The future of the French National team

(Please forgive me in advance for shorthanding French National team into FNT. Twitter brain distortion.)

Journalists were kept at a distance for the return of our national goats

The FNT returned to France yesterday after a 15-hour flight which undoubtedly was filled with fun and joy. The planed landed at the military base of Le Bourget, reflecting once again the disconnect between the team and its supporters, who weren’t even given the opportunity to throw rotten tomatoes (or anything else smelly) at their players in the public arrivals zone at Charles de Gaulle airport. Florent Malouda was not on the plane, since he instead took a regular flight to London the night before ; perfect image of a team where unity was neither desired or even possible.

The causes of this miserable failure have been well-documented and we’ll get to know more in the upcoming days when Evra and the other leaders of the Great Revolution of the Pezula Resort© will spill the (fetid) beans. It is obviously the end of a cycle for the FNT. Henry is all but gone, Gallas is rumored to be following, and Abidal might seriously consider international retirement given his involvement in the “events” and how badly he was affected by them (he refused to play v. South Africa). Finally, the question needs to be asked for Patrice Evra, whose captaincy will go down in history as nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. His leadership in the “strike” (French union leaders are laughing real hard right now) questions his ability to lead a team without destroying it from the inside. His selection as captain was a surprise to many and his behavior with the armband will remain symbolic of Domenech mismanagement. Evra’s position in the team is weakened and it’s safe to say that he is probably not wanted anymore   These 4 players (and Ribéry) were instrumental in leading the strike, and their international retirement opens up room for leadership in the new FNT. It also means that the FNT will now be led by the coach and not by the players. Domenech was a mere puppet who got paid to stand around and manage egos and tensions. Hopefully a renewed leadership, with a respected coach, will mean that these tensions will be a thing of the past and that there can be a sane atmosphere around the FNT.

Blanc will face a huge challenge

We already know the name of the new coach, Laurent Blanc. There is obviously lots of work to be done, and Blanc’s first mission will be to establish social peace between all the team members. He will need to talk to the players who were in South Africa to know what happened, in order to get the team running and competitive by September, when the Euro ’12 qualifying stage will begin with games versus Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Some players like Gourcuff, Sagna and Lloris refused to follow the strike movement but eventually had to defer to the authority and experience of the leaders (some would call that bullying…). Blanc will have to rely on these players and will expect them to step up and become the leaders of a renewed FNT. The question of the captaincy will come up again and will be a good indication of the direction Blanc wants to take this team in and how he will run it.

Who are the options?

Toulalan : a real option?

As a Lyon supporter, Toulalan is the first name that comes up. He has been given the armband in a few occasions, for his club and for France, but he seems to accept this honor pretty reluctantly. He refuses to be the permanent captain in Lyon, which therefore makes him unlikely to accept that position for France. When questioned on the subject, he answers that he’ll do it if asked, but also that he doesn’t consider himself a true leader because of his rather withdrawn personality. He can lead on the field but not in the locker room. His vision and practice of the captaincy doesn’t necessarily correspond to what is expected from a national team captain, normally a player who is respected, listened to and influential, and who can efficiently relay the the ideas and instructions of the coach to players who sometimes are not together for more than 3 days.

I decided to insert a cute kitten picture instead of the horror show that is Ribéry's face

The next natural option would be Ribéry. On good days, he has the ability to carry the team on his shoulders and win games on his own. But he was on the front line, leading the strike, and bestowing this honor upon him would somewhat amount to legitimizing his ridiculous behavior. He also has a tendency to forget about the common good to think only of himself and his own interests. Before the competition started and throughout 2010, he constantly complained about his positioning on the field, requiring to play on the left side, and showing no passion or implication whatsoever when he played on the right. Domenech gave way to his demands, which was the final nail on Henry’s coffin. Ribéry  is a player who doesn’t put the greater good before his self-interest, hardly what you expect from a captain. His behavior in South Africa, on and off the field, isn’t working in his favor. His mischievous nature needs to be controlled and giving him the armband would be as efficient for the team as BP’s efforts to stop the oil from flowing.

