Why Mathieu Valbuena Will Be France's Surprise Weapon at the World Cup

Andrew GibneyFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 19: (L-R) Mathieu Valbuena, Patrice Evra, Olivier Giroud and Bacary Sagna of France sing the Marseillaise after they won the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier 2nd Leg Playoff between France and Ukraine at the Stade de France on November 19, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images)
Harry Engels/Getty Images

When France were beaten 2-0 by Ukraine in the first leg of their World Cup play-off, there were a lot of questions pointed towards Didier Deschamps' team selection, in particular the decision to leave out Marseille midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, per Zonal Marking.net.

The 29-year-old was brought back in for the second leg in Paris and was instrumental in France’s superb comeback performance. However, it seems his place in the starting line-up is always up for debate.

Is he good enough to play on the wing? Can he orchestrate the France midfield? Isn’t there a better player who could play in his position?

The midfielder was an integral part of France’s successful qualifying campaign, and no matter what system Deschamps picks, he needs to make sure Valbuena’s name is one of the first on the team sheet. If Deschamps puts his faith in the diminutive playmaker, Valbuena could be one of France’s secret weapons this summer in Brazil.

Valbuena is not an unknown quantity within European football: It seems that ever since he made his debut for Marseille back in 2006 he has been linked with a move away from the Riviera club, per Alex Richards of The Mirror. However, he has shown them loyalty throughout and has continued to blossom into an exciting player who has been a major part in all of Marseille's recent success.

LILLE, FRANCE - DECEMBER 03:  Mathieu Valbuena of Marseille in action during the Ligue 1 match between LOSC Lille and Olympique de Marseille held at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on December 3, 2013 in Lille, France.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Perhaps because he has played his entire career in Ligue 1, his is a name that is well known but one that few with interests outside Le Championnat will know. There have been sparks of class in the Champions League that have grabbed the headlines—who could forget his stunning strike at Anfield that clinched a 1-0 victory over Liverpool—but mainly his good work has been limited to domestic or international qualifiers. He has yet to fully announce himself on the biggest stage.

With just over a month to go until the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, it is going to be interesting to see what formation Deschamps decides to pick for upcoming friendly matches. The majority of the campaign saw him use a standard 4-2-3-1, but against Netherlands in October’s friendly he went with 4-3-3, using the same midfield platform that Paris Saint-Germain have built their success upon this season.

During qualifying, Valbuena’s position was to sit between the main striker and central midfielders, becoming France’s creative threat, playing between the lines. This was his most productive time in the France team: He scored three goals and added two assists.

When you consider the majority of these games came during Karim Benzema's run of 1,200 minutes without an international goal, the numbers are fairly impressive.

If Deschamps does move permanently to 4-3-3, then Valbuena’s position would be on the wings. His spot is under pressure from Real Sociedad forward Antoine Griezmann, but the newly capped starlet is more comfortable on the left wing, which is reserved for Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery.

Deschamps may feel pressure to give Griezmann a chance on the right, but he will be wary of dropping Valbuena after the disastrous first leg in Ukraine.

Over the course of the 2013/14 season, Valbuena’s club form has not been fantastic, but not once in this time has he let his country down. He has recovered from a bad injury suffered early in December and has begun to find his form again near the end of the season. According to WhoScored.com he was Man of the Match in the 3-2 away win at Montpellier in which he opened the scoring back in April.

Overall, it has been a poor season for Marseille, and though no one from the club has come out of it with glowing praise, the previous season—when Marseille finished second—Valbuena scored three goals and provided an impressive 12 assists.

The same was expected again this season, but nothing has quite worked out for Marseille this campaign, and players like Valbuena and Steve Mandanda who will be boarding the plane to Brazil will hope that this tournament gives them the escape to come back stronger for next season.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

No matter what formation Deschamps decides to go with, there is always a place in the team for Mathieu Valbuena. This is set to be his tournament, and if France is to banish the demons of South Africa 2010 then Valbuena will be a key part in washing away those memories.

The wide role in the 4-3-3 formation could actually play to his favour and give him a much wider scope to express himself. Starting wide-right, he will have the opportunity to cut inside when Benzema makes his trademark wide runs, and without another playmaker in the centre to take up the same space, he will have free reign in all of the creative positions.

It will also allow him to push inside when Mathieu Debuchy or Bacary Sagna burst forward from the full-back position.

Sometimes when France played 4-2-3-1 with Valbuena centrally, you would get a few players taking up the same position when the Marseille man would drift wide to create space. The 4-3-3 should help get the best out of him and greatly benefit France.

Valbuena has a wonderful eye for a pass and a magical right foot that can hurt you centrally, from wide and from set pieces. If Benzema is on form, and if the midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi are working perfectly together, then the stage is all set for Valbuena to take the spotlight and guide France to glory.

This is such an important competition for France and the French people, and in Valbuena they have a player they can trust. He is France’s all-action hero, and come June he has the opportunity to make a name for himself.

By the end of France’s World Cup campaign, if Les Bleus are successful, the name of Valbuena will be known all over the footballing world..