Philip Bargiel looks back on France’s disastrous recent friendly matches against Albania and Belgium and explains why Les Bleus fans must not worry… too much.
With a year left before Euro 2016, France suffered two defeats against Belgium (3-4) at home and in Albania (0-1). While the manner of the defeats is worrying, the run of 3 defeats in 4 games (defeat to Brazil and success over Denmark previously) is not as dramatic and disconcerting as the general press would have you believe for two reasons.
The first reason is that the players were fed up with playing football and one could not really argue with them at the end of the end of the 2014/15 campaign just gone. If you think about it in a professional manner, footballers are not treated with the greatest of respect most of the time (in truth, they are vilified for earning bucketloads of money just for kicking a ball around). Some of those players started pre-season training in early July 2014 and have played in 4 competitions up until last week (Paul Pogba and Patrice Evra played in the Champions’ League final in Berlin, calling them up was a very questionable decision by Deschamps considering that we both know what both players can bring to the side, making it nonsensical to “trial” them in two meaningless friendlies).
Now a season generally ends in mid to late May (depending on the leagues and the European Cup final dates and whether French players are playing in either of them) but the Albania game took place on June 13th, a very late date in the domestic season. Due to television rights having it all its own way (and so they should as they are the ones paying footballers’ wages after all), the Champions’ League final was pushed back to June 6th – again an uncharacteristically late date even in a year devoid of a senior European summer tournament – and the internationals (50% meaningless friendlies, 50% Euro 2016 qualifiers; France: 100% meaningless games) postponed to the following week. Thus broadcasting networks forcing footballers to play a further fortnight to get viewership figures up.
If we’re comparing this situation to another regular job market, it would be similar to your boss telling you all year long that you have a month’s worth of vacation only to have it cut back to two weeks because the CEO said so. Would you do it? Yes, probably. Would you be happy to do it? No, definitely not.
The second reason is that the lack of actual competition coming from all the other supposedly “big” footballing nations. World champions Germany suffered another disappointing friendly defeat to the United States last Wednesday with 1860 Munich (division 2 German side who narrowly avoided relegation to the 3rd tier) striker Bobby Wood schooling the German backline and scoring a rather impressive winner.
Germany do have the world’s finest goalkeeper but the back four is composed of unestablished players. Philipp Lahm retiring left a gap at right-back (his natural position despite Guardiola’s reticence) which has been filled most of the time by Hoffenheim holding midfielder Sebastian Rudy, no long-term prospect will likely replace Lahm. The CB pairing often includes Valencia’s Mustafi who has been awkward most of the time and he was paired with Stuttgart’s Rüdiger, another odd inclusion even for a friendly. The usual CB duo should remain Boateng and Hummels though, even if you could argue that both have regressed from a year ago.
The midfield is very congested and lacks order. Most glaringly, it lacks a leader. Schweinsteiger aside, the not so young players like Kroos or Götze are not stepping up and pushing the team on when things are not going Germany’s way. Moreover, the midfield lacks proper wingers as players like Müller, Götze and Schürrle are basically interchanging which enhances movement but lacks structure altogether.
This is because Germany simply do not have a proper CF to replace Miroslav Klose who departed after the World Cup. More often than not, Joachim Löw has been playing with a false #9 à la Guardiola trying to implement organised disorder into a German side. Unsurprisingly, it’s not working.
Speaking of Löw, it’s never a good idea to stick around after having won the biggest prize of all.
European Championships holders Spain had a rather tough time in Brazil. After such a slap in the face, the national side is obviously rebuilding yet they have kept the same manager who seems to want to prove to everyone that what happened last summer was the exception rather than the norm.
Despite playing the football of his life, David De Gea is only allowed cameo appearances for his country in friendlies and weak opposition (Luxembourg). Surely having one of the best goalkeepers around is enough to finally put Casillas on the bench?
The defence isn’t settled. Carvajal and Juanfran are contesting the RB slot, Piqué, Sergio Ramos and Albiol are competing for the CB pairing while Jordi Alba and Azpilicueta are at loggerheads for LB (advantage to the Barcelona man). The lack of a next generation of defenders is obvious.
The midfield is rather dominated by Busquets and Fabregas but whoever plays alongside them is anyone’s guess while the #9 spot is still up for grabs as none of Diego Costa, Paco Alcacer or Alvaro Morata have convinced in the few chances they have had.
To a lesser extent we have England who were also knocked out early in Brazil (more down to luck than competence) but have been high flying since despite some very drab performances. England probably look like France’s strongest opposition.
Joe Hart had a good season at Manchester City and has played well for England despite very mixed performances of whoever plays in front of him (Roy Hodgson insists on not playing Nathaniel Clyne, England’s solitary decent long-term prospect for right-back), the midfield is strong but lacks penetration (despite Sterling & co) with good ball players like Henderson but who are unable to unlock tight defences. The one player who looks capable of doing that has a very poor injury record (Jack Wilshere).
Upfront, Roy Hodgson plays Wayne Rooney as a centre-forward while his best position is second striker. This is unlikely to change as Rooney is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the starting line-up as he was made captain after the World Cup following Steven Gerrard’s retirement. Putting Rooney as second striker behind Harry Kane would make much more sense.
England’s 100% record in the qualifiers is admirable (a record they share with Slovakia) and they are tough to beat but the lack of creativity and the poor record Wayne Rooney has in international competitions would make a betting man back France over them.
Other candidates such as Italy & Holland are a bit far-fetched given the Italians’ poor recent record (although they did make the final 3 years ago beating Germany along the way) and the Dutch struggling to adjust to life without van Gaal (not to mention many players who are past their best like Robben, Van der Vaart or Sneijder).
French fans are right to complain or at least be wary of those shoddy performances but if you consider the silly time of the year to play friendlies and the lack of competition elsewhere, you could argue that there is not much to worry about after all.