The French Enigma.

By Graham Gillespie

 

France at any major tournament are nothing if not entertaining. They are a team that on any given occasion can show flashes of brilliance, be totally chaotic and utterly shambolic sometimes all at once. If a nation’s football team reflects its society then what the hell does an outfit as so reliably unpredictable and combustible as Les Bleus say about France.

Eighteen years after the last time a major tournament was held in the country, the French squad should feel they are in a advantageous position to lift another trophy on home soil. Didier Deschamps captained France to their 1998 World Cup triumph and will lead once more this time from the sidelines as manager, and the man once dubbed the “water-carrier” looks to have a lot more on his hands to than what any manager should reasonably have to contend with. Despite the number of scandals  within the squad itself, the national team have become almost a symbol once again due to the social issues internally in France much like the Aimé Jacquet managed team of ’98. It may be a bit over the top to describe this France team as a beacon of hope (especially as many of the 1998 winning team have themselves reminded us that the power of football to help facilitate change can be overestimated), but they can at least offer a brief escape for the people of France from all the tension and fear that has engulfed the country in recent times.

Instability and controversy caused by some players has also hampered Deschamps and his ideal path to success. Before a home major tournament it is perhaps not ideal to have two potential players (one of whom is your star striker) embroiled in a sex-tape blackmail scandal but that ridiculously was the impediment left in the manager’s way by Karim Benzema. It seems that Deschamps was left with no option but to not select Karim Benzema in his twenty three man squad, however Eric Cantona and indeed Benzema himself recently have added another edge to this story by suggesting there was racial motivations involved in his omission. Whilst it is true that these insinuations appear baseless and the vast majority of the French public support Deschamps decision, these comments add yet more controversy. For this reason perhaps the French manager would be best advised to avoid taking legal action thus preventing pouring more fuel on the flames.

From a footballing perspective the Benzema case has naturally created a vacancy in the lone striker position in the France team. The two players who primed to battle for the place up front when France line out for their first game against Romania on Friday are Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann. Giroud has struggled for form in the second half of the season for Arsenal notably going on a two month drought between March 8th and May 8th without scoring for his club. Despite this he did finish the season relatively well and has found himself as mostly first choice for his country since the start of Benzema’s absence. Albeit much slower, he is probably the most similar striker to Benzema in the French squad  and has seemingly stepped up to the challenge of being the main goalscorer netting seven in his last seven games. However these games were just friendlies and he has not captured the French fans hearts totally as highlighted with him being booed in last month’s friendly against Cameroon despite him scoring.

His main threat to the number nine position is the incredibly hard working and skilful Griezmann that is of course if Greizmann has an energy left for the Euros after ceaselessly running during Atlético Madrid run to the Champions League final. Greizmann though has mostly played on the right wing for France and despite being more technically adept than Giroud his small stature makes him perhaps unsuitable to play up top on his own. It is no surprise Atlético played a 4-4-2 with Fernando Torres partnering Griezmann up front. If France do stick to their usual 4-3-3 then it’s probably likely the Atletico striker would be best suited to playing out wide, while Giroud with his hold up play and deft touches and layoffs appears more suited to play a Benzema-esque role. Antony Martial is another player who could potentially start as a central striker but he will also probably feature in a wide position at least initially in the tournament. This leaves veteran target man Andre-Pierre Gignac as a plan B for France off the bench. France are also fortunate in that their fairly week group will afford Didier Deschamps the option to experiment with their front line if he so chooses.

France have suffered another two losses to their starting XI in defence with Mamadou Sakho’s failed drug test leading to his exclusion from the squad and Raphaël Varane pulling out of the tournament injured. However they have fairly adequate replacements in the form of Laurent Koscielny and his presumed partner Sevilla’s Adil Rami (whose lack of pace may be an issue) in what looks a solid if unspectacular centre back partnership.  Despite his defending never being too far from calamity back-up Eliaquim Mangala has performed competently for his country and could yet take Rami’s spot as Koscielny’s  partner.  The two full back positions on the other hand could pose more difficulties for the tournament hosts, with Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra both in their mid-thirties although younger players Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne do offer alternatives.

France’s midfield is by far their strongest area on the pitch and the only question posed here is who will be the man sit in behind Matuidi and Pogba. Ex-Arsenal and Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra has been deployed in defensive midfield throughout most of France’s preparations but has been ruled out due to a knee swelling with Morgan Schneiderlin taking his place in the squad. This perhaps clears the way for N’golo Kante to slot in to the starting side. With Kante being unlike any player in the world in terms of energy and his ability to pinch the ball off opposition so effectively, he will enable Paul Pogba to play in essentially a free role and be the team’s creative focal point with Matuidi playing in his classic box to box style. The other French phenomenon in the Premier League this season Dimitri Payet will have to find a place further up the field if he is to get into this team but if only for set piece taking alone Payet could find a home on the left wing.

Like in any other tournament the home fans will play a significant role, but the French support could just as easily have an adverse effect on their team. The French fans can traditionally be fickle and rather harsh on their national side, and Deschamps has put a great deal of effort in to rebuilding trust and making the French team likeable in the eyes of its public again. Unfortunately there is still much ill feeling as seen with the aforementioned booing  in the recent friendly against Cameroon. Memories of the travesty of South Africa 2010 still linger with the public and again it really does not help P.R when teammates are blackmailing each other. This team was however personally affected by the attacks in Paris last November. It must have an effect that these players were on the pitch as the bombs went off. Lassana Diarra lost his cousin in the attacks, Antoine Greizmann’s sister survived the gunfire of the Bataclan. The devastating pain of the attacks could well serve to strengthen the bond between the team and fans during the Euros, and if France get off to a good start as they should only playing Romania, Albania and Switzerland the public could quickly unite behind Les Bleus.

France have shown they have the capability to perform amid chaos in the past. In 2006 they completely ignored their manager and were only denied due to a shootout and David Trezeguet’s fatal miss, in 1998 they took home the biggest trophy in football to a backdrop of unrest in the country. This time around there might be a tense atmosphere in the country with strikes along with the increased risk of an attack and heightened security (not to mention that Paris is underwater), but on the pitch at least there is evidence France are in good shape. It is no surprise with the team’s quality that they are the favourites for the tournament but history tells us Les Bleus can never be regarded as a safe bet.

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