As we move closer and closer to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, one of the hot topics in France is who will start as les Bleus central striker in the opening game against Honduras. Karim Benzema has had his issues in the past, while Olivier Giroud has at times struggled for confidence at Arsenal.
Both players, on merit, could make a case for being named as France’s best option up front, but perhaps there is another option. It’s something that both Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc before him failed to try for a prolonged spell: combining the movement and pace of Benzema with the target-man predatory instincts of Giroud.
It could just be the tactical move that takes France back to the top of world football.
Giroud will feel aggrieved that he hasn’t played more for France in the last couple of years. Since 2011, he has only made 26 appearances for les Bleus—the majority of them coming off the bench. During that time, Karim Benzema went 1,224 minutes without scoring an international goal. For most countries that would have been enough for any striker to have been sent to the bench.
The performances displayed by Benzema during the barren run weren’t good enough to defend him on effort alone. Overall, his record for France isn’t brilliant—10 of his 19 goals have come in friendly matches, and he has failed to score in any of the international tournaments he has been part of since making his debut in 2007.
At the start of Benzema’s drought, Olivier Giroud had just won Ligue 1 with Montpellier, and his £9.6 million move to Arsenal was imminent. In his last season in France, he scored 25 goals in all competitions and was vital in helping la Paillade lift their first ever top-flight title. He finished the league’s top scorer and was named in the UNFP Team of the Year.
In his 26 appearances for his country, the forward has only started 11 times, a contributing factor in his return of just five goals. Benzema’s drought should have been the chance for Giroud to blossom, but the Arsenal forward was mostly limited to late run outs as a substitute.
Only near the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign did Giroud earn a run of starts. He was named in the starting line-up for the last three games and then for the first-leg of the play-off against Ukraine. It was all a bit too little, too late.
One of the factors that helped Benzema keep his place in the France side despite the drought was his goal record for Real Madrid. In the last three seasons, Benzema has scored 76 goals in all club competitions. Giroud scored 63 in the same time frame.
It begs the question, when you have two forwards in your squad that have scored 139 goals in three years, why have they only played together for a total of 301 minutes for France (via OPTA)?
Looking at the style of both players, there is definitely an argument that they could combine for great effect. During Euro 2012, most of the criticism toward Benzema was based around his off-the-ball movement and his preference to stay outside the opposition penalty area. He was mostly found either on the wings or dropping deep to the edge of the box. It wasn’t that his movement was poor, rather that France were without a forward presence where it mattered most.
Whenever one of France’s wide players—or Benzema himself—got into a dangerous position, there was no one in the box to take advantage of the situation.
When you analyse that style of play from Benzema and combine it with Giroud’s style, there are great signs that the combination could work perfectly. There are not many better strikers in the world at holding the ball up than Giroud. At Montpellier and now at times for Arsenal, his ability to not just hold the ball up, but to link up with midfielder runners is second to none.
Younes Belhanda and Remy Cabella were excellent at reading Giroud’s target-man play at Montpellier, and it is something that, given time, will continue to develop with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla.
Benzema’s style could also benefit from Giroud’s ability to bring his team-mates into play. Benzema would be able to make the runs that he prefers, dropping into the number 10 position or running wide, allowing Giroud to take up the central positions that the French fans expected Benzema to take up.
The combination of Giroud and Benzema could work to perfection, but Didier Deschamps would have to look at how it affected the balance of the overall team. It would mean a change in formation, from the 4-3-3 to a modified 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.
Franck Ribery would continue his role on the left, with Antoine Griezmann likely to take over in the future. Mathieu Valbuena could play on the right, with his ability to cut inside and play centrally as Benzema and the Marseille midfielder swap positions.
France’s problems with this formation would come in the centre of midfield. The current trio of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye has the potential to be one of the best midfields in international football. Including both Benzema and Giroud in the France attack would mean picking only two from the three.
France’s midfield strength comes from the combination of the trio, picking two from the three would reduce the protection that the defence would receive and open France up to opposition attacks. None of the trio has the defensive skills to carry out the role on their own, all three like to attack and are more deep-lying playmakers than defensive stoppers.
What France lack is the type of player who could patrol the defensive side of the midfield on their own. The type of player that France lacks is someone like Brazilian-born Marcos Senna, a player who was instrumental to Spain's Euro 2008 triumph.
Playing both Giroud and Benzema would provide French fans with the more vibrant and attacking style that they crave. France have lacked a football identity since they won the European Championship in 2000.
Playing a fast-paced, more direct style, is playing more toward a style that France could find success with. Too often, the recent style has been slow and methodical and hasn’t been very effective.
Success in combining both Giroud and Benzema would depend on two things: both strikers playing to their strengths and learning to play together very quickly.
How the rest of the team adapts to the formation change would also be an important factor. Defensively, it could leave les Bleus a little more open, but without risking a little more going forward, you can’t realistically impose your will onto your opponents.
France will be expected to at least reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup this summer, but if Deschamps took a chance on a Giroud-Benzema partnership, there is the possibility of so much more.