France have a great opportunity over the next 2 games to not only refine their play (vs Japan) but to make a serious statement in their World Cup 2014 qualifying group (vs Spain).
With that in mind, here are 5 things France need to look at if there are to be successful vs Japan and Spain.
5. How sharp is Hugo Lloris?
This concern has somewhat been alleviated as the ex-Lyon keeper ‘coincidentally’ got his first start for Spurs in last weekend’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa just in time for the Japan game. While he kept a clean sheet and made a few saves, he also watched helplessly as a Christian Benteke header sailed just wide of his far post (with the score line at 0-0 no less). It’s a blessing for France that Lloris got some action in. And the circumstances get even better as he will get the chance to sharpen up in the friendly vs Japan before facing La Roja. Didier Deschamps recently proclaimed that Lloris was still his main man between the goalposts but even so, he had to be a little worried that his up-to-now brilliant keeper was going to lose some of his shine.
4. How convincing is the new centre back pairing going to be?
The main low point from France’s 3-1 over Belarus last month was the yellow card Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa picked up, as it rules him out of the Spain game. However, the Japan friendly offers chance for Deschamps to blood in a new pairing. But, who to pair with Mamadou Sakho? Deschamps has opted for the speed Koscielny offers—even though Adil Rami has a greater familiarity with some of Spain’s La Liga attackers. Not only is it a bit of a gamble in that respect, but it is doubly so when considering Koscielny’s recent performances for Arsenal, in which he’s committed several errors, looked less self-assured and ultimately lost his place to Per Mertesacker. Add to that a scary moment in training earlier this week in which Koscielny had to be helped off to due a knee injury, which has since proven to be nothing more than an awkward knock. So, what gives? Deschamps clearly values his speed vs the Spanish attack (and Japan’s too). The Japan game also offers Deschamps a safety net: if Koscielny does have a shocker, or an injury replapse, he can always turn to Rami to face Spain.
So, how would a Koscielny-Sakho pairing fair? Some people may still be surprised to see Sakho’s continued inclusion in the starting XI. After all, his performances for PSG have been a bit up and down this season. However, the young man has done very well in France’s first 2 qualifiers and I for one applaud Deschamps for trying to get a young, physical, CB going at this level. He and Mapou certainly had a good thing going, with the PSG man’s physicality well complimented by the Montpellier defender’s greater speed. Perhaps that’s the combination Deschamps is looking to retain in picking Koscielny.
3. Can the forwards re-discover their pre-Euro form?
In my mind, this is a slightly greater concern than the centre back pairing—after all both Koscielny and Rami are experienced players. Well, the forwards are mostly experienced too, and yet since the final Euro warm-up vs Estonia(4-0) they haven’t clicked at all. During the Euros, France mainly used one forward (Benzema) supported by different wingers (Ribéry, Menez, Ben Arfa) to no real effect. Since then, Deschamps has tried to pair Benzema with another striker, mainly Olivier Giroud, but that too has not produced the expected fireworks.
There are different ways to look at it. Do players like Benzema and Ben Arfa simply not put enough effort into their performances for Les Bleus? Is Benzema dropping too deep, à la Anelka, thus preventing him from taking up good positions in the penalty box? Does the Giroud-Benzema just need more time to develop? Has the supply simply been not good enough?
The answer is probably mixed in somewhere amidst all that. Deschamps seems committed to using Giroud and Benzema (starting them both vs Japan), which most fans agree with. And with Giroud finally getting the monkey off his back by getting his first Premier League last weekend vs West Ham, there’s hope that he will start firing for France. On paper, the 2 seem well suited for each other: Giroud has that penalty-box presence that allows Benzema to play off him.
There are other encouraging signs too, mainly over in Ribéry’s direction. Ribéry has continued his great form for both club and country (2 goals in 4 Bundesliga games this season and that delightful chip vs Belarus).
Even though Ribéry is being rested vs Japan (or at least not playing significant minutes), the forwards (Giroud-Benzema-Menez) will have the chance to re-connect and find their clinical finishing vs Japan before trying to score against a Spain team that will likely dominate possession.
2. Can this young midfield cope with Spain?
France were dealt a tough blow when both Abou Diaby and Rio Mavuba had to pull out of then upcoming fixtures. Both had been impressive in their recent performances, helping to solidify a midfield that lacked strength, drive, tenacity and adequate defensive cover (the latter especially true with M’Vila’s absence).
Without them, Yoann Cabaye is the only experienced midfielder at this level, with the Newcastle man flying somewhat under the radar at the start of his second Premier League season (make of that what you will). Alongside him is a quintet of young Ligue 1 midfielders: Blaise Matuidi, Etienne Capoué, Maxime Gonalons and the recently called-up duo of Clement Chantôme and Moussa Sissoko. With Cabaye too big a risk to play vs Japan, Deschamps has opted for a midfield of Matuidi, Capoué and Sissoko, with the latter probably making way for Yoann vs Spain. There’s an interesting mix of tenacity (Cabaye/Matuidi/Sissoko), strength (Sissoko/Capoué) and box to box drive (Sissoko/Capoué) that suggest again, on paper, they can rattle the Spanish. Japan’s creativity and quickness will certainly provide a stern test.
1. Does Deschamps have le culot to take the game to Spain?
The biggest thing to watch for, in my mind, is the tactics Deschamps will use vs Spain. For me, it was the reason why France folded vs Spain in the Euro quarter-final Laurent Blanc started a defensive line-up (the famous 2 right backs, plus M’Vila and Malouda) that could never recover after conceding an early goal. Conceding possession against Spain is one thing, but the personnel on the field still needs to be a threat going forwards and there needs to be an attempt to ‘take the game’ to Spain.
The game is in Spain, so most fans and pundits will likely be satisfied with a point. That’s a scenario that can tempt a manager to field a defensive squad and do so some “damage control” from the start. Bad move in my opinion. France should have the belief that they will beat every other team in their group twice, thus practically ensuring they will finish as the 2nd best runners-up across all the qualifying groups, booking their ticket to Brazil. So, why not go for it and try and stun Spain, making a statement in the process? Go on Didi, be bold!
Starters vs Japan:
Llorris (cap, Tottenham), Debuchy (Lille), Koscielny (Arsenal), Sakho (PSG), Clichy (Manchester City), Sissoko (Toulouse), Capoue (Toulouse), Matuidi (PSG), Ménez (PSG), Giroud (Arsenal), Benzema (Real Madrid).