Knocked out of an international tournament by an excellent Spanish side, it would have been easy to let heads drop and see the French U19s’ defeat as another black mark for a national side. However the performances from Pierre Mankowski’s side were nothing but encouraging and with the future of the national team unclear it was wonderful to see the next generation playing with so much positivity and more importantly…desire.
France opened their 2012 U19 European Championship campaign with a fantastic 3-0 win over Serbia. The first half was a 45 minute masterclass from Les Bleus and the Serbians didn’t stand a chance. Richard-Quentin Samnick opened the scoring after 17 minutes when he latched onto a swerving free-kick from the impressive Jean-Christophe Bahebeck. The header flashed past Filip Pajović into the Serbian net and France were off to a flyer.
It was soon two when Bahebeck raced into the box where Pajović seemed to clip the forward; a mixture of the forward looking for the penalty and the ‘keeper making contact. Juventus’ new signing Paul Pogba stepped up and calmly slotted the spot kick into the corner. Only six minutes later it was 3-0 when Jordan Veretout’s shot was parried by Pajović and Thibaut Vion reacted quickly and had the easy job of finishing the chance from five yards.
The second half saw France dominate possession and when Aleksandar Mitrović saw red the game was all but over and the three points were in the bag. Coach Mankowski was delighted by his teams start to the tournament:
“This is a good start for us. It is true that the first game is always very important so winning it is a good thing. With the way we have played, there were a lot of positives to take out of this game.
We knew that Serbia liked to play from deep and from a very compact back line so we had to try and impose our game on them and, by pushing them back so far, it forced them to try and play the ball long and that enabled us to get back into possession quickly and create openings.”
When watching the young French sides in recent years one constant has been the continuation of the senior side’s formation down the different age groups. Under Blanc 4-2-3-1 was the preferred set-up and usually the U21s and below played the same way. Mankowski set his side up in what on paper looked like 4-4-2.
Once on the field the team took an interestingly different shape. Geoffrey Kondogbia instantly moved inside making a midfield three with Pogba and Veretout. Through all three games France’s width came from the full backs, with both Dmitri Foulquier on the right and Lucas Digne on the left pushing forward at every opportunity; both had excellent tournaments.
Against Serbia it was the right-midfielder Alassane Pléa who pushed up towards the forward line making the formation look more like 4-3-3 when in the opponents half. Bahebeck was the forward that dropped deep looking for the ball, drifting left and looking to take on the Serbian defence. Vion upfront on his own never looked like a threat; one similarity with the full national side was the lack of a goalscorer, unfortunately something that seems to run through the entire national set-up.
In the second game Croatia seemed intent on giving France more of a fight but with only four shots on goal they never really tested Alphonse Aréola in the French net. In fairness to Aréola he had a really good tournament; any time he was called upon he stood up and proved to be an excellent last line of defence.
France started the game with the same eleven that played against Serbia, but they struggled to hit the same gear that they found in that game and had to wait until the 79th minute before they could find the breakthrough. Foulquier bombed down the right on one of his trademark runs, looping a cross in that looked destined for the back post but Croatian goalkeeper Simon Sluga could only watch as it went over his head and found the top corner.
Again Coach Mankowski was pleased with his side as they saw off a tough test from a dogged Croatian side:
“It wasn’t an easy match for us. It was hot outside and Croatia are a good side. Maintaining our rhythm and standard of play was tough, but we managed to dominate and created some good chances to score. Was I worried that we failed to take so many chances? No. I knew we would score eventually. And after all that, I am satisfied with the result and with my team’s play.”
With six points on the board France had booked their place in the semi-finals and also in turn qualified for the 2013 U20 World Cup in Turkey. Mankowski made seven changes for the last group game against England and with both teams already through, the winner would avoid Spain in the semi-finals. John Lundstram gave England a 16th minute lead with virtually England’s first shot on target, an excellent 20 yard strike, the goal coming against the run of play as France dominated possession but came up against a well organised English defence.
On the half-hour mark the scores were level, and the move was something of real quality. El-Hadj Ba played a lovely ball on the English defence and with his first touch Kevin Mayi cushioned the ball into the path of Veretout and the Nantes midfielder drilled the ball low past Sam Johnstone in the England net. Parity wouldn’t last long as Harry Kane made it 2-1 just before half-time capitalising on some poor French defending. That would be enough for England to win the group, setting France up on a collision course with the much-fancied Spanish team.
Over the three group games a number of players caught the eye. The likes of Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne and Paul Pogba have already played first team football for their respective clubs and they did nothing but enhance their reputations. Dmitri Foulquier looks an excellent prospect down the French right, so Rennes have a ready made replacement for captain Romain Danze should he ever move on but the one player that really impressed was Jordan Veretout.
The 19-year old made 32 starts for Nantes in Ligue 2 last season but with Les Canaris failing to build a promotion charge his abilities have gone virtually unmentioned so far outside of France. Finishing the season with six goals and five assists it is easy to see why he is so highly thought of by the Nantes fans.
In the midfield he was the brains of most of Les Bleus’ attacks. Pogba or Kondogbia would win the ball and lay it off to Veretout and the playmaker from just outside Brittany would pull the French strings. He showed an excellent range of passing, great awareness on the ball and a willingness to push forward to find space created by the forward players. He is definitely a name worth remembering.
After the impressive performances in the group stage France would take on Spain for a place in the final and although they would come up short there was one glowing positive to take from the Under 19s’ performance. After taking the lead from Spanish mistakes and Umtiti’s close range finish France went behind twice and twice they fought back and brought the game level. Umtiti got his second of the game in the 93rd minute and forced extra-time and then after Gerard Deulofeu got his second and Spain’s third, Mankowski’s men still didn’t give up.
A possible handball from Kondogbia stole the ball from Spain and he sent Digne down the left wing. The Lille left-back played a beautiful ball to the back post where Pogba had timed his run perfectly and stunned Spain with a late equaliser.
Penalties would end France’s tournament but the positives where there for everyone to see, including Coach Mankowski:
“We played really well. Overall it was a superb game from both teams. There was a lot of potential on both sides, lots of willingness and enthusiasm too, and then when you get to penalties, it is a bit down to luck.
The injury [to striker Jean-Christophe Baheback in the first half] changed things. If he had stayed on, we would have been a bit stronger in attack. We lost a bit of everything, and at the same time it meant we were forced into a change very quickly. I did not then have any other options on the bench in extra time.
We never stopped and that is what pleased me most about my team – we never gave up. Spain are a good team and they have won on penalties, which is a shame, but the tournament is full of positives for us. I am very proud of my team. We have given a good account of ourselves and it would have been a truly beautiful evening had we qualified for the final.”
So although France once again lost out to a very talented Spanish side the positives are definitely there to see. Even if the national team may have lost some direction recently, the signs from the youth teams are that the future could be bright en France.