Another option is Alou Diarra. He captained the team versus South Africa, and has been the captain of Bordeaux for now two seasons. His leadership has been instrumental in Bordeaux’s recent (relative) success, and Blanc trusts him. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Blanc to first rely on someone he knows well – Alou Diarra – in order to give himself time to settle in the team. Diarra has been around for a long time and is respected in the team. He seems to have put his behavioral issues past him and can be trusted with such an important honor. Yet, there is a big problem with this idea : as of now, Alou Diarra isn’t a power starter. If Toulalan remains at defensive midfield, Alou Diarra will be number 3 in the hierarchy behind the other Diarra, Lassana. Will Blanc modify this hierarchy to accommodate Alou Diarra? He’s showed with Bordeaux that he has what it takes to be a starter. His role will depend on the tactical system chosen by Blanc.

Finally, there is Yohann Gourcuff. He should step up as the technical leader of the team, which automatically entitles him to its captaincy. But his time with the FNT has been laden with problems, and he seems at times to be on a different page, something that didn’t serve him well. His captaincy would therefore come with questions and doubts.

These are the 4 main options, but there are some other names that come to mind. Lassana Diarra, Bacary Sagna, Sébastien Squilacci or Hugo Lloris are all legitimate candidates for the armband. The fact that no one obvious name comes up is also a problem : there is no natural replacement, no leader whose name sounds as an evidence. Blanc’s decision will not be easy, and he might not find his man for some time. The departure of some influential players is interesting as it will shed light on those who actually step up to the plate and show involvement.

The other question about Blanc is related to how much he decides to change players.

First of all, it’s hard to see how Anelka could stay on the team without causing a massive controversy. That means that 2 spots are opening up at the striker position, where all the spotlights are. Gignac hasn’t proven much with the FNT and doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a threat at the international level as of now. Cissé remains a unidimensional player, but he is a real team player and works well in a lone-striker system. In all likelihood, Karim Benzema will be back very quickly and should be given ample playing time. Kévin Gameiro and Jérémy Ménez could also be given their debuts for the FNT, on top of Loïc Rémy and Jimmy Briand who have already been around.

Another position that’s opening up is defense, especially central defense. Evra’s fate is up in the air but the left-back position is fully stocked (Clichy, Cissokho, Trémoulinas). Gallas and Abidal should be gone, which means a new central defense will be put in place. One of the endemic problems under Domenech’s ruling was that he constantly changed his two central defenders, thus never allowing for automatisms to exist. Philippe Mexès might be called up again, Mickaël Ciani might be forgiven his dreadful game against Spain and Planus could be called up again. This list is pretty Bordeaux-heavy, but it’s hard to blame a coach taking over a team that has been lying fallow for 4 years to rely first on players whom he personally knows.

The situation in the midfield seems to be a little clearer : Abou Diaby cemented his position in the squad with good performances during the World Cup. The only question is whether Samir Nasri will return to the FNT. His versatility is interesting for a team, but there are rumors that he caused the demise of the team in 2008 and that his relations with other players like Benzema or even Ben Arfa are poor. Team-building is not only about assembling the best players, it’s also about getting together players who respect each other and are happy to be around each other. The US National team is a pretty good example of how important team spirit is.

It is therefore hard to guess what Laurent Blanc will be doing. Every coach has his own ideas. France is facing Norway in a friendly match on August 11th. The squad chosen for that game will give us some hints as to how Blanc will run this team. Of course he will be testing lots of players, and might leave some veterans (Malouda, Ribéry…) at home in order to see more players.

The FNT is in need of some serious change. The federation signed a contract with Nike, who will be taking over for Adidas. That is one big element of change, as insignificant as it may sound, but that signals a new direction for the team. New jerseys, new faces, new beginning.

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3 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this article….very enlightening. Martin makes a great point about team spirit. It is important for the players to genuinely get along, believe in each other, and put their personal beliefs aside in favor of what is best for the team. It is amazing in this World Cup that some national team with few established international stars are doing well, while others with more “name” players have performed below expectations.

  2. Both these articles have made for fantastic, sober reading.

  3. Malouda has always had a disconnect with the team it seems like. I don’t know what his deal is, but he always seems to be distant from the FFF.

    As far as Toulalan, it seems like he always wants to be out of the spotlight. Even when all the buzz was around him playing defense, he just said he wanted to play midfield and didn’t want all the attention around him.

    Who can be the captain? Who knows. But I was kind of surprised that Evra was picked. If Ribery is picked, this team will go downhill quickly. But I really don’t see that. And with Blanc’s new influence, maybe Gourcuff could be the captain. Still, if we are talking about the World Cup, Gourcuff has 4 years to build his leadership skills.

    I guess the big question is if Gourcuff will build his leadership skills at Bordeaux or somewhere else.

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