With the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ just days away now, it is not getting any easier to predict how France will fare in South Africa. In contrast to many of their fellow traditional heavyweights, Les Bleus will begin the competition with precious little continuity and plenty of question marks.
While Dunga, Vicente Del Bosque, Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello have been fielding settled line-ups for the last two years at least, France coach Raymond Domenech has presided over a radical overhaul of late. Certain to be leaving his post whatever happens between now and 11 July, he no longer has any need to tread carefully, but whether his tinkering will help France replicate their Germany 2006 highs or mirror their UEFA EURO 2008 lows remains to be seen.
New system, new partnerships
Back when France were struggling to bring their supposed superiority to bear on their South Africa 2010 qualifying group, Domenech’s refusal to experiment with the formation was what riled his critics the most. No matter what team they were facing or the stakes surrounding the game, his charges had been lining up in a 4-2-3-1 configuration ever since the 2006 FIFA World Cup. That has all changed in the last three matches, however, although France’s new 4-3-3 approach has hardly seduced the critics yet either.
At the root of the tactical shift lies the withdrawal of defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra, a certain starter for the last two years, and the critics might do well to cast their minds back to four years ago, when Djibril Cisse suffered a broken leg in a warm-up match against China PR. With the striker suddenly out of his plans, Domenech switched from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 – and promptly took his team to the Final.
The omens, therefore, are good, but the changes have also left players needing to forge new understandings, particularly on the wings. Patrice Evra used to work in tandem with Thierry Henry and now must learn to function with Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery, for example, while on the right Bacary Sagna and Yoann Gourcuff are desperately trying to get to know each other. The new system likewise introduces an element of doubt at right forward, with probable starter Sidney Govou facing competition from Mathieu Valbuena and Nicolas Anelka.
There is a law in France making it an offence to bring historical monuments into question, but it is one that Domenech has shown no inclination to apply to his own squad. Indeed, having given Henry the captaincy following Patrick Vieira’s struggles with injury, the former France Under-21 coach recently took the armband back and appointed Evra skipper. Domenech travelled to Spain to meet with ‘Titi’ in April and informed him that as he would not be a starter in South Africa, he could no longer carry on as captain.
It was a harsh message, but one that the 1998 FIFA World Cup and EURO 2000 winner understood fully. “Yes, the coach came to see me in Barcelona,” he said. “He told me I won’t be starting at the World Cup and I accepted that. It’s quite normal as I finished the season not playing for Barcelona.”
Placed in the spotlight by his sudden promotion, meanwhile, Evra has been rewarded for six years of loyal service to Les Bleus. A jovial figure away from the pitch and a talented and combative presence on it, the Manchester United left-back looks to have all the ingredients of a capable leader.
It did not take long for tongues to start wagging in the wake of France’s poor showing in Switzerland and Austria two years ago, and certain players were singled out for having been too individualistic. They have paid a heavy price since. “I had to make my choice based on criteria that aren’t necessarily the most obvious,” said Domenech as he announced his initial list of 30 players, admitting that sporting performance was just one of many considerations.
His squad have now been together since meeting up in Tignes on 18 May, and the players look to be bonding well. That has helped them on the pitch too, except perhaps during their friendly against Tunisia, and overall a promising team spirit appears to be emerging. “We live together and die together,” was the leitmotiv of the France squad in 2006 – and it is a phrase that has no doubt cropped up more than once between the players over the past week.