Franck Ribery has literally had an annus horribilis. At the start of the year, he was a treble winner with Bayern Munich and potentially a Balon D’Or winner. However, a third place finish in FIFA’s Player of the Year Award, a less than impressive end to the club season with Bayern and niggling injuries have seen his brilliance slide down a slippery slope.
France on the other hand seems to be going in the inverse direction. There is a huge improvement, a massive heightening of hope since four years ago when capitulation at Knysna brought about embarrassment. Didier Deschamps has ensured that does not happen again. By not picking Samir Nasri in his squad, he as at least guaranteed that there will be little negative influence and energy among the French squad.
Indeed, that seems to be their problem. At the height of it, that French arrogance, that boiling up of the ego tends to spoil the camaraderie of an otherwise talented group. Make no mistake though — the side at Brazil 2014 is not purged of all potential volatility. Even though Nasri was not there at theWorld Cup in South Africa — and individuals such as Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris were — there seems to be agreement that these two leaders of the side have at least moved on from that fateful day in South Africa and that Nasri’s chance to prove his maturity at Euro 2012 almost ended in disaster.
The absence of Nasri may have come at high scrutiny — especially now as the undoubted star of the team, Ribery, will be missing through injury. But in a tournament where the mood off the pitch is just as important as the play on it, Deschamps seems to have made the right decision.
Besides, Ribery’s absence and Nasri’s exclusion will not be felt as much given the form of Antoine Griezmann. The Real Sociedad man has been in impressive form, and now seems the time to make his breakthrough on the international stage. If he does not however, there is surety in the brilliant performances of Mathieu Valbuena.
The little man who plays for Olympique Marseilles could be said to have been France’s key man in getting them to the World Cup. His sublime touch, his visionary passing and supreme technique means that even though he may be dwarfed by other players, he does have the ability to slither away and slide in a killer pass.
In what has been Deschamps favoured 4-3-3, he will probably start to the right of the front three but with license to roam, allowing Karim Benzema in the center and Griezmann on the left to get into great goal scoring positions.
If however that does not work and Griezmann fails to rise to the occasion, Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud could be called upon to lead the line, with Benzema playing off him from the left. Theoretically, it would require Giroud’s ability to knock on balls onto on-rushing midfielders — rather than his finishing. However, that is a ploy that leaves the team highly vulnerable in defence, as Benzema’s work rate on the wing would not be as good as Griezmann’s (which isn’t overly spectacular either).
It is probably why Deschamps opts to go with three energetic midfielders. In Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba, France have great runners in the middle of the pitch and this could facilitate the creative brilliance of Valbuena and the fluid movement of Benzema plus the rotation of Giroud and Griezmann.
Defence will however need to be well co-ordinated. Mahamadou Sakho still suggests that he should be better than he is while Raphael Varane’s form has dipped over the past season at Real Madrid. The same could be said of Patrice Evra at left-back and Mathieu Debuchy on the right, whom for some reason Deschamps prefers over Bacary Sagna.
It means the most in form player from a defensive point of view could be captain and goalkeeper, Lloris. Whether he can inspire his side to achieve more than they actually can remains to be seen. At least though he will have the assurance that in Deschamps, he has a coach who knows all about winning the World Cup with France as captain.