The French national team appears to have been in a “transitional” phase for what feels like an eternity. Ever since that fateful evening in Berlin in 2006 when Zizou’s tomfoolery cost an understated Les Bleus side World Cup bragging rights, it has been with utter shame and disappointment that the majority of the French populous has looked upon the national side. Up until this summer, eight years of controversy ensued, with post ’06 tournaments having made for sickening watching as ill-discipline, in-fighting and bickering overshadowed and affected on-pitch performances leading to some humiliating falls from grace; none more painful than Les Bleus’ pitiful exertions at the 2010 World Cup, where they failed to exit the group stage. To this day, there is an expectation that the French national team is just one step away from capitulation. While the scars of the last eight years may yet remain for quite sometime, the manner in which France qualified for this year’s World Cup by overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the second leg with a majestic performance against Ukraine at the end of 2013 propelled a younger team into what can only be described as a new chapter for French international football. This, paralleled with Didier Deschamps’ more no nonsense, man management approach has undoubtedly paid dividends over the course of the calendar year. This cannot be better evidenced than by the significantly repaired relationship between the fans and the team which has developed over the course of 2014, with many of the players noting in interviews over the last 12 months the considerably improved atmosphere at home games. According to a poll by Canal + conducted in November, 87% of the French population “like” the national team.
Les Bleus began 2014 with a series of friendlies in order to prepare for the main event in Brazil during the summer. They chose a wide-range of opponents in the four available fixtures that they had at their disposal, two in March and two in June, with the aim of encountering opponents with differing styles of play in order to best prepare for the challenges that lay ahead.
First off, they received the Netherlands, a tough initial test against a world-renowned footballing side that would go on to produce one of the biggest shocks of the World Cup when they dismantled Spain during the group stage. Nevertheless, France came through that test with flying colours, winning 2-0 thanks to goals courtesy of Karim Benzema and Blaise Matuidi. The Dutch might have been missing some key individuals, Arjen Robben notably,
The second game in March came against Norway, a middle-of-the-road opponent that can prove to be a stern test on their day. However, the French rolled them over in a comfortable 4-0 win with four different scorers. This looked like one of those results a team needs ahead of a big tournament, a very convincing win against a side they were expected beat always helps build confidence going into the remaining pieces of preparation in June.
Two weeks before the finals, Les Bleus played the obligatory game against a South American opponent but things did not go exactly to plan against Paraguay. They struggled to break the Southern side down and just when they thought they had nicked the win through Antoine Griezmann on 82 minutes, Victor Caceres broke their hearts with a minute to go. The 1-1 draw was a bit of an eye-opener for a team that had had an otherwise successful preparation for the World Cup, but it stood as a stern reminder that the complacencies during previous tournaments would prove to be a cardinal sin going into the Brazil World Cup and that no opposition would represent a walk in the park.
Then, a little mini-disaster struck just before the tournament with Franck Ribery failing to recover in time and pulling out of the squad just over a week before their first game. For many, this was a monumental blow to the team’s chances of winning with their talisman out, especially after a terrific few years at club level, but Les Bleus would have to cope without him.
Their final game before jetting off to Brazil was a simple test against Jamaica. The 8-0 win was more of a confidence booster than anything else, but it was good to see the team surging relentlessly for goals even with the game clearly won, even if they learnt little about themselves during that final, preparatory match-up.
Overall the French media were pleased with how the pre-World Cup action had gone: Deschamps had with him a relatively settled squad that was full of quality and mixed with some exciting, young talent despite Ribery missing out. The team seemed to have harboured that early 2014 momentum from their dramatic qualification for the major tournament and spirits were high. It might have been a mistake to play every preparation game at home which would have made things artificially more comfortable with large home support, but they had drawn a relatively easy group and it would be a case of seeing how far they could go after qualifying for most fans.
So off to Brazil they went, full of optimism and a squad that had the right balance between youth and experience. The first game was against Honduras, one of the minnows of the tournament that many predicted to struggle but would put up a very physical challenge for any of the teams they would face.
However, this proved not to be the easy game many expected until Wilson Palacios was sent-off and they failed to really create too many opportunities in the first half. They finally got the breakthrough on a deserved penalty and from then on it could have been any score but a 3-0 win was satisfactory. Paul Pogba could have arguably been red carded in the earlier fracas that saw Palacios go, but there were some good performances, particularly from Benzema who really stepped up in this game. Perhaps these were early signs that the Real Madrid man would finally realise his potential on the international stage?
Next up would be what many thought to be their toughest match of the group against Switzerland but instead, this turned into a showcase of how good the French could be. A fantastic 5-2 win in one of the best games of the entire tournament, they were in control for long periods and showed the quality they had all over the pitch.
They would have been disappointed that they allowed two goals in towards the end having been so terrific for 80 minutes but their attacking intent meant that every nation involved stood up and took notice. Five goals and five different goal-scorers really showed off their quality going forward and afterwards, many felt that the French could be considered as a contender for this World Cup.
Their final game of the group came against Ecuador in what turned into a very odd game. France were through and would seal top spot with a point whilst the South Americans needed a win to give them a chance to qualify and those goals seemed to cancel each other out.
A 0-0 draw was fair, France did not do enough and Ecuador had a few good moments but it was a rather dull affair in the end. Les Bleus would not care one jot, they were through as top of the group, avoiding a very difficult tie against Argentina and would take on Nigeria for a place in the last eight. The game threw up questions however whether or not Didier Deschamps had rested the right players in that final group game, with the likes of Mathieu Valbuena and Blaise Matuidi surprisingly chosen to play, who later on in the tournament seemed to burn out in crucial moments against Germany.
