Thursday, November 18, 2010

France end 2010 on the upswing...the rebirth of a team

Les Bleus ended their 2010 international season with a convincing 2-1 victory over hated rivals England. The score ended up being more flattering that it should have been with a late goal from Crouch on a corner...once again France gives up a goal during a set piece.

Unfortunately I was not able to watch the sometimes gets in the way of Les Bleus. I was able to "watch" it via the feed on the web, unfortunately ESPN3 did not carry the game nor!! Ugh. So I cannot comment too much on the match in Wembley, although I have pieced together an image of what happened from what has been written, video highlights and my imagination. Rather than give some thoughts on the match...which would not be complete, I want to turn to the whole body of work for 2010 and specifically the Herculean job Blanc has done in 5 games to right the ship that was fast sinking after the South Africa debacle.

First the statistics for Les Blues in 2010:
  • 13 games played
  • 5 victories (4 of which were under Blanc...nice job Domenech)
  • 2 draws
  • 6 defeats
  • 13 goals scored and 13 conceded
6 defeats is unheard of for Les Bleus, this has not happened since the 1930s! Just another indicator of how terrible this year had been for France. Domenech's record: 1 win, 2 draws, 4 defeats...including 2 at the World Cup. Blanc: 4 wins, 2 defeats.

Recap of the games:

3 mars (Saint-Denis, A) : France-Espagne 0-2
26 mai (Lens, A) : France-Costa-Rica 2-1 (Sequeira csc, Valbuena)
30 mai (Rades, A) : Tunisie-France 1-1 (Gallas)
4 juin (Saint-Pierre de la Réunion, A) : France-Chine 0-1
11 juin (Le Cap, CM) : Uruguay-France 0-0
17 juin (Polokwane, CM) : Mexique-France 2-0
22 juin (Bloemfontein, CM) : Afrique du Sud-France 2-1 (Malouda)
11 août (Oslo, A) : Norvège-France 2-1 (Ben Arfa)
3 septembre (Saint-Denis, CE) : France-Biélorussie 0-1
7 septembre (Sarajevo, CE) : Bosnie-France 0-2 (Benzema, Malouda)
9 octobre (Saint-Denis, CE) : France-Roumanie 2-0 (Rémy, Gourcuff)
12 octobre (Metz, CE) : France-Luxembourg 2-0 (Benzema, Gourcuff)
17 novembre (Wembley, A) : Angleterre-France 1-2 (Benzema, Valbuena)

Clearly Les Bleus have ended the season better than they started, much of this is the responsibility of Laurent Blanc and his staff. They have taken over a sinking ship a team in complete turmoil and in a few months put it back on track to where it once was. Granted there remains much work to be done, and the next match in February against Brazil will go a long way to demonstrate how far Blanc has come and how much further he needs to go. So let us look back at the past year, which is much easier to do after that game at Wembley!

