Les Bleues: KO’d at the JO – The Road to the Olympics

France's penalty miss against Japan in the Olympic semi-final. Fukumoto goes the wrong way, but Bussaglia puts it wide. Photo by Danny Myers.

Playing the reigning world champions in the semi-final of a knock-out tournament is always going to be a big ask, and when those champions play a patient possession game, have a doughty defence, and go 2-0 up just after half-time, the challenge becomes almost impossible.  Japan beat France 2-1 at Wembley on Monday night to set up a replay of last year’s World Cup final against the USA, but Les Bleues showed great character to claw a goal back with a strike from substitute Eugenie Le Sommer in the 76th minute.  France managed 27 shots in the match, 11 on target, and perhaps more impressively under the circumstances, had 54% of the possession against a team that averaged 56% in WWC 2011.

Les Bleues’ performances over the last year encapsulate both their strengths and weaknesses – they have a lot of skill and threat going forwards, but can struggle against higher-class opposition.  In the World Cup, they beat Nigeria and Canada (having an unmitigated shocker), before losing their final group game to Germany 2-4; they then defeated England in the quarter-finals on penalties, before being comprehensively beaten in the semi-final 3-1 by the USA.  They clocked the most shots per game (20) of any team there, but had the lowest conversion rate of those progressing from the group stage (8.3%), had the worst save rate, and conceded the most goals (10).  Two problems were apparent, therefore – a tendency against better defences to shoot too early, and from too far out, as if they lacked the confidence to take defenders on in the area; and a significant shakiness in their own back line.

Women’s football is a smaller game than the men’s, in terms of number of teams, so the pool of high-class opposition is small.  France’s current qualifying campaign for the 2013 European Championships in Sweden gives an indication of this – they have 6 wins out of 6 in a group containing Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Wales, and Israel (beaten 10-0 on aggregate), goal stats currently 23 for, 2 against.  A similar situation can be seen in the club game, where there is a hell of a drop off between the top four and the rest in both French and German leagues – reigning French champions Lyon, who provided 11 of the French squad, and ended with 9 players on the pitch in the semi-final, won their sixth successive league title in 2011/12 unbeaten and with a goal difference of +116; on the way to winning their second successive Champions league trophy, they tonked two teams 12-0 and one 8-0 on aggregate to get there, and ended the tournament with a goal difference of +38, only conceding once over the nine games.

Mismatches and big scores are not unusual in the women’s game, and this, arguably, is a big part of the problem for Les Bleues – yes, they can cheerfully hammer weaker opposition, but whether that is the best preparation for tournament finals, or the best experience to build upon and develop, is doubtful.  The pre-Olympic friendlies were another example, as France battered Romania 6-0 (they barely ventured out of their own half) then beat a slightly more lively Russia 3-0.  The final preparation game was against Japan, which looked a much sterner test, and there was much good feeling when France won 2-0.

Those results put in place a real feeling of confidence before the Olympics kicked off, and when France were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes against the mighty USA, everything looked rosé.  Then came the cold water – the USA reeled France in, pulling level by half-time and finishing them off with two more in the second half.  The USA have a longer and better pedigree at this level, and more maturity, and it showed; they pounced on defensive errors, and never let up (as seen also in their epic semi-final against Canada).

France went on to hammer North Korea 5-0, which may have perked them up a bit, and finished the group with a 1-0 win over tricksy and physical Colombia before an impressive performance against Sweden in the quarter-finals, coming from a goal down to run out 2-1 winners.   Then came the semi-final against Japan, and France just could not find a way through an indomitable and organised defence, or contain the incisive attacks of Yuki Ogimi (of European Club powerhouses FFC Turbine Potsdam – she did not play in the friendly) and her colleagues.

The skill in the French squad is undeniable, but it is noticeable that the defence can be more impressive in attack – Sonia Bompastor on the left, Corine Franco playing well, Laura Georges and Wendie Renard scoring the two goals against Sweden.  The mad flurry of activity at the end of the semi-final saw Renard, a centre back, basically playing up front; she’s six feet tall, so it made sense, but that is not necessarily a desirable ‘plan A’.  Louisa Necib can be a fabulous player, but she can also go missing in big games (and always looks a little offended that people are actually tackling her) – the hustle and bustle of Le Sommer can be more incisive.  Add to that the more-than-occasional cock-ups of goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, who played well against Sweden but had real problems against both USA and Japan, and this is a team that needs more defensive solidity, and a more efficient attack.

In conclusion – arguably, too many games for elite women’s teams are simply too easy; this then makes the other games significantly harder, if they do not get the chance to test themselves against the best on a regular basis. They will perhaps get the chance to work on that in their remaining Euro 2013 qualifiers against Scotland and Republic of Ireland, who gave them their meanest wins (2-0 and 3-1) of the campaign so far.  Before that, of course, France play off with Canada for the Bronze medal.  It will be interesting to see if Les Bleues can pull themselves together after their semi-final disappointment, and continue to play with the attacking verve they have shown throughout.  Given Canada’s excellent performances in the tournament, however, they will need that back-line to do its job.

Check out Philippa’s preview of the Olympic tournament to see just how much she got wrong / right.  Photo courtesy of Danny Myers.

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