On Tuesday morning Laurent Blanc announced the 23-man squad that he would be taking to Ukraine for this summer’s European championships. There were little surprises in the 27 players Blanc had originally called up but when it came to whittling down the selection to 23, Blanc only had to drop two names due to a number of injuries picked up in training.
Paris Saint-Germain’s captain Mamadou Sakho had not been included after a poor season that saw Carlo Ancelotti also drop the 22-year old to the bench for the last part of the campaign. In the midfield there had been calls for the inclusion of Lille’s captain Rio Mavuba and Toulouse maestro Etienne Capoue, but both were left off Blanc’s list.
Two surprise inclusions were that of Montpellier’s Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa and troubled Lyon midfielder Yoann Gourcuff. Yanga-M’Biwa had been imperious as his club surprised everyone by winning Ligue 1 this year, at the complete end of the spectrum to where Gourcuff found himself. Struggling for form on the pitch and struggling to even find a place in Remi Garde’s team, a couple of encouraging performances at the end of the season had convinced Blanc to name the former Bordeaux talisman in his squad, most likely to get an up close and personal look at the player he managed as Bordeaux won the title back in 2009.
In the first of two warm-up games Gourcuff got his chance to show his class on the pitch as France took on Iceland in Valenciennes. After going two goals down, France performed a spirited fight-back and stole a 3-2 victory in the final few moments. The win glossed over the defensive frailties but one thing was certain, Gourcuff hadn’t made his mark on the pitch. He may have been playing deeper than he would have liked but good players make their impact and influence a game wherever they play. Ask centre-back Adil Rami who had about six shots on goal and scored the winner.
After the Iceland game it was no surprise that Gourcuff was one of the two names omitted by Blanc. The surprise came in the other name. Already without Tottenham’s Younes Kaboul through injury Blanc decided to leave Yanga-M’Biwa off the plane to Ukraine, leaving him with only three centre-backs going into a tough tournament. The Montpellier captain’s versatility should have made him a shoe-in for a place in the 23 but it seems Blanc thinks differently.
To see the full France squad visit the team page in our Euro 2012 section, here.
Between the posts there are no real surprises. Hugo Lloris has been declared as Blanc’s captain and #1. Ligue 1 is blessed with many great goalkeepers and although the selection seemed pretty straight forward the stats show the wealth of options available to Blanc. Lloris’ league rating of 6.61 actually puts him just behind deputy Steve Mandanda (6.68) and both are slightly ahead of number three Cedric Carrasso, who was superb as Bordeaux charged to a 5th place finish.
The only debate had been whether to pick Carrasso (6.59) or Saint-Etienne’s Stephané Ruffier – who has performed very well in his first season with Les Verts and actually finished with a better rating then the chosen Bordeaux ‘keeper (6.71). One stopper that should have been considered was Brest’s Steeve Elana who actually finished with a better rating than both Lloris and Mandanda (6.96). Of course Blanc has gone with European experience and few will argue with the decision.
The injury to Bacary Sagna that ruled him out of the tournament made it certain that Lille’s Mathieu Debuchy would be France’s right back at the tournament. He beats Reveillere in most categories and certainly justifies his place in the squad. Out of all four full-backs, no one gets forward and delivers a cross as much as the Lille right-back.
At the left is where most of the conversations have been centred on this week. Evra was poor against Iceland and it seems Clichy will get his chance against Serbia. Both are very similar and are hard to separate. Evra edges the overall rating by the smallest of margins and beats Clichy in tackles per game. The Manchester City man however is ahead when it comes to interceptions and accurate crosses. With Debuchy pushing on down the right flank, Blanc will more likely go with Evra as a dependable defensive option (most of the time).
Two names not in the squad worth mentioning are Valencia’s Jeremy Mathieu and Benoit Tremoulinas of Bordeaux as fans have questions why neither was given a chance in the squad. Both fall short of Evra and Clichy’s overall rating and only Mathieu comes close in the defensive attributes, but still comes up short of both Manchester based full backs.
During qualification the duo of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes became the preferred partnership for Laurent Blanc and it seems that it won’t change before the Euros despite some shambolic defending against Iceland. Blanc has taken a chance only selecting three centre-backs in his squad but it seems he would be making a bigger mistake by not letting Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny take his place in the starting line-up.
Finishing what has been an excellent season with Arsenal Koscielny beats both Rami and Mexes in successful tackles as well as topping the latter in interceptions. The decision for Blanc would be who to drop from duo. The obvious answer would be Mexes, who has played fewer games and offers less than the dynamic Rami, despite his WhoScored rating ranking best of the trio.
It would be surprising to see Blanc deviate from the 4-2-3-1 that he has played all the way through qualification and in some of the excellent friendly wins over Germany and Brazil. In the anchor positions there really is no debate. No one can see past Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye and the excellent Yann M’Vila from Rennes. Both Blaise Matuidi and Alou Diarra will start on the bench; of that there is no doubt.
The main cause for debate comes in front of that impressive duo. Who does Blanc pick to bring that spark of creativity that time after time will make or break how far Les Bleus progress in any international tournament? Potentially he has seven players to choose from, and that is after taking Gourcuff off the list.
A trio of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez is the most likely to start against England on June 11th and there will be few that argue with that choice, however when breaking down each players season one of those names should definitely be under review.
Ribery should be the first name on the team-sheet, regardless of the previous indifferent form he has showed for France, it would be very risky to omit a player that has scored 17 goals and assisted the same amount for Bayern Munich this season. No other player in the France squad has a better rating than the explosive winger.
With Ribery on the left or the right you need someone else to be as flexible as the former Marseille player, and in Jeremy Menez you have the perfect foil. Ending the season with an equally impressive rating and seven goals to go with his 13 assists, Menez is the wildcard that you need to unlock a stubborn defence. He has a very direct running style, explosive power and pace and just that je ne sais quoi that players need at this level. Either on the left or the right he will be a handful.
Although Nasri is likely to start it was the diminutive Valbuena that came on against Iceland and gave the side a lift, his dynamic and explosive style can be effective on the wings and even more so when he cuts inside. He finished the Ligue 1 season with eight goals and 14 assists, a fabulous return in what was a poor season for his club side Marseille. He has the highest key passes average than any of the other midfielders and could just be that missing piece of Blanc’s puzzle. More and more Valbuena has played centrally for his club; a similar move from Blanc would complete a very attacking trio and certainly cause teams a few sleepless nights if it all clicked into place.
Blanc’s formation only allows for one forward from the start and there is no doubt that place will go to Karim Benzema on June 11th. The Real Madrid forward has enjoyed a wonderful season in Spain scoring 21 goals league goals (32 total), which would have been lauded in the Spanish capital if it wasn’t for the feats of Cristiano Ronaldo. Also worth a mention are his 7 assists (12 total) and superb conversation rate of 21% - a striker in phenomenal form going into an international tournament.
Coming off the bench will be another forward coming off his best ever season. Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud helped himself to 21 goals this season and in the process helped his club lift their first ever Ligue 1 championship. Most other countries would crave to have a striker of Giroud’s abilities in their squad but it seems the towering front-man will have to do with cameo roles off the bench, just like the two assists he picked up in the comeback against Iceland. Managing a mammoth 4.5 shots per game on the way to a 13% conversation rate, pales beside Benzema but is just superb in its own right.
The idea of playing Benzema just a little wider and letting Giroud lead the line brings mouth-watering thoughts to any one that has watched Ligue 1 this season, unfortunately for the fans this will never happen. Blanc will start with either or, but if Benzema doesn’t perform then Giroud is a ready-made wrecking ball of a replacement.