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Get to Know an International Foe: France

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Unfortunately, it is the off-season for KC fans, but in all reality, soccer never stops. There is always another match looming over the horizon, that we as fans of Sporting and the United States can look forward to while eagerly awaiting another year of MLS play. We've talked a great deal about how lucky we are to be fans of this organization in Kansas City, so I'll take some time to tell you about a team that gave fans the direct opposite feeling just seventeen months ago.

The Past

France is the second largest nation in football crazed Europe. With so many people to choose from, one would assume their status as a world power would have come earlier. They had some success on the world stage, placing third in 1958. But they did not win a major tournament until 1984, winning the European Championship through the play of now-UEFA President Michel Platini.

France in my mind is defined by two moments, or more particularly a man and a moment. First, I think of the 1998 squad. While home-soil wins in the World Cup always strike me as aberrations, there was no denying the greatness that existed in that France squad. None of the World Cups in my lifetime have ended as improbably as their victory over Brazil in 1998. Despite the controversy surrounding Brazil's star Ronaldo, France dominated the game's set pieces and Zinedine Zidane became the legend that we remember him as, despite his infamous exit from the world stage in 2006. Zidane was France for the next eight years. His form brought them a European Championship in 2000, an injury doomed them in 2002, his poor form showed in 2004. In 2006, he made one last push for glory, almost pushing France single-handedly to the brink of another World Cup victory, but ultimately derailed by a ill-advised reaction no matter what was said beforehand.

 

Secondly, I think of the 2010 World Cup, and to even say France showed up would be a strong term. As US fans we know how well second term coaches work, Arena's teams looked flat in 2006 and Bradley was fired before we could figure out how his second World Cup would play out. For some reason, the International game almost demands that new ideas are injected before each Cup. Even when managers are held over, they must find ways to innovate and/or change their squad. Germany is the best example of a team of determined veterans, successfully transferring into a team of youthful verve. France and Italy were the best example of what four years of aging can do to the best squads in the world. Needless to say, Raymond Domenech couldn't control the egos of his players, nor design a gameplan to fully utilize their skill. I would also argue that you can't build your team around aging strikers and one great winger. This conclusion from Zonal Marking is probably the most succinct description of France's problem.

Mexico 2-0 France: Organised v disorganised | Zonal Marking
List France’s biggest five problems at the moment, and none will involve tactics; Raymond Domenech has no authority within the French squad, so his instructions are almost irrelevant. On the pitch, the team has no cohesion, no organisation, doesn’t look like scoring and always looks like conceding. The change in formation did nothing to solve these problems and the substitutes brought little to the side, and yet Domenech was seemingly happy to pass up his chance to make a third change.

I don't remember the 1998 US squad, where this scenario played out almost exactly the same, except the United States wasn't as good and got absolutely trounced. However, imagine a United States squad led by veterans like Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Landon Donovan where those four decided they were above the team and manager and essentially launched a coup in the middle of the world's most prestigious tournament. Never had I in my life rooted for Mexico, and I hope I never have to again, but this team was unbearable.

The Present

After the debacle of 2010, France hired Laurent Blanc from Bordeaux to coach the national team. In the aftermath of the player's boycott in 2010, several players were disciplined by the French Association, essentially removing them from Blanc's player pool. Whereas Italy had to get younger by choice, France essentially made the veterans walk the plank. The first result in a 1-0 defeat to Belarus without not only the suspended players but injured players missing seemed ominous for Euro 2012 qualifying, but France qualified easily if not pretty while doing so. Only Patrice Evra has made his way completely back into the starting eleven, as even Franck Ribery has found his services unneeded.

The system played by Blanc is similar to Klinsmann's current 4-5-1 with two holding midfielders and one attacking midfielder. Like Klinsmann he has the problem that this system really needs one defensive central midfielder, and one creative midfielder to play beside him but also create the offense. However, Blanc has also shown at times a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 where he plays two strikers, usually with one withdrawn. In both situations, Yann M’Vila is the holding midfielder paired with Yohan Cabaye or Marvin Martin.

Here is a diagram from the always useful Zonal Marking of their formation against Bosnia (follow the link for a write-up on the whole match):

With the influx of new blood, France is a much younger team than before. Only Eric Abidal, Anthony Reveillere, and Florent Malouda are in their 30's and past 2012 probably won't be a factor in the French line-up. The rising stars, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri are 23 and 24 respectively and every other attacking choice is below the age of 25. The oldest players I would count as part of the attack are Malouda and Ribery, the former probably seeing his last French action and the latter being pushed out by younger blood with perhaps a more positive influence on the team as a whole. Anyone who watched Hugo Lloris play against Real Madrid in the Champions League this year can see how good he is for such a young keeper. The only questions I see going forward is can France replace their aging backline, and can the team gel on the field in ways the 2010 team never could. The potential and youth is there, but they still have not progressed enough as a team to challenge Spain, the Netherlands, or Germany in next years European Championship. However, given the results of 2010, they are far better off at this moment.

Historically against the United States

The US and France have not met since 1979. They met twice in 1979. The first match a 6-0 win for France at Giants Stadium, and the second was a 3-0 France win in Paris. The following link tells the story of that second match in Paris

Ty Keough Remembers the Last Time USA  Played France - U.S. Soccer
The U.S. has only played France two times – both in 1979 – meaning only a handful of American players have ever suited up against Les Blues. Only 21 to be exact. One of those lucky few is Ty Keough, a defender for the U.S. who earned eight career caps with the National Team between 1979 and 1980. Keough, whose father is soccer legend and 1950 World Cup team member Harry Keough, was a member of the team that traveled to Paris after the U.S. lost their home match against France at Giants Stadium earlier that year, 6-0. Though the U.S. also lost the away leg as well, 3-0, Keough said the score did not reflect USA’s fighting spirit. In this Q&A, Keough told ussoccer.com what it was like to face one of the best teams in the world, and also one of the best players in the world in Michel Platini.

Interesting Matchup

The US has found its strength under Klinsmann to be the pairing of Shea and Chandler on the left flank and the creativity of Dempsey in the middle. With two teams built to attack from the wing(s), the central midfield becomes open for attack. Seeing if our central midfield can control the game against a France team that sometimes lacks creativity of their own in the center, would be a major step forward. Also, can our center backs deal with pace that neither Honduras or Ecuador provided up front. There are no traditional target men for France, and I feel we deal better with target men, who unfortunately for us are a dying breed.