By Robin Bairner
There were many glaring shortcomings of the French national team under the stewardship of Raymond Domenech, but perhaps the greatest problem that his side suffered from in the latter stages of his reign was a complete incompetence at the back. Less than 12 months after the exit of the controversial coach, they now have a rearguard to be proud of.
It should perhaps come as little surprise that Laurent Blanc – a centre-back of worldwide renown in his playing days – has managed to stiffen up the defence to a remarkable degree during his short tenure in charge. ‘Le President’ has led his side into battle on nine occasions, and only four times have France conceded.
Having gone from a calamitous unit in the previous regime, France are now en route to re-establishing their rearguard as a combination comparable with the best in Europe, with only one goal lost in their last seven matches – and that a late consolation against England in a memorable 2-1 friendly victory at Wembley.
From the outset, Blanc made it clear where his priorities would lie, proclaiming that he would attempt to breed stability in his defence. Immediately, he assigned his faith in Philippe Mexes – a player broken and then shunned during Domenech’s reign – and Adil Rami, rejecting more experienced options in favour of the new Valencia defender.
Given that Mexes had looked like a lost lamb when playing for France and Rami had a reputation for lacking concentration, if not ability, there was some understandable scepticism at home over the new combination.
|CONSISTENCY IS KEY | France's defensive line-ups in 2010-11
When France lost in Blanc’s debut against Norway – a match in which he would use only players who didn’t feature at the World Cup – there was little reason to be especially positive, and they even followed that up with a shock home loss against Belarus, their opponents on Friday night.
Even though that defeat came about because of an error from Gael Clichy, the coach did not waver from his selection, and he would be richly rewarded in the matches that followed.
One of the great problems Blanc has been faced with during his short stint has been how to handle those ‘South African rebels’. The mantra of stability and consistency in selection has not been lost, even with regards to a star name like Evra, who has played only once under the new coach, partly due to an internal suspension for the aforementioned incident, but also because there is faith in Clichy and Eric Abidal – and it is this confidence that Blanc has instilled in his defenders that has played a major role in the rearguard’s resurgence.
Friday’s Euro 2012 qualifying encounter will see an enforced change in the defence. Mexes will miss out due to injury, so prodigious Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Mamadou Sakho is instead expected to feature from the outset, leaving Rami now as the senior partner in the back line.
Even allowing for this slight problem, France's back four is firmly on the road to recovery, and though it will be perhaps lacking the star appeal of other members of the squad - the likes of Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, for example - it has proven to be a unit just as strong as any other in the side, laying a foundation from which the star names can shine.