The game against Nigeria would be another case of struggling to break down a stern side but eventually France’s quality shone through, with Paul Pogba and a Joseph Yobo own goal seeing them through to the next round. It was a strong performance that earned a good 2-0 win, Pogba being the star of the show and with the competition getting tighter, they knew there would be no more easy games.
In the quarter-finals, they came up against Germany and they finally found a brick wall. It was a tough game, they fought hard against the eventual champions but Die Mannschaft deserved their 1-0 victory even if France certainly posed them problems throughout.
It was a slightly disappointing end to a campaign that showed much promise but they left Brazil with their heads held high. Didier Deschamps seemed to have finally found his team, they had finally found their stride together and with a lot of their best performances coming from their young players, it only increased optimism for the European Championships in two years.
After their return, they were hit by a surprise blow. Franck Ribery decided to retire from international football for personal reasons, which led to an odd backlash. Deschamps seemed to accept the decision, but a clearly disappointed UEFA president and Les Bleus legend Michel Platini stoked the flames by saying if he was chosen, he would have to join up.
Luckily, that is a situation that has yet to come about but it put a little cloud back over the national team after a summer of promise. There were still some egos in the way, Deschamps was still isolating a few players which included Samir Nasri but the end of the year saw him bury at least one old feud.
The focus for the team changed from winning competitive games to preparing to host the Euros, meaning that they would be playing a lot of “serious” friendlies that would help them mould a team that would not be playing a proper international fixture again until 2016. They had a good slate of games to finish the year and Deschamps would have wanted to help confirm in his mind his best team, who would take part in the first tournament in France since 1998.
They were terrific in their first game, beating a slightly broken Spain 1-0 in September. It was a great win against a side that had had a terrible World Cup, but nonetheless an outfit that still had a lot of quality and it was superb to see that the players managed to rise to the occasion. Whether that would be the case against smaller teams remained to be seen but this was a good victory nonetheless.
A draw in Serbia was not a poor result despite Les Bleus not being at their best and a further 2-1 win against Portugal proved that the squad was maintaining their professionalism despite effectively playing for nothing. Les Bleus finished the calendar year with an expected 3-0 win away at Armenia and a 1-1 draw against a rapidly improving Albanian side, which was nonetheless disappointing especially considering France were the home side. Their final encounter of 2014 saw them edge Sweden in a 1-0 win, but the game was somewhat overshadowed by the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The friendlies so far have maybe flattered to deceive, they are always experimental games for those they play against and whilst Les Bleus try to treat them as professionally as possible, it can be difficult when they are also looking at the depth of their squad. It has been truly great to see more young players being brought through and players like Andre-Pierre Gignac, who had a spat with Deschamps whilst he was at Marseille, brought back into the fold especially whilst he is in such a rich vein form with others are out injured.
They have also found a formation that truly functions, a 4-3-3 with a deep-lying midfielder and two inside wingers. Cabaye usually sits further back to the other two midfielders, who are given license to attack, whilst with inside wingers it allows Benzem to play to his strengths of going out wide and linking with play.
Deschamps has recently experimented with a few different variations, such as the 4-2-3-1 without a holding player that we saw against Spain with Mathieu Valbuena in a more central role and it worked surprisingly well against a very dangerous team. That little tactical tinkering, combined with a defence that only conceded seven goals in 15 games, has settled the team in knowing exactly how to play and it’s also an excellent use of the talent they have in the squad.
There were a lot of positives to take out of 2014, the biggest of those being the growth of their young stars. Paul Pogba was terrific, especially in the World Cup and although he showed flashes of his poor temperament, he also showed his world class talent against the very best. The 21-year-old was deservedly in the running for the Young Player of the Tournament, beaten eventually by James Rodriguez and he really announced himself on the world stage.
Another positive came in the form of Raphael Varane, who played as much as anyone for the national team in the past year and has put in some excellent performances that bode well for the future. He has confirmed his superb technique and stunning ability with the ball as a defender coupled with the supreme pace he harbours that separates him from other top notch centre-backs. He was even relied on as a captain in some of the friendlies and he looks to become a mainstay for years to come and it is frightening to think that he is still only 21, he could become one of the very best ever to play the position.
The blow of losing Ribery looks like it could be cushioned by the emergence of Antoine Griezmann, who is really beginning to grow with more game time under Deschamps. He has got true quality and is been given a bigger responsibility at his new club Atletico Madrid which should only help make him a better player at national level.
There were some other lesser positives too, as it was great to see Karim Benzema produce the kind of performances he does at Real Madrid for the national team, especially in Brazil, but he still came up short against Germany when it truly mattered. Overall, it seems to have stopped the argument of who should be leading the line for France and that is despite the other quality forwards at Deschamps’ disposal. Blaise Matuidi should also be singled out for having another good year, although we are no longer surprised by it anymore as the PSG midfielder is an ever-reliable performer for the national side.
The only real negatives might be the poor draws they have played out and Deschamps continues to turn away Nasri along with other impressive performers such as Alexandre Lacazette, but that is also a testament to the quality that France currently possess. It would be foolish after such a good year to question Didier Deschamps at all, even if there are debates to be had about squad management which led to a rather flat showing against Germany in the biggest game in the last 12 months.
Overall, 2014 has been a positive year after almost a decade of consistent disappointment. Finally it looks like the entire team are pulling in one direction, along with the manager, and they have a real strength in depth with another good generation coming through the ranks. They will be heading into 2015 bright-eyed, hoping they can keep the momentum and the reconnection with the public going until the Euros but one cannot help feeling that, as ever, there will be twists and turns before the summer of 2016.
Nathan Staples with C.N.