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French Revelations: Mediocre France Leave Raymond Domenech With Much To Ponder

France’s two end of season friendlies were expected to provide les Bleus with a solid platform ahead of their World Cup qualifying matches in the late summer and autumn. Instead of giving their fans cause for optimism, the notoriously fickle home support now only have greater question marks over the ability of Raymond Domenech to lead a world class squad to South Africa 2010. So, with the boos of their own support still ringing in their ears, what did the June friendlies tell us about the French squad?

Tour de Farce

Last Tuesday, France hosted Nigeria in Saint-Etienne in what was to prove to be yet another trough in a Domenech’s rollercoaster term as head coach. The African side, who have hardly been in vintage form themselves in recent months, shut their opponents out with surprising ease and looked threatening every time their exciting attacking players were provided with possession.

Joseph Akpala tapped home the only goal of the game just after the half hour mark and, following that strike, France provided little to suggest they would be able to reassert themselves in a fixture they had started with a significant amount of verve and confidence.

But even the early omens were not all positive. The Stade Geoffroy Guichard crowd was simply a lynch mob waiting for Domenech and his band of boys in blue. The fans’ haste to turn on their ‘favourites’ would attract more column inches in the native press than the average performance of the team itself.

Certainly, the show of discontent from the crowd gave the French media a new angle on the same old story - it is no rarity for France to fall behind against lesser-rated but defensively organised opposition and to utterly fail to threaten them for the remainder of the match.

The players were united in their condemnation of the crowd, particularly the section of the home support that booed Olympique Lyonnais’ players simply because of their association with Saint-Etienne’s fierce rivals. “Confusing Lyon and the French team is deplorable,” complained Domenech. “It was not Saint-Etienne against Lyon, it was France against Nigeria.”

France made the short trip to Lyon on Friday evening, where their welcome was only a little more hospitable. And their performance, at least initially, was little more convincing as Turkey seemed capable of keeping of shutting les Bleus out on an evening littered with torrential showers that made the pitch tough to play penetrating balls on.

Ultimately it would be a defensive slip from Ibrahim Uzulmez that proved the catalyst for France’s only goal. And to make matters worse, in trying to rectify his mistake, the left-back succeeded only in pulling down Nicolas Anelka inside the penalty box, giving Karim Benzema the chance to rattle home and earning himself a red card in the process.

From that moment, France were comfortable and would have won by a more comfortable margin had Volkan in the visiting goal not been in quite breathtaking form. Still, the support were only moderately contented with a narrow victory over opponents who played at a numerical disadvantage for over a half.

Same Old Problems

Although France lie second in World Cup qualifying Group 7, the same problems that have dogged them since 2006 and the retirement of several stars, most notably Zinedine Zidane.

Going forward, despite a rich array of talent, les Bleus are much too predictable and one-paced. Opposing teams have correctly twigged that minus an architect as graceful and brilliant as ‘Zizou’ in the centre of the field to dictate play, simply sitting deep and defending in numbers can be a highly effective way of repelling France.

Nigeria employed this tactic successfully, counter-attacking brilliantly in Saint-Etienne and then, once ahead, reverting to an even more defensive formation that never looked likely to be penetrated. And Turkey, who packed their midfield, allowing playmaker Yoann Gourcuff little time, may well have succeeded with a similar tactic had it not been for one crucial error.

Even looking back to recent World Cup qualifiers, Lithuania twice nearly held out against les Bleus in the space of four days. One moment of sheer brilliance from Franck Ribery put pay to home resistance in the first game while the German-based player would again prove the difference in Paris only a few days later, this time finishing a well constructed team move.

Rather like Arsenal, when France’s football looks good, it looks really good. However, unlike Arsenal, les Bleus are forced to unpick ultra-defensive teams on a regular basis and do not possess the requisite time together to gain the understanding required to play in such an intricate style effectively on a game-to-game basis. As a result, Franck Ribery – les Bleus most consistent performer by some way - is often required to pop-up with some moment of individual excellence.

Some kind of ‘Plan B’ is required. An aerial presence in the squad could be of great use to Domenech & Co. For that, look no further than Guillaume Hoarau, who took like a duck to water in his first Ligue 1 season with Paris Saint-Germain and could provide les Bleus with the something different that could help them undo stubborn defences.

Otherwise, there is no forward who is able to provide a threat from high crosses; Thierry Henry’s weakness in the air is well known, Benzema admits that it’s a facet of the game that needs improved, Anelka is hardly known for his heading, while Andre-Pierre Gignac, France’s top scorer last season with 24 goals, did not strike one of those with his head.

On The Defensive

This weakness in the air is also evident in defence, although perhaps not so much in the recent friendlies. Still, the defence should be a significant source of concern. Domenech rotated his rearguard pretty severely over the course of the two games, with a weakness in the centre of the defence evident. Some would doubtless argue that the loss of William Gallas is a severe problem for les Bleus, but his performances over the last year for his national side have been poor.

No matter his performances in Serie A, Philippe Mexes is not the answer on the international stage, on which he looks habitually uncertain. Meanwhile, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Sebastien Squillaci look the best bets. The former is notorious for crucial drops in concentration, but he has effectively eliminated these in recent months, though he still struggling to shake this tag. Squillaci, on the other hand, looks the most assured of the other available options.

Hugo Lloris, a more commanding goalkeeper than Steve Mandanda, who has claimed the French gloves for much of the last year, would also aid the defence if he was placed in goal on a more regular basis as he is a custodian happy to command his box and collect many crosses.

Alterations are needed in the middle of the park, too. Patrick Vieira looked something of a spent force against Nigeria and was rested against Turkey. Whether the veteran is simply feeling the effects of an injury riddled, game-shy season, or whether this is evidence of a more permanent decline, the ex-Arsenal man needs to be playing to a higher level to justify his place in the side. With Lassana Diarra and Jeremy Toulalan waiting to take his place, simply being the captain of the squad is not sufficient reason for his inclusion.
Domenech certainly rotated his squad and saw many, many players, yet he received few definitive answers. Too often the French coach has simply preserved the status quo, allowing problems in the side to fester. There are undoubtedly major flaws in this French vintage, but there is also great potential. In order to unlock France’s best, changes need to be made, but Domenech is unlikely to the man to make such alterations. Fortunately for the controversial coach, his bosses are equally inert when it comes to making modifications, despite popular opinion.

Robin Bairner,