France Under Didier Deschamps: Where Do Les Bleus Go from Here?
The listless 2-0 defeat to Spain in the quarterfinals of the European Championships wasn't even the worst of it from a French perspective.
The loss did bring a close to France's involvement in Poland and Ukraine, but when the tournament was viewed in conjunction with the disasters of Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, when France failed to win a single game and did not emerge from the group stages, it almost seemed an improvement.
What was most disappointing, then, was the comportment of the French squad. Riddled by inner turmoil in 2010, fans had hoped the worst had been swept away. But those fears, once allayed, fired back once more.
This year's France squad had been bandied about as a dark-horse pick by many. It was entering the tournament on an unbeaten streak that had blossomed to more than 20 games. Considering that the run had included victories over England, Brazil and Germany, it was not something to be readily dismissed.
Manager Laurent Blanc, named to the post after the World Cup in South Africa, had overseen a restructuring of the lineup, bringing in out-of-favor veterans and giving some talented youngsters a chance to prove themselves.
The result saw France enjoy its most impressive period in some time. They were playing attractive football without sacrificing defensive steel. A promising run in the Euros seemed not out of the question.
But that was hardly the case. What had ailed France in the past again reared its ugly head in Poland and Ukraine.
Talented individuals put their own egos ahead of the team dynamic, meaning the attacking play suffered and the 4-2-3-1 formation looked listless.
A disappointing 1-1 draw in the group stage opener against England was followed by the best performance—a 2-0 win over Ukraine—before France lost out on the top spot in the group with a humiliating 2-0 defeat to Sweden on the final day of group play.
The result granted England top billing and a match with Italy. Second-placed France, meanwhile, drew the defending European and World Champions, Spain.
Blanc's "hyper-defensive" team selection against La Roja, which included two right-backs and Florent Malouda (who has lost yards of pace since his Lyon and Chelsea heydays) in the place of Samir Nasri at "attacking midfielder."
I use quotations for Malouda's position because, to be quite frank, I'm not exactly sure what he was playing out on that Donetsk pitch.
Malouda rarely—if ever—ventured forward during the game, begging the question as to why he was not only included in the starting XI for that match—but also for two of France's three group stage matches.
Considering he had seen his first-team place at Stamford Bridge dry up, and given that the only real contribution of note he'd delivered in the weeks leading up to the Euros was a superb long-range goal in a friendly against Serbia (a second-tier Serbia side, it must be noted), the choice was a strange one.
Blanc's two main choices to bolster the defensive ranks of his team—Malouda and right-back Anthony Reveillere (Mathieu Debuchy played as a withdrawn right winger of sorts) both failed miserably.
Malouda was caught napping on Spain's first goal, when Xabi Alonso was allowed to waltz in from midfield, whereupon he headed across Hugo Lloris and into the back of the net in the 19th minute.
It was the first of two goals the Real Madrid midfielder would score on the night he celebrated his 100th cap for the national side.
Debuchy was also culpable for that first goal—along with the entire right side of the French defense.
Left-back Jordi Alba, who was superb on the night, ghosted past Debuchy and to the end line, where he collected a neat little pass behind the defense, continued on past Debuchy, who tripped as he attempted to catch up.
Alba took full advantage of the space afforded him and delivered the inch-perfect ball that led to Alonso's goal.
Blanc's bet had failed. And then he failed to do anything to change the tactical tone.
Spain continued their dominant possession throughout the first half, with France's only real chance coming from a well-struck Yohan Cabaye free-kick.
Considering that Spain had Iker Casillas in goal, their No. 1 for what feels like forever, it was never going to be easy to burst the dam. But there were no incisive counters to throw the Spanish possession game off-kilter.
That particular approach had worked, after all, for Chelsea against Barcelona. France might have thought they could perform a similar feat, but instead Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema (we'll get to those two later) were left on an island up front, unable to amount any real attacking threat.
While France came out stronger in the second half, they failed to amount any real problems for Spain, allowing their opponents to sit back and play their possession game at an almost-leisurely pace.
Aside from a Debuchy header that went over the bar, France were woeful in attack—with Ribery perhaps the lone exception to that rule. But that had been the case for much of the tournament.
By the time the final whistle had gone, and Spain had scored another goal, this time by way of an Alonso penalty. Adil Rami had brought down the substitute Pedro in the penalty area, but that goal mattered little. A Spanish victory never appeared in any doubt, even with the one goal.
France had amounted just four shots on goal—their lowest total in more than six years' time.
Blanc had been one-upped in every possible category by his Spanish counterpart, with Vincente Del Bosque's substitutes (Pedro, Santi Cazorla, and to a much lesser extent Fernando Torres) providing far more than the additions of Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Olivier Giroud.
