Goal.com's Gary Niblock looks back at an all too predictable below-par showing from the French in their opening World Cup encounter against Uruguay.
In 1998, it was another Rainbow Nation of sorts, France, who also as hosts, captured the public's imagination en route to a famous triumph in the final against Brazil with Algerian-born Zinedine Zidane the hero in a 3-0 win. This time however, the French are beset by divisions, conflict and doubt with a seemingly irreparable chasm opening up between them with even World-Cup winning defender Marcel Desailly stating that he believes France will not even progress from the group stage.
The players took on the manager and lost the initial battle. Domenech refused to cave in to the wishes of several players and reinstall France’s all-time top scorer Thierry Henry to the starting eleven. Although he did decide to slot Abou Diaby into the midfield, this came at the expense of Florent Malouda and not Bordeaux’s magical playmaker Yoann Gourcuff. The Chelsea player had ignored the instructions of his captain to calm down in training and the beleaguered gaffer chose to flex his muscles in a bid not to be seen as a lame duck.
He also ignored Franck Ribery’s cry for Andre-Pierre Gignac to be the focal point of the French attack. The Bayern man values the movement and willingness to gamble of the Toulouse striker. However Nicolas Anelka is a much more rounded player than the out-and-out speed merchant.
An abrupt change of system on the eve of the tournament or even during it is often seen as a sign of panic. However, as England's squad in 1990 and Russia's side in 2008 show, this need not necessarily be the case. The stubborn insistence of Domenech to employ two holding players in midfield was met with both disbelief and downright disdain when les Bleus faced the Faroe Islands. The eventual win by the solitary goal only served to reinforce the case against the much maligned French coach, a symbol of the FFF’s admirable desire to promote from within their own coaching structure in sharp contrast to their cross-channel neighbors.
With Ribery’s willingness to come inside from the left onto his favored right foot combined with Sidney Govou’s attacking instincts, drawing the Lyon man in from the right, the bustling energy of Diaby complemented the wide duo and enabled them to start brightly on the front foot. It was incumbent upon the Arsenal man to supplement the attacking three, all the more so as Anelka as the lone striker often dropped deep or into channels, displaying the link-up skills he has honed as experience has slightly dimmed his once fearsome pace.
Indeed it was Govou, himself a somewhat controversial inclusion, who missed a glorious chance when Ribery, albeit slightly fortuitously, exposed the weakness of Uruguay's wingback system and beat Maxi Pereira down France's left. If there was one criticism in the opening exchanges, it was that Diaby didn't continue his runs into the box often enough, as Anelka dropped deep or into the channels. However his boundless stamina was utilized to full effect as he broke the lines, troubling the Uruguayan defense on numerous occasions.
Indeed, when they lost the ball, France were able to win possession back quickly after losing it - not the hallmark of a side not playing for their manager, be it Diaby, Ribery or even Anelka. The designated "water-carrier"( to coin a phrase used to describe one of Toulalan's predecessors in that role, Didier Deschamps) Jeremy Toulalan, showed that he was more than able to operate as a sole ball-winner, at least against a side who would not be bracketed with the very very best in this tournament.
The above is not to turn the other cheek and attempt to pretend that France should be suddenly elevated to favorites alongside Brazil and Spain, rather that a balanced perspective. Indeed, those first half glimpses of danger proved to be the apogee of France's evening.
Befitting a team bereft of a genuinely strong team spirit, the tempo of their play was often too slow. Abidal and Gallas betrayed what the former had already revealed to the press, that they still lack a telepathic understanding with each other at the back. Domenech was reluctant to introduce new blood from the bench, although this may be due in part to wanting to embed the new 4-3-3 into the minds of the players.
When the head coach did decide to mix it up, he opted for Thierry Henry and Florent Malouda, whose fortunes in the past year could not be more contrasting. Henry, once arguably the finest player in the world now reduced to a shadow of his former self, unable to force his way into the Barcelona side and Malouda, long thought to have been a flop in England, has this season established himself as an integral figure at Stamford Bridge. It was to prove an ultimately fruitless exercise though as the players, baffled by the changes of personnel and formation were unsure of their roles and failed to press home the advantage of a Uruguay side who were there for the taking.
A second first-round exit for the French in three World Cups may be an enticing story for journalists to get their teeth into however for the football fan, unless you happen to be Irish perhaps, a strong French team performing somewhere close to their capabilities, is an important ingredient in the success of this World Cup. On this showing however the critics have even more ammunition, as if they even needed it. Perhaps Desailly is right after all.
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