The Good:
  • Laurent Blanc - his arrival at the head of the team could not have come at a better time, actually if he had been put in place after the other Domenech debacle - Euro 2008 - France might have done something in South Africa, then again the 2 years Blanc spent at the head of Bordeaux cannot be underestimated. Le President has brought with him a degree of professionalism, pride and an intellectual capability long missing from the national team. His first moves were the signs of a true boss - not selecting any of the World Cup players, clearly sending a signal that he was in charge but also a symbolic sign to those on the squad in South Africa. He clearly has a plan and appears to be following through with his strategy - building from the back forward, developing his core
    Blanc's greatest goal for Les Bleus
    and being flexible in his tactics. He, unlike Domenech, clearly understands the need to develop and allow to develop a central defensive pairing. Coupled with the keeper this is the base from which a team can build out - with Lloris, Blanc already had his pillar in goal. Blanc has also not been shy to experiment with his formations: 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-4-2.  Look at what he did against England, aligning what really amounted to a 4-1-4-1, similar to what Spain did during their successful Euro campaign. Relying on the 20 year old M'Vila to act as the lone holding midfielder and relying on 4 offensive minded players to hold the ball and play defense by not losing the ball...this demonstrated a tactical sense not seen with France in a long time. Blanc has ensured that communications with club managers remains open and two way, just look at how he has been speaking with Mourinho about Benzema. Could you ever envisage Domenech having these discussions with club managers? Domenech was always the exact opposite when it came to dealing with club managers! Blanc's maturity as a manager, gained from his days at Bordeaux, coupled with his gravitas earned from being one of France's all time great central defender, a player who has both a World Cup and European Champions medal have given him the stature required to tackle this daunting task. So far he has demonstrated everything that we have hoped for when he was announced as the next France manager. I hope and have faith that this upward trend for Les Bleus will only continue and grow with Blanc at the helm.
  • The win against England aside, the most important results currently is France sitting atop their group for the European Championship. After a poor start to the campaign - a 1:0 loss in Paris to Belarus - Les Bleus have run off a string of 3 straight victories, including a tough 3 points gained away to Bosnia. Friendlies are nice, except to some like the Gooner, but they do not mean you are getting closer to participating to the real tournaments.  While there remains much work to do for France, getting the full 3 points away to Bosnia as well as maximizing the results at home versus Luxembourg and Romania, the will have a string of winnable matches to restart the qualifiers - Luxembourg, Belarus and Albania being the first 3 matches. Not a walk in the park since all the games will be on the road, however the fact they will not face Bosnia until the last day is an advantage since they still pose the greatest threat to Les Bleus.
  • The emergence of non World Cup players has given Les Bleus a new breadth of fresh air and been a catalyst to the success. Benzema, Nasri, Mexes, Rami, M'Vila and Remy have all played important roles in France's run of success. Blanc's willingness and ability to integrate these players and to use them in specific roles and functions is world's apart from the lack of direction and strategy that was the norm under Domenech. With a crop of young players at the U20 level who are apparently ready to make a jump it will be interesting to see how Blanc will start integrating these players into his plans.
  • The integration between the above players and important elements that were in South Africa - with the likes of Gourcuff, ADiarra, Lloris, Sagna, Clichy, Malouda, Diaby and Valbuena, Blanc has been able to integrate the South African players with the new crop of French players. Blanc has always maintained from day 1 that he would take the best players for the team, regardless of their involvement in the South Africa mutiny - see his comments on Anelka. What will be interesting is what happens with Evra and Ribery, the last two from the South African mutiny that will be eligible for a call up in 2011, more on these two later.
The Bad:
  • The wasted tournament that was the World Cup - I have ranted and raved enough about the ineptitude that Domenech and Escalettes both exhibited over the past few seasons culminating in an embarrassing and disastrous showing at the World Cup, while I do not want to harp on these bad times they definitely fall into that category (you can read all my rantings from the World Cup in the archive - like this posting after France's last match). I can only imagine what might have been had France been managed by a real manager during the past 2 years. No nation with the stature of France should "waste" a tournament, too bad the FFF allowed France to waste away for 2 years under Domenech - he should have been sacked after that putrid showing at the 2008 European Championships...inexcusable.
The Ugly:
  • The image that the French national team has developed during the first half of this year has been awful. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, France had established itself as one of the elite international sides in the world. It did not hurt that they had one of footballs all time greatest players in their ranks - Zidane as well as players such as Vieira, Henry, Trezeguet, Blanc, Desailly and Deschamps to name a few. Oh and wining a World Cup and European Cup was helpful...but since then France has been treading water, yes they have qualified for both the World Cups and European Cups, yes they did make an improbably run in 2006 to the World Cup finals. However they never were able to rebuild a team, rather continue to rely on individuals - Zidane the primary individual.  I realize it is easier said than done to rebuild a squad and not lean on such a player as Zizou, however this reliance and subsequent inability to develop and execute a Plan B became apparent after the 2006 finals and came to a head in 2010. That was very ugly. Unfortunately the cupboard was never bare, it was just that the head chef was completely inept and unqualified to make a grilled cheese sandwich let alone mix these ingredients for something more gourmet. Les Bleus' image has taken a major hit under the Domenech era to the point it became ugly...nothing was more representative of this than the outrage that descended on Les Bleus after the "Hand of Gaul." I have a feeling had France been a more "likable" side the outrage would have remained but not to the degree it was heaped upon the team - especially from its own such as Dugarry and Lizarazu. I have never been shy about who was guilty of allowing this to happen - Domenech and by extension Escalettes for not firing Domenech when he should have - 2008. Sometimes teams need to hit the bottom before they can make their way back to the promise land, I hope that this is the case, because I certainly do not want to think about it being any worse than it was under Domenech!
  • The players comportment during the World Cup - the strike was absolutely ugly and inexcusable. Evra, Gallas, Abidal, Ribery and Anelka all showed themselves as ugly, over paid prima donnas...granted I understand where the frustration came from....see bullet above, but their behavior remains inexcusable and very ugly.
So Les Bleus head into 2011 on a high note and on the upswing. Their manager seems to have at least stopped the bleeding and has brought stability and ability otherwise lacking from the side. There are many positives to look to build upon as Les Bleus will head into 2011 looking to secure passage to the Euros and continue to build that core that Blanc seeks. What is emerging is that France will be led by the likes of Lloris in goal, Mexes - Rami as central defense, M'Vila - ADiarra as the defensive midfielders, Diaby as a potential box to box player, Malouda on the left, Gourcuff - Nasri as the creative tandem and Benzema leading from the front.

