A draw versus a determined, organized, resilient England and a 2-0 victory versus an admittedly lacklustre Ukraine side stretched France’s unbeaten run under Laurent Blanc to an impressive 23 games.
Victory over already-eliminated Sweden would’ve seen France win the group and a meeting with either Spain or Italy in the quarter finals of Euro 2012. With Sweden low on morale and their bags already packed to head home, a win for Les Bleus seemed a foregone conclusion. Erik Hamren’s men had other ideas, however.
A mesmerizing volley by Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the pick of the goals as Blanc’s men crashed to a shock 2-0 defeat, one that cost them top spot in the group and subsequently condemned them to a daunting encounter with current tournament holders, world champions, and Group C winners Spain — an encounter that unnerved Blanc after watching his side unravel versus a Sweden side full of heart and that was determined to exit the tournament on a high:
“After the game I’ve seen tonight it’s difficult to imagine us beating Spain. But we’ll feel more optimistic tomorrow,” said Blanc after the defeat.
But there would be more to lament than the defeat in itself. Reports of dressing room unrest started doing the rounds. L’Equipe reported that there were clashes between Laurent Blanc and Hatem Ben Arfa as well as Alou Diarra and Samir Nasri in the locker room following the game. Immediately, semi-repressed memories of the South Africa debacle surfaced, but Laurent Blanc was quick to play down the situation, citing that “it happens” and that while things got heated, a cold shower cooled everyone off. L’Equipe also reported the fact that Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri don’t get along and that it is evident on the field.
With such a tough game on the horizon, a tainted atmosphere off the pitch is not what this country needs. Noteworthy is the fact that a Holland side that also had dressing room problems exited the competition after placing last in their group and without a single point to their name. Laurent Blanc would be wise to get and keep his squad under control before the situation descends into a farce similar, if not worst, than that of World Cup 2010.
He’d also be wise to address the on pitch problems of his team, given France have not been as good as they can be, or even as they should be. Despite playing short passing, possession football, the team has looked quite suspect at the back and ineffective up front.
The problems at the back have centered largely around the center back partnership of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami. Mexes in particular has been the weak link and this was particularly evident versus Sweden. What’s interesting here is that this was his first real test in the competition as England’s approach in the first game was very negative while Ukraine were quite poor in the second game. Sweden’s physical presence combined with their attacking approach on the day blew open what was always a shaky defense and a particularly suspect defender.
Often times, when a player is yellow carded and has to miss the next game, it is a loss that is bemoaned. However, in this case, the loss of Mexes for a Spain encounter that would require a heroic defensive performance from Blanc’s men is actually a blessing in disguise. In comes Laurent Koscielny, a player who showed great improvement this season at Arsenal.
BPL Season Statistics (11/12)
|Player||Errors||Tackles||Last man tackles||Interceptions||Effective clearances||Offsides won||Dribbled||Fouls||Aerial duels%|
The decision to omit Montpellier’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa from the squad leaving just 3 central defenders in the side was a baffling decision by Blanc. Even more bewildering was his reasoning: “Unfortunately he’s a defender,” he said. However, Laurent Koscielny could prove to be a decent partner for Rami and should he show this versus a very strong Spain side, he may well keep Mexes on the bench — something most people won’t mind.
Despite making 3 defensive errors this season, 2 of which were own goals, Koscielny showed himself to be a reliable defender. Despite not being the quickest, he covered a lot of ground to great effect. He proved to be adept at playing in Arsenal’s high backline as his statistics for offsides won and interceptions show and he has also shown himself capable of putting out fires in and around his penalty area, as his statistics for last man tackles and effective clearances indicate. He is also reasonably strong in the air.
As for up front, for all the passes France complete, they haven’t posed a genuine, consistent attacking threat thus far in Euro 2012. This is mainly because there is no real focal point to their attack. Karim Benzema had a fine season for Real Madrid, netting 32 goals. While it helps that a striker is willing to drop deep to assist in build up play, it’s of no use if team-mates don’t run beyond him. That’s precisely France’s problem.
The likes of Nasri and Ribery are content with just passing the ball around instead of making runs through on goal. With Benzema dropping deep and teams piling players behind the ball — England, for example — this makes France easy to keep at bay in the final third and with no one making runs into the box, the tendency has been to try long range shots. The fact that France have shot 38 times from long range, the most in the tournament (Italy second with 28), cements this fact. Additionally, Benzema is the player with the most shots on target without a single goal thus far in Euro 2012.
Spain are most likely to dominate possession, so France need to take the few chances they would get. France’s lack of a focal point up top would see them easily stifled by their opponents and with one of the world’s best goalkeepers between the posts in Iker Casillas, it would take something truly special to beat him from long range. Given many of France’s long range efforts have gone blazing well over the bar, it seems such a special strike isn’t forthcoming. That said, Laurent Blanc has to pull something different out of the bag if his team is to have any realistic chance of defeating the tournament holders and world champions. But what is he to do?
In the buildup to this big game, Koscielny said in a press conference that France may try to play like Chelsea did versus Barcelona. Florent Malouda was quick to refute those suggestions, however, citing that France “don’t have the players.” Given the defensive vulnerabilities of the side, he is absolutely right. The mazy, dizzying runs and quick exchanging of passes by the Spanish attackers would overpower an already wobbly center back partnership. Besides, Laurent Blanc is against such a ‘style’ of football. This was made clear after he criticised the way England played against them:
“The English just sat back and waited for us to come at them,” he said ahead of France’s game versus Sweden. “But there is nothing worse than failing to achieve your objective by not playing.”
