France prepare to kick off their FIFA World Cup campaign against Honduras in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Sunday and all eyes will be on star talents such as Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.
However, Les Bleus’ surprise weapon in Brazil this summer is a player who often goes without the praise that he thoroughly deserves.
Both at club and international level, Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi quietly—but efficiently—goes about his business and has become indispensable to both sides. Although not exactly a “surprise” key player in Didier Deschamps’ team, the 27-year-old has more in his repertoire than many think.
Matuidi is one of those players who can often go unnoticed when his team is playing well. He performs his defensive duties excellently, while also contributing towards the attack without ever looking too prominent.
That, in part, perhaps explains why he is one of the most underrated players in European football at present.
However, the former AS Saint-Etienne man has also started to add another skill to his growing arsenal of talents, and that is scoring goals.
In his last four appearances for France, Matuidi has now scored three goals—one an absolutely stunning acrobatic effort against the Netherlands back in March to open his international account—thanks to his double in last Sunday’s 8-0 rout of Jamaica in Les Tricolores’ final warm-up match.
The irrepressible all-round midfielder also managed five goals and one assist in 36 Ligue 1 appearances in the season just past, adding a further two goals and three assists in European and domestic cup competitions to take his overall tally to an impressive seven goals and four assists.
While his defensive and technical attributes are given the recognition they deserve within Ligue 1 and French football circles, his steadily improving goal-scoring abilities remain somewhat under the radar both domestically and abroad.
This could be to Deschamps’ advantage in Brazil.
At club level, Matuidi plays alongside Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, an attacker gifted with the ability to score and create goals in equal measure.
For France, this has not always been the case because Benzema—another striker who is capable of making as many goals as he scores—is often played as the focal point of Les Bleus’ attack with the sole purpose of scoring goals.
However, in the 8-0 win over Jamaica in Lille last Sunday, Deschamps tried deploying Benzema loosely on the left side of the pitch, and it worked.
The French No. 10 put in the latest in a string of encouraging performances for his country and that switch in positioning also had an impact on Matuidi. Benzema featuring on the left—when he was not drifting over towards the opposite flank—gave the PSG man that same link-up option that he enjoys at club level with Ibrahimovic.
Should Deschamps persevere with playing Benzema and Giroud in the same front three as Mathieu Valbuena, Matuidi and Paul Pogba’s bursting runs from deep will become more of a goal threat for the French at this World Cup.
Without his boundless energy and tireless work ethic, Les Tricolores’ current trio in that position would struggle to function as efficiently as they have since their inception.
If he can add regular goals to his already-major contributions for France, then he might well start to enjoy the widespread praise that he deserves.
Many look at the France starting XI and question the inclusion of Valbuena, but once you see him in action for Les Bleus, it is easy to understand why Deschamps is prepared to overlook a disappointing domestic campaign with Olympique de Marseille. The 29-year-old makes the French tick.
Matuidi has a similar influence in the midfield, yet his major contributions are not as noticeable as Valbuena’s because they don’t involve him providing assists and creating goals.
That does not make him any less important, though.
The three-man midfield is the most important position in this new-look 4-3-3 under Deschamps, as it enables France to control games and get players like Valbuena on the ball. If the latter were to get injured, he could arguably be replaced—despite his importance to the team when fit.
Matuidi is irreplaceable for club and country in his current role.
If he can maintain his recent run of goal scoring—or at least continue to get into positions that allow him to help out going forward—then the PSG man could prove to be surprisingly effective going forward.