There remains questions around who will secure the spots at left and right fullback. On the right it appears to be Sagna's role for now. On the left there is some clear competition between Clichy and Abidal - wonder if Evra will be relegated to 3rd or 4th on the depth chart: Tremoulinas would appear to be the 3rd option at left back. There is also the question of Ribery. As the Kaiser looks to regain his health and form, will he have a role on Blanc's team? Malouda is the clear cut option on the left. And there remain other left sided options - Menez, N'Zogbia and even Kakuta. Would Ribery "allow" himself to slot on the right? Then again Valbuena continues to score points to hold up the right side, Nasri could feature there as could Remy. What about a central role? That would place the Bayern man behind Gourcuff and ironic. While I have no doubt that if the Bayern winger regains his form there is and will be a place for him on the French national team, but his role and stature are no longer what they were 10 months ago when he was seen as the only creative player available for France. Now he is just another piece that could be used for the puzzle.

Amazing what a few wins and time will do for a psyche, this time in July we had seen what we hoped was the bottom of the barrel, in hindsight that is what it was. Today, while there remains much work, it feel as if Les Bleus are back on the upswing. See you in February when we face Brazil in Paris in what should be another stern test for Blanc and Les Bleus.

Final note, this was the last game where France wore the Adidas kit, a kit they have worn since 1972...a great year! When Les Bleus come out of the tunnel to face Brazil on February 9th in the Stade de France they will be kitted out with a new strip from Nike. I am eagerly awaiting what the American sports giant will unveil. I will miss Adidas, but I also recognize the marketing and branding power that is Nike. Let the new adventure start with Nike!

Allez Les Bleus!


Jean-François said...

Results aside, this is finally a team I can say I am proud to be a fan of. During the Domenech years I watched France only because I felt oblidged to. If these results continue and the team matures properly I don't see any team stopping us in the future. I definately see us having a respectable run in 2012. A fantastic run in 2014, and champions at home in 2016. I wish Competitons happened every year, I hate waiting!

GFC said...

Ha! I agree with the tournaments, but if they took place every summer it would not be as special an event as they currently are. I also agree with your comment about watching Les Bleus, Blanc has reinstalled a sense of pride and respect with the team. There remains a lot of work to do, but they are moving in the proper direction.

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