"People keep telling me that we play a lot down the left flank,” said Raymond Domenech recently, picking up on a common criticism of his France team. “Don’t forget that there’s always a team at the other end of the pitch though, and we need to adapt to them and their weaknesses. That’s all.” While the French coach certainly has a point, there can be no argument that, for a number of years now, Les Bleus have felt most comfortable slipping into southpaw mode.
The statistics certainly suggested a tendency to veer to the left against Uruguay during France’s opener at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Domenech’s men surging seven times down that wing and only twice exploring the right. In addition, the players who combined most often were left-back Patrice Evra and left winger Franck Ribery (23 passes), followed by centre-back Abidal and Evra (22), and Evra and left-sided midfielder Abou Diaby (21).
France’s left-wing inclinations were already visible at Germany 2006 and they intensified after a poor showing at UEFA EURO 2008. Florent Malouda began that tournament tipped to become the side’s principal deliverer of the ball, but by September and France’s crucial FIFA World Cup qualifier against Austria, he had been left out of the squad altogether. Thierry Henry took over on the left and spent quite some time there as Malouda also lost his first-team place at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea winger only regaining his regular international berth in November last year.
We have to introduce variety to our attacks.
Henry blew hot and cold during his spell out wide as he reacquainted himself with a position he had last occupied at the dawn of his career with Monaco. Superb as Les Bleus defeated Serbia 2-1, Tunisia 3-1 and the Republic of Ireland 1-0, he nonetheless looked ill at ease in their other outings. Muddying the picture even further, Ribery expressed his preference for playing on the left, having hit a rich vein of form there for Bayern Munich.
In the weeks leading up to South Africa 2010, Domenech revealed his plans to switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, with Malouda in left midfield and Ribery on the same flank further forward. He found himself leaving the door open for alternative options in the wake of the Tunisia friendly, however. “There were some very interesting moments going forward and some more worrying ones when we were trying to get the ball back or defending,” he said. “That’s linked to the system. There are ways of finding balance between the two. I said before that 4-3-3 is an option; that doesn’t mean it’s the system we’ll use all the way through.”
Despite the desire for balance, some eyebrows were still raised as the team sheets were announced ahead of the Uruguay match, with Malouda relegated to the bench and the more defensively minded Diaby handed a starting place.
The Arsenal midfielder went on to make an invaluable contribution, while the performance of Ribery close to the left touchline left many supporters unconvinced. “Our opponents have studied our play and know that the left is our strength,” Les Bleus captain Evra told FIFA.com recently. “We need to be careful that we don’t become predictable. Sometimes, we’ll have to switch play to the right or Franck [Ribery] will need to go through the middle. We have to introduce variety to our attacks.”
While France's intentions may have been good, their efforts failed to trouble Los Charrúas and now they face the same issue ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Mexico. There are suggestions Domenech may even resurrect his old 4-2-3-1 approach and field Ribery in the centre and Malouda out wide, but the side's formation is likely to remain a mystery until close to kick-off.
Questions, doubts and rival theories clearly abound, but perhaps it was Malouda who best summed up the key to the problem during a recent interview with FIFA.com. “I don’t think it’s a question of balance between the left wing and the right wing,” he said. “Above all we lack the little spark that would make all the difference – the kind that has us popping up where we’re not expected. It’s good to have rediscovered a certain solidity at the back, but now we have to take risks to win our next two matches and finish top of the group.”