Clearly, Blanc is a manager that embraces philosophy rather than pragmatism. Indeed, France have played some attractive football under “Le Président.” However, they are set to come up against the masters of the short passing, possession game. Trying to beat the Spanish at their own game would only result in embarrassment. That in mind, Blanc has to be practical for this fixture.
— Giroud & Menez in, Benzema & Nasri out —
Spain aren’t exactly tight at the back, especially with the highly influential Carles Puyol absent. Gerard Pique endured a mixed season at Barcelona where he spent spells on the bench and out of Pep Guardiola’s favor. Sergio Ramos on the other hand tends to lack discipline in the tackle and commits fouls often as a result. He averaged 2 fouls per game last season, amassing 11 yellow cards and 1 red in the process.
Giroud’s size and physical style of play would surely unsettle that center back partnership. The aerial threat he poses (he won 70.2% of his aerial battles last season) would cause Pique problems in particular as he is neither strong enough physically to outmuscle Giroud nor good enough in the air (he won just 56.1% of his aerial battles last season). Sergio Ramos, meanwhile, although strong in the air (he won 72% of his aerial battles last season), could be easily suckered into fouling the big striker.
What also makes Giroud a suitable option up front is his positioning. As mentioned, Benzema likes to drop deep to influence the play. Giroud, on the other hand, positions himself in and around the box, presenting himself as the focal point that France have sorely lacked throughout this tournament.
The first two of Karim Benzema’s heat maps are from league games with Real Madrid last season. Although he scored braces in both games, it’s clear that his preference to drop deep doesn’t manifest itself only for France. Again, while this has merit, it has done little favors for France in the final third and in all likelihood would prove counter-productive again versus Spain.
Olivier Giroud’s heat maps are from league games with Montpellier last season. He helped himself to a hat-trick versus Sochaux and scored one goal and assisted three versus Lorient. There is an obvious gulf in class between the quality of Ligue 1 defenders and that of Spain’s national team, but the focus is on Giroud’s positioning. His heat maps illustrate exactly what France need up top, especially versus Spain. His size and positioning in the box provides an outlet for crosses as well as long balls. In addition, given Spain’s players aren’t the tallest, he’d be useful at set-pieces.
Of course, there are drawbacks that come with using a physical striker like Giroud. For example, he may commit many fouls as he challenges for the ball. We’ve seen some fussy referees thus far at Euro 2012 and coming up against Spain, who as mentioned aren’t the tallest and strongest bunch, Giroud may have a hard time avoiding the referee’s attention. Interestingly enough, he averaged 2.2 fouls per game last season. It’s worth noting as well that Giroud is more than just an aerial threat. He isn’t half bad with the ball at his feet; his link-up play is quite good, as is his long range shooting.
As far as Jérémy Menez is concerned, he, despite featuring largely on the right wing for PSG last season, is more effective through the middle. The decision to drop Nasri for Menez’s sake may raise eyebrows, but there is much to be gained here.
With Spain likely to dominate possession, Nasri is highly unlikely to show up in this game given he needs the ball at his feet if he is to have a telling impact. In addition, thus far he has shown no real desire to make forward runs off the ball, contributing to France’s muffled attacking play. Menez has the instinct to make those runs off the ball. In fact, he played as a striker for PSG 5 times last season, netting 3 goals. Added to this, his solitary goal in the tournament came as a result of an instinctive forward run into the box. He made many in that game and was unfortunate not to score more.
He is a good dribbler too, completing 2 per game last season. He’s also a good passer with a preference for long balls — something Giroud would appreciate just ahead of him. He completed an outstanding 82.2% of his long passes last season. In addition, he contributed 1.5 key passes per game and was accurate with a very impressive 48.4% of his through balls. In short, more often than not, Menez would pick the right pass. Unfortunately, though, not the right cross. He completed a mediocre 11.4% of these. For this reason, he is more effective through the middle.
His vision, technical ability, and instinctive movement could prove decisive versus Spain and he’d be an excellent foil for Giroud while his defensive work rate would give much needed support to the defensive midfield pairing of Yohan Cabaye and Yann M’Vila, both of whom can pass quite well in addition to defend.
— Valbuena in, Ben Arfa out —
As seems to be the case with most attacking full-backs, Jordi Alba has a problem with his positioning. He has shown an instinctive willingness to get forward and offer width to Spain’s often narrow attacking play. A player like Mathieu Valbuena seems the right player to capitalise on the space left behind by Jordi Alba. Seeing that Hatem Ben Arfa is left-footed and would cut inside in addition to the fact that he played poorly versus Sweden, Laurent Blanc should consider giving Valbuena a chance.
Despite Marseille having a very poor season, he did well, featuring mainly through the middle. However, he is equally capable of performing on the right and did so 5 times last season, scoring twice and adding 5 assists. His cross completion of 30% is impressive and would provide further ammunition for Giroud and even Menez, who is also good in the air. Indeed, an attacking trident of Ribery, Menez, and Valbuena would pose a variety of threats to the Spanish defense whether on the counter-attack or otherwise.
Captain Hugo Lloris said the game against Vicente del Bosque’s side will “be a great test,” and called on his team-mates to make sure they ended the game, whatever the result, with “as few regrets as possible.” He also said that they would find the right solutions for this game. Hopefully they do; a place in the semi-final and the forgiveness of their fans depend on it.
**Stats courtesy of whoscored
**Quotes and heat maps courtesy of ESPN Soccernet