Few expected France to triumph over the defending European and World champions, but many expected them to provide a much better account of themselves than they did. The France that came out against Spain seemed caught in two minds—attempting to defend, but not thoroughly committed to doing so.
Hopeful to pick Spain out on the counter, but unable to muster the quality (often glaringly shown through Karim Benzema's howler of a match) to pull off the feat.
It marked the second 2-0 defeat for the French at Spanish hands since 2010. Of course, that defeat two years ago had only been a friendly, but it had been an embarrassing display at the Stade de France, where Les Bleus might have been expected to show more attacking fortitude.
But so much had changed since that March day. Raymond Domenech still held court at the managerial position. Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Sidney Govou, veterans all, and part of the outgoing generation of stars, were on their last legs.
But two years later, and many Western Bloc countries in between, France still found themselves at the mercy of their Spanish opponents.
So Now What?
Blanc's legacy at the helm of Les Bleus will likely be a complicated one—he did last only two years, after all, and the disappointing Euros will threaten to put a damper on the otherwise fantastic job he'd done of instilling a sense of pride and devotion to the French players.
But it is essential to this discussion to note just how far French hopes had fallen before Blanc.
Before this European Championships, France had not won a match in a major competition since the 2006 World Cup, when they lost to Italy in the final.
Given that fact alone, it would be wholly unfair to deem Blanc's managerial term a "failure." Just consider how far he'd come.
After losing his first two games (a friendly away to Norway, and a European Qualifier at the Stade de France against Belarus), France charged through a 23-match unbeaten run before dropping these past two matches against Sweden (2-0) and Spain (2-0), respectively.
While critics will howl that the French team that showed up for most of this European Competition (outside of the 2-0 win against co-hosts Ukraine) seemed bereft of ideas, making it seem like 2010 all over again, there can be no doubt that it was a marked improvement over the past two major competitions France had taken part in.
Blanc reinvigorated the national side with a host of savvy personnel choices, and reignited the careers of a couple stars who had looked cooked after South Africa.
No player was more indicative of the rebirth on hand, and no player took fuller advantage of his second chance than Ribery, who went from enfant terrible to dressing room impresario. At the Euros, Ribery was easily France's best player, working his way down the left flank with aplomb.
Had Benzema enjoyed a better Euros, he too would have joined Ribery on that restorative pedestal.
The former Lyon striker had earned a new lease on life under Blanc after being shunned by Domenech, and repaid the faith with several crucial goals for France during qualifying and friendlies. (His goal against England at Wembley was superb.)
While Benzema didn't hit the highs he (or the greater reaches of the French public for that matter) had hoped for, he is not the only high-profile striker to struggle at the Euros (see Robin van Persie).
After enjoying such a sensational season with Real Madrid (21 league goals, 32 in all competitions), you might chalk up Benzema's poor play—and let's not forget he assisted both goals in the Ukraine match—to fatigue, over-exertion or simply a lapse in form.
But class, as they say, is permanent.
2014 is the goal
The side that Blanc constructed through his two years was a genuine alloy—a mix of a curious bunch of elements.
There were the "new guard" of players—Cabaye, Yann M'Vila, Menez, Debuchy, Rami and Giroud—mixed in with several elder statesman given a new lease on life (Philippe Mexes, Ribery) along with the alleged troublemakers in Nasri and Benzema.
Though they'd been jumbled together, through two years' time a formidable unit had arisen. At least, until the Euros.
But this Blanc project always seemed more suited for the 2014 World Cup than this summer.
In a manner similar to what Brazil boss Mario Menezes is doing with Brazil—taking full advantage of the automatic qualification granted to the host country and bringing along a youthful side that will play together for three-plus years before kickoff in two years' time—Blanc had begun crafting a consistent lineup that was beginning to fire.
And it almost worked. Some had questioned, ahead of the Euros, why he did not opt to start Giroud alongside Benzema up front, or at least combine them in some formation.
His answer was as consistent as Les Bleus' play up to that point. If it ain't broke—and it hadn't been, for 23 games—why fix it?
But fixing was indeed in order. And had Blanc stayed on, he would have to take a good, long look at which elements should stay, and which noxious branches must be cut.
Now, that task falls to Blanc's former teammate, and the captain of the French World Cup and European Championship winning sides.
Didier Deschamps was the pulse of those unforgettable teams, and has enjoyed superb success in his brief spell as a manager—the highlights include taking AS Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004 (he nearly achieved the domestic double in 2003, as well), leading Olympique Marseille to a Ligue 1 title in 2009-10 and three straight victories in the Coupe de la Ligue (2010-12).
Appointed manager by the French federation at the start of July, Deschamps had his work cut out for him ahead of his first game in charge.
Like Blanc, he will have one friendly to assess the state of his team before launching into the heat of a qualifying campaign—this time, for the World Cup.
Some of that work was cut out for him.
