With Euro 2012 behind us and World Cup 2014 qualifying looming, France has a chance, to a certain extent, to start anew. With Didier Deschamps recently releasing his 23-man squad for his first competitive games, it’s time for FFW to weigh in and to take stock of Les Bleus. The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the squad complete with Deschamps and FFW’s choices (backups in brackets).
Without further ado, I give you Didi versus FFW!
Contenders: Mickaël Landreau (Lille), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille).
Clearly, Lloris is a cut above the rest of France’s keepers. You could argue no one else has gotten much of a look in but then, why should they? Yes, there are questions about his command of the penalty area and his strength in the air but he’s consistently pulled off elite saves in big games. His recent move to Tottenham has a raised a few eyebrows, especially after Villas-Boas confirmed that current #1 keeper Brad Friedel would not be dropped in favour of Lloris. That would leave Hugo on the bench–potentially all season. Deschamps has recently expressed that Lloris would not retain his #1 status with France, leaving the ex-Lyon man decidedly frustrated. There are some very good keepers in his shadow, chief among them Mandanda. But, the Marseille man has never truly convinced and seems to always have that one error in him. After that, take your pick: Ruffier? Carasso? Landreau? And why not the Lille man? Based on his early season performance vs Nice he could step in into the starting XI if need be.
FFW: Lloris (Landreau and Mandanda).
Didi: Lloris (Mandanda and Landreau).
Great minds think alike!
Defenders — fullbacks
Contenders: Gaël Clichy (Manchester City), Mathieu Débuchy (Lille), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Chrisophe Jallet (PSG), Anthony Réveillère (Lyon), Bacary Sagna (Arsenal).
The void left by Eric Abidal on the left hand side of the defence has never truly been filled. Evra had the inside track leading up to the 2010 World Cup only to spectacularly fall from grace. The lack of serious contenders meant he kept his place even though his performances—for both France and Manchester United—became increasingly wild and error-filled. His 2011/12 season was downright kamikaze. Conversely, Clichy had a ‘comeback’ season of sorts for City, after being branded a weak and flimsy defender, and was rewarded with 2 starts at Euro 2012. He may not be armed with the best cross, be the best defender, or the fastest, but, he has enough attributes and experience to be given the starting spot for several games.
The right fullback spot had long been Bacary Sagna’s, thanks to his solid defensive capabilities. However, his injury-filled 2011/12 season meant Mathieu Débuchy was given a chance—and he did not disappoint, providing a much needed offensive spark down the right—so essential in today’s game. One can’t help but think that Sagna has become overrated: a good defender, but he has never possessed a decent cross or great pace going forward. Although Débuchy doesn’t necessarily have the stats to back up his tantalising attacks (1 assist in 2011/12 for Lille) his performances for France have been outstanding and he was one of the few players to draw praise in France’s Euro 2012 campaign, setting him up for a potential big move across the channel. Although Réveillère continues to find himself in the national squad, he rarely shines on the big stage—a poor man’s Sagna. Jallet has benefitted from the change in manager to claim a few call-ups. But, seriously, do PSG fans even want him in their line-up?!
FFW: LB: Clichy (Evra). RB: Débuchy (Sagna).
Didi: LB: Clichy (Evra). RB: Réveillère (Jallet).
While we don’t know for sure what Deschamps depth chart is, the above is a good guess. Leaving Débuchy out might raise eyebrows, but he is reportedly injured and his lack of playing time so far this season works against him. Still, I don’t think Réveillère or Jallet add much to the squad—if Débuchy is out I’d rather see Yanga-Mbiwa or even Koscielny in the right back slot. Might as well put your best players out on the pitch!
Defenders – centre backs
Contenders: Younes Kaboul (Tottenham), Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami (Valencia), Mamadou Sakho (PSG), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Montpellier).
With Philippe Mexes relegated to the scrap heap, there’s a chance for a new centre back pairing to emerge. The first question is: should Rami keep his place? His size and technical ability mean he’s a natural fit for the modern centre back. However, his performances for France in the last calendar year have not always convinced. Some believe he feeds off his centre back partner—for better or worse. So, could he return to his dominant form, or at least consistently produce his highly rated La Liga form, for France with a new partner at his side? He at least deserves the chance thanks to some solid performances at Euro 2012.
