Somewhere in France, Raymond Domenech is sitting alone. Sitting alone and giggling. France produced a woeful performance that sent shivers down this French fan’s spine as memories of the Domenech years flooded back. Conservative lineups. Slow, deliberate play. Creaking defence. Inept shooting. All that was thought to be dead and buried came rushing back tonight as France were second best to a Swedish team that went straight to the airport after the game, courtesy of losses in their first two games.
Where to begin? How about Laurent Blanc’s lineup. After much positive play leading up to the tournament, Blanc suddenly reverted to a conservative, defensive lineup. In the opening game it was deemed precautionary rather than conservative–a loss would have been disastrous. Versus Ukraine it took over 50 minutes to break down a poor defence. Tonight, in a game that demanded goals to ensure momentum going into the knockout stages – and sidestepping Spain – Blanc rolled the dice with two defensive midfielders: Diarra and M’Vila. Diarra had performed very well in the opening two games so Blanc was perhaps reluctant to not play him. With Yoann Cabaye apparently 100% fit, but too important to risk, Blanc went with M’Vila, who had been the lone DM starter pre-tournament. Whether M’Vila was meant to get forward as Cabaye usually does we won’t know, but he was rarely seen in any threatening position. It became painfully obvious how important Cabaye is to this team: he is the glue between the leaky defence and the cavalier forwards.
More shocking was perhaps how inept those forwards were. A quartet of Benzema with Ribery, Nasri and Ben Arfa was a mouthwatering prospect at the start of the match. I certainly had campaigned for the inclusion of the Newcastle man and was hoping for some bursting runs and delicate footwork. Instead the front four never clicked and play quickly resembled the opening game vs England where France hardly got into the opposing box at all and was content with long range efforts, which were mainly blocked. Versus Sweden it became very predictable, very quickly. Time after time Ribery, Nasri or Ben Arfa tried to slip long passes in behind the Swedish centre backs. Easy pickings for them as they thwarted these attempts. There was hardly any width–surprising given how excellent Debuchy had been since he claimed his starting spot. When France did get in the box it was all heads down stuff.
Meanwhile, the Swedes were proving to be a real nuisance. Constantly getting behind the back four. As early as the 10th minute Toivonen eluded Mexes–who had badly misplayed the long ball–and rounded Lloris only to hit his shot against the post and side netting. Getting into halftime 0-0 seemed like a positive note. Surely France would regroup and sweep aside a team that had conceded 5 goals in their first 2 games?
Unfortunately, not. On the ensuing restart, Wilhelmsson, who had been introduced at halftime, found himself through on goal. Good thing he was offside–a big let off. In fact, if Sweden hadn’t been caught on a series of offside calls in the first 5 minutes of the 2nd half things would have been worse much sooner. Eventually, with France still sputtering away offensively, Sweden drove down the right flank with Larsson picking out Ibrahimovic who produced the goal of the tournament with a one-time sideways volley that flew past Lloris into the corner.
Despite the potential for a wake up call, France slumbered on. Whether the fact they knew it was extremely unlikely they would be knocked out played on them mentally, we won’t know. Ben Arfa paid the price for France’s lethargy by being substituted on 60 minutes by Malouda. It seemed harsh to me, Ben Arfa barely had any chances to influence the game. Malouda for his part, justified why he had been supplanted in the startting XI with an utterly forgettable substitute performance.
It took France 80 minutes to truly come alive. Menez had come on for Nasri–who in my estimation played one of his worst games for France–and immediately forced the issue by playing some tight passing in the box and then wasting a golden opportunity by scuffing his shot into the keepers ams–typical Menez some might say. Giroud was next to come on, replacing M’Vila (another forgettable performance) and his first touch should have been a goal–but his powerful header went wide. France were undone for a 2nd goal when they were badly caught out. Mexes made little attempt to block the ensuing cross but Holmen’s shot only bounced off the crossbar. However, with Rami ball watching, Larsson was able to pounce on the rebound for the 2nd goal. It could have been 3-0 if not for a great intervention by Lloris on a breakaway–in fact he made several great saves during the 2nd half.
You could say it was expected that Sweden would come out guns blazing as they looked to salvage some pride, but to me it seemed more a case of France allowing them to control the pace, which is criminal considering the amount of talent on this team. This has been a harsh report but there seems to be a worrying trend of conservatism and a general slowness to the attack in the 3 group games. Things will have to change vs Spain.
Do I think things are really as bad as under Domenech? Of course not. There is a real spirit in this side–and a quiet confidence (perhaps too confident!). The team has of course moved on in leaps and bounds from the last tournament, as the 23 game unbeaten run proved. This performance simply showed how quickly things can slide in the wrong direction. I’d like to see Blanc be even bolder in his lineup. Why not start Benzema and Giroud together? Why not play with one true lone DM? For me, M’Vila needs to be that DM vs Spain–Diarra is too much a liability vs ‘tiki-taka’ football . Nasri should be benched, he really hasn’t played well in this tournament. I think the team will still feel quietly confident vs Spain. The reigning champions will know that France can match their quality and the pressure will be on them to produce their best football. France’s 23 match unbeaten run is over. But, they won’t mind if they start a new one on Saturday night. Rendez-vous Donetsk!