Nasri, who endured a torrid European Championships both on the pitch and off it, earned a four-match ban. He is joined on the sidelines by Yann M'Vila and Hatem ben Arfa, both left out of the 23-man squad for the Uruguay match because of untoward "attitude and behavior."
"This decision seems logical and consistent to me given what I expect from the players in terms of attitude and behaviour," Deschamps told a collection of reporters ahead of Wednesday's match, according to FIFA.com. "It's up to them to understand this decision."
Menez has also received a one-match ban.
It's much the same climate, suspension-wise, which Blanc had stepped into almost two years ago to the day. Then, France was reeling from the player strike. Blanc decided to lend chances to unproven players, in the wake of the absences of such noted stars as Ribery.
At the very least, he requires a cooling-off period, which could extend a hand to several French players currently on the fringes of the action.
Marvin Martin and Mathieu Valbuena appear the most likely to benefit from Nasri's indifferent Euros, but one must also consider that Loic Remy—Blanc's first choice on the right wing during the European qualifiers—who missed the tournament entirely with a muscle injury.
He will likely be back in the side come the start of World Cup qualifying later this year, although he has missed out for this match.
But opportunity beckons for Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who just missed the final cut for the Euros. He's joined by Real Madrid starlet Raphael Varane and PSG's Mamadou Sakho. In midfield, the likes of Rio Mavuba have seen a sliver of light.
Dimitri Payet, a promising talent from Lille, has been added to the collection of forwards.
What Will Change Under Deschamps?
A lot, already.
The most intriguing decision so far by Deschamps is a reported decision to play Giroud and Benzema together against Uruguay, according to the Agence France-Presse (h/t SuperSport).
One of the biggest plot lines of the Euros has already been breached in just Deschamps's first match in charge, but the decision looks an astute one.
Giroud has enjoyed a sensational run of form in the past calendar year, which saw him notch 21 league goals while leading Montpellier to a first-even Ligue 1 title. His performance didn't go unnoticed, as he has since signed for Arsenal.
Benzema's confidence might have been shaken after the Euros, but don't expect the dark days to rest. He should soon be back to his best, and will be a crucial asset for the qualifying campaign.
Eyes turn, then, to the rest of the squad.
Hugo Lloris, the French No. 1 keeper since the end of the Domenech era, will keep his spot.
Defense is another matter. Gael Clichy did well in the place of Patrice Evra at left-back, but was woeful against Spain. Eric Abidal was a Blanc favorite at both left-back and center-back, but after so many health problems in recent years, he has likely played his last international match.
In central defense, Rami and Mexes were Blanc's preferred duo, but Laurent Koscielny may just wedge himself into the conversation. Then there are youngsters Yanga-Mbiwa, Sakho and Varanne, each of whom should be knocking on the door for a spot on the plane to Rio de Janeiro.
In perhaps a telling move, both Mexes and Rami were left out of Deschamps's first squad. Koscielny was included, but he has pulled out due to a calf problem. Expect the Arsenal defender to play a key part in defense during qualifying, however.
At right-back, Debuchy has Bacary Sagna to contend with. Sagna missed the Euros with a broken leg, but is still relatively young (29) and should be back at his normal position for the majority of World Cup qualifying.
Until then, the appointment of Christophe Jallet, a long-time Ligue 1 veteran with Paris Saint-Germain, could be an interesting look.
Cabaye will stay in his holding creative role after a stellar club campaign. More difficult is the case of M'Vila, who endured a poor season with Rennes, and has seen his stock diminish.
Rumors have him headed to Tottenham. Whether that revitalizes his immense talent remains to be seen.
Maxime Gonalons and Etienne Capoue are both intriguing picks by Deschamps. Gonalons is perhaps best known for scoring against Liverpool at Anfield, but he is a very composed holding sentinel. Capoue is one of the finest young midfield talents in France.
Keep an eye as well on the talented youngster Antoine Griezman, who while missing out on this list, starts for Real Sociedad in La Liga. He might just force his way into the discussion in the next two years.
On the wings, Ribery still has at least one major competition left in him, and squashed any debate about whether he should be the first-choice left-winger with his excellent Euros.
On the right wing, one thinks Remy or Valbuena will get the nods now, although Menez will continue to be considered. Against Uruguay, however, keep an eye on Jimmy Briand and Dimitri Payet.
Both hovered on the periphery while Blanc was in charge, but will be angling to provide a good impression for their new national boss.
Talent always reigns supreme in France, and given some more time spent gelling, we could see a much better campaign from Les Bleus in two years' time.
After all, the Euros were a far better display than South Africa. And before you dismiss France, remember this.
Spain were defeated by France in the 2006 World Cup Round of 16. Two years later, they'd begun their current unprecedented run of dominance.
A turnaround of that magnitude is likely too much to ask for Deschamps, but who's to say France can't keep improving?
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