That leaves one spot open between three very talented young defenders. Finally, it seems, France are getting close to the kind of stockpile they used to enjoy at this position (especially when considering an experienced player like Kaboul isn’t even really in the picture and there’s a very young player like Varane who is knocking on the door). Sakho and Yanga-Mbiwa are two very young and physically gifted defenders whose stocks appear to be going in opposite directions. Sakho, once thought to be a lock for a future France legend, thanks to his powerful and confident play two seasons ago, has been consistently producing under-par performances for PSG and has not benefitted from their regime change with competition coming in to challenge him. However, Yanga-Mbiwa is going from strength to strength at Montpellier and is attracting much attention from other clubs, along with the other top contributors from last season’s title winning team. Is he ready for international football though? He certainly could play for France and he must be ahead of Sakho in the pecking order. But, in terms of winning now, then Koscielny must surely start. His combination of intelligence and speed is perfect in this age of mobile attackers. His experience in the Premier League and Champions League mean he is used to playing in fast paced environments. Given his age, he may be more of a short-term solution, but he is perfect for kicking off the new World Cup qualifying campaign.
FFW: Koscielny and Rami (Sakho and Yanga-Mbiwa).
Didi: Koscielny, Rami, Sakho and Yanga-Mbiwa.
Well, it’s the same players for both of us but we don’t know who Deschamps will start.
Midfielders – central
Contenders: Yoann Cabaye (Newcastle), Etienne Capoue (Toulouse), Maxime Gonalons (Lyon), Marvin Martin (Lille), Blaise Matuidi (PSG), Rio Mavuba (Lille), Yann M’Vila (Rennes).
The middle of the pitch is congested. Very congested. The two defensive midfielder approach, so loved by that visionary Domenech, was finally ditched in the last qualifying campaign. Leading up to the Euros, Laurent Blanc’s favourite combination was Cabaye and M’Vila—with both players complimenting each other. Both their club and country performances made them un-droppable. That still holds true for Cabaye. With his teammates struggling around him over the summer, he looked more and more like the ‘glue’ that held the team together. On the other hand, M’Vila had some well-documented troubles, first with an ankle injury and then with the management, the latter of which resulted in a one game suspension, served versus Uruguay.
M’Vila does have competition for the DM position, notably from his perpetual backup, Matuidi, from the consistent and underrated Mavuba and from relatively untested and lesser known young players Gonalons and Capoue. The last two played well in the Uruguay game and are certainly making a case for regular inclusion in the squad. Matuidi seems to be the classic ‘inbetweener’: too good to ignore, not good enough to start. Mavuba is perhaps the most interesting player. Long ignored he has kept his head down and anchors one of the best teams in France. He also acquitted himself very well in the recent friendly with Uruguay.
FFW: M’Vila (Mavuba) and Cabaye (Martin)
Didi: Capoue, Gonalons, Matuidi, Mavuba. Cabaye (Diaby)
Although M’Vila is now free to be selected and seemingly fit and in good form (he scored in one of Rennes’s recent games) Deschamps hasn’t picked him, citing his need to “adjust his personal situation”—is that a reference to long-standing rumours about his eventual departure from Rennes or his attitude? It certainly seemed like M’Vila was made into a scapegoat of sorts for France’s Euro 2012 failure. Enfant terrible type labels are way off the mark, in my opinion. Leaving him out is a big mistake. He’s the most talented player at his position. This is the start of a new qualifying campaign and he should be brought in as the starter. In any case, he’ll have at least a few months at Rennes to re-stamp his claim to the best French DM. It’s hard to know who will replace him between Capoue, Gonalons, Matudi and Mavuba. For me, Gonalons and Caoupe are too untested. Nice players and a sign of the depth France has at DM, but ultimately not yet top quality enough, or with enough experience. Matuidi…well realistically, he isn’t going to get much of a chance, especially when M’Vila returns, so again, for me he’s part of a ‘nice to have’ group. Mavuba though, is a different case. He should be M’Vila’s backup: no ego, hard worker and has been around long enough to a) not be upset at sitting on the bench and b) provide experience, which is really what you want in your backups. Out of the players Deschamps has chosen, I hope he starts.
Cabaye, as mentioned, is an obvious choice for the slightly advanced midfield role. Curiously, Martin has been left out, despite a nice start to the season with Lille. He’s a player who would start on most national teams but has perhaps never quite lived up to his performance versus Ukraine in his first ever game. He’s very talented and the Champions League experience with Lille this season should serve him well. A more than capable backup for Cabaye in my opinion! However, he was ignored by Deschamps in favour of Diaby.. What? Huh? Diaby? That’s right! He’s back! Following on from Blanc, Deschamps appears infatuated with the oft-injured Arsenal player. To be sure, he’s got talent, but let’s see him play 10 games in a row (and produce performances like he did versus Liverpool last weekend) before handing out national team call-ups.
