saw in spurts from N'Zogbia, but he falls victim to the depth France have on the left - Ribery and Malouda stand in front of him, or even Diaby. To me Rami-Mexes could very well be the central pairing we see on Sept 3rd against Belarus for the Euro qualifier opener. I am not sure Gallas will figure back in the picture and not sure Squillaci slots in over Rami and he does not have the ball carrying skill of Mexes. Neither Cissokho nor Fani did enough to move ahead of Evra/Clichy/Abidal when it comes to Cissokho nor Sagna when it comes to Fani (although Fani had some quality crosses early in the game, not sure Sagna would have made those). Nasri might slot out to the right allowing Gourcuff to hold the central midfield slot, regardless Nasri demonstrated he has the quality to be the #10 for Les Bleus. Ben Arfa is the one pure dribbler and deserves consideration moving forward. Finally M'Vila showed a lot of promise and at 20 years old has a great future ahead - could make the holding midfield role one of the most competitive on the French roster.

    Good to see Les Bleus back on the pitch, rather have seen it end in a win. But we can truly put the Domenech era behind us! Let the healing begin. Let us just hope the winning shows up...and soon. But the signs point to a brighter future than a few months back.

    The French goal, Ben Arfa shows why he can be so frustrating at times, so much talent yet needs to find the consistency:


    Anonymous said...

    4-2-3-1 is really a possession formation. Spain is really good at it; France less so. It's frustrating when you get 67% possession, but few quality looks at goal (especially in the 2nd half, after the switch in formation). Ben Arfa's goal was pure class, but was more of an individual effort than the product of any sustained build-up. The 2 striker system is probably more suited to this team (which lacks a Xavi in mid-field and a Villa at striker); unfortunately France is rather shallow at the striker position. Fortunately, Euro qualification out of France's group should not be a problem. Maybe the striker question will have been resolved ovetr the course of the next 2 years.

    GFC said...

    Great points I completely agree that France have a lack of striker options. I think that France will have to figure out which striker(s) rise to the top. Benzema, Remy, Hourau, Cisse, Gignac, Briand and the likes have decent chances to put their stamp on the position. That will determine how far Les Bleus go. Some of the scoring will have to be picked up by the rest of the team outside of the strikers. TBD...