Midfielders – wingers
Contenders: Hatem Ben Arfa (Newcastle), Jérémy Ménez (PSG), Samir Nasri (Manchester City), Loïc Rémy (Marseille), Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille)
Another tough position to sort out. Ben Arfa has been an absolute beast for Newcastle since his return form injury last season. Yet, for France he has sputtered, seemingly unsure of his role on the field. Ménez is one of the most frustrating players to watch, capable of fluffing chance after chance before suddenly providing the winning goal or a breakthrough assist. Nasri has started to cement himself in Mancini’s starting line-up and has obvious talent. Ribéry has basically resurrected his international career with some great performances leading up to Euro 2012 and continues to be one of the top players in the Bundesliga. Rémy and Valbuena are key players for Marseille, the former showing some serious speed and finishing ability (and whose absence from Euro 2012 through injury was a bigger blow to France than has perhaps been reported) and the latter displaying a tenacity and knack for being in the right place at the right time.
FFW: LW: Ribéry (Ben Arfa). RW: Ménez (Rémy and Valbuena).
Didi: LW: Ribéry. RW: Ménez (Valbuena)
There’s not much more that needs saying about Ribéry. He is a definite starter and seems to be linking up very well with Benzema. He’s also rediscovered his scoring touch for France making him a handful to face. Although Ménez is frustrating at times, he has that ability to unlock defences and I think Deschamps sees that too. I also believe he’s best used as a starter—he may make errors, but he needs the game to develop in order to become effective. I would by no means give him more than 65 minutes though. In fact, a combination of him and Rémy (if France need pace to chase the game) or Valbuena (if France need to retain possession or take advantage of the little man’s talent for drawing fouls) is a very nice prospect. The man to lose out in Deschamps plans is clearly Ben Arfa. Sure, he has his bouts of immaturity but all he needs is an arm around him and for a manager to keep him focused—an approach that is clearly working for Alan Pardew and Newcastle. It may be that Deschamps is unsure how to deploy him. Is he best on the wing or in the middle, behind the striker? I think every squad needs a wild card, someone who you can use when tactics need changing. Personally, I can see him succeeding playing off a lone striker.
In my view, there’s no place in this squad for Samir Nasri (never mind the fact he is suspended for the upcoming two games). He’s too egotistical—both in personality and playing style–to fit into this team and not the kind of once in a generation talent that a team should build around.
Contenders: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Djibril Cissé (QPR), Kevin Gameiro (PSG), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Bafétimbi Gomis (Lyon), Loïc Rémy (Marseille).
Deschamps seems to be inclined to pair Benzema and Giroud together up front, which is a great move. Aside from the waste of having a player of Giroud’s quality on the bench, the two should compliment each other very well. Benzema is not exactly the prototypical centre forward and his tendencies to collect the ball further away from goal and generally drift around the penalty area are well known. With Giroud, France has a tall, powerful striker than can sit in the box, hold up play and provide opportunities for on-rushing players, especially Benzema. He has done this with great effect in his limited appearances for France, providing a real threat with his flick-ons and chest-downs (the latter of which is fast becoming his legendary skill). Although his Arsenal career has not quite got off to a flying start, it’s hard to see him struggling for goals and assists—he’s just pure class.
The problem is after those two, the talent level drops off considerably. Gomis has some caps to his name, but is more of a poacher than anything, a poor man’s Van Nistelrooy to some extent. He has never really excelled in his appearances for France. Cissé has had his chances but has not really grasped it—whether due to injury or underwhelming performances. He has a great opportunity to lead the line at QPR and if he can display some consistency (and on the field maturity) at that level he may be hard to ignore as a backup. Gameiro seems to have completely fallen off the face of the Earth. The money poured into PSG has not been kind to him and he’s even on the outside looking in there, never mind for France. It’s a steep fall for someone who was once looking like the main second option for France. I’ve included Rémy in this group because although he seems better suited for the wing, where his speed and directness can be devastating, he has played through the middle as well.
FFW: Benzema and Giroud (Gomis and Rémy)
Didi: Benzema and Giroud (Gomis).
This position really picks itself. The only question marks are for the backups. Gomis seems to get that spot by default—for now.
So, that just about wraps FFW’s 23-man national squad and the only thing left to do is lay it out for you in its entirety, followed by Deschamps’s (with guesses for starters):
GK: Lloris (Landreau, Mandanda)
FB: Clichy and Débuchy (Evra and Sagna)
CB: Koscielny and Rami (Sakho and Yanga-Mbiwa)
DM: M’vila (Mavuba)
CM: Cabaye (Martin)
LW: Ribéry (Ben Arfa)
RW: Ménez (Rémy and Valbuena)
FW: Benzema and Giroud (Gomis)
GK: Lloris (Mandanda, Landreau)
FB: Clichy and Réveillère (Evra and Jallet)
CB: Koscielny and Rami (Sakho and Yanga-Mbiwa)
DM: Mavuba (Matuidi and Gonalons)
CM: Cabaye (Diaby and Capoue)
RW: Ménez (Valbuena)
FW: Benzema and Giroud (Gomis)
–Stéphane Farenga (@HotDogFrog)