A little over 4 years ago, France’s World Cup hopes were left in tatters. The players refused to train after Nicolas Anelka was sent home following a row with head coach Raymond Domench, culminating in Les Bleus crashing out at the group stages of South Africa 2010. In the aftermath of the World Cup, Domench was sacked and Laurent Blanc appointed his successor for Euro 2012, before Didier Deschamps took the reins after the European Championships 2 years ago.
The quarter-final exit to eventual winners Spain in Ukraine showed signs that there was a good team available to Deschamps, he just needed to coax the performances out of the personnel available to him. While France scraped into Brazil 2014, qualifying through the medium of playoffs, they have begun to realise their potential in South America.
Having battled their way to the quarter-final with a 2-0 win over Nigeria, in the process setting up a meeting with Germany, fans will be starting to believe there is a chance they can go all the way in Brazil. Deschamps’ side are currently the highest rated team (7.19) at the World Cup, an impressive feat considering France came into the competition without Franck Ribéry.
The attacker was the highest rated player (8.24) in the Bundesliga last season, so for him to have been ruled out completely would have been a huge blow to the French. Nevertheless, they have soldiered on without Ribéry to the last-8 of the World Cup, with the players at Deschamps’ disposal doing exactly what is required of them.
In their 4 World Cup games, France have conceded just 2 goals, both of those coming late on in the 5-2 thumping of Switzerland. While Hugo Lloris could perhaps of done better for Blerim Dzemaili’s daisycutter of a free-kick, there was little he could do for Granit Xhaka’s thumping close-range volley. The Spurs shotstopper has kept the most clean sheets (3) at the competition, while his save success is a commendable 77.8%.
Playing behind Raphäel Varane and Mamadou Sakho, with Laurent Koscielny in reserve when needs must, France’s solidity comes as little surprise. The latter pairing were first-team regulars for Liverpool and Arsenal respectively last season and while Varane was restricted to just 14 league appearances due to a combination of the form of Sergio Ramos and Pepe and injury, the 21-year-old is widely regarded as one of the finest young centre-backs in football.
Flanked by Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra, the France rearguard has been sturdy and organised, while the confidence Lloris exudes behind them means even if the backline is penetrated, he is there to deny the opposition. However, it’s France's efficient midfield which really has the team ticking.
Having fallen to a 2-0 first leg defeat in their World Cup playoff with Ukraine, Deschamps moved from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 and having recovered to pick up a 3-0 win, he has persisted with a system that has brought out the best in the midfield-three. The triumvirate of Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and, in particular, Blaise Matuidi have performed admirably in Brazil, with the trio complementing one another tremendously.
Pogba has perhaps been a mixed bag at the World Cup - he was somewhat fortunate to not have been sent off during France’s 3-0 win over Honduras after kicking out at Wilson Palacios, though having been stamped on numerous times by the Stoke midfielder in the melee suggests that the referee was right not to dismiss the Juventus youngster. Nevertheless, his WhoScored rating for his club (7.64) has dropped slightly for France (7.42) and while his World Cup rating is impressive, there's certainly room for improvement there.
Instead, Matuidi has been the one to shine for France in Brazil. The PSG ace impressed for the Parisian side in their Ligue 1 title-defending season, but has really showcased his talents with the national team. His WhoScored rating for France (7.71) has shot up from his rating for PSG (7.09) last season and he has firmly established himself as one of the best players in his position.
The 27-year-old is currently averaging the most dribbles per game (3) of every France international, further signifying his importance to Deschamps. In a 4-3-3, one of the three midfielders needs to provide the drive from deep to help support the attack, a position in which Pogba was expected to excel at the competition. While only Matuidi is completing more dribbles per match than the 21-year-old (2.3), it’s fair to say the PSG star has undertaken the role with aplomb.
His clubmate Cabaye has also performed to his usual high standards at the competition. His WhoScored rating for Newcastle and PSG (7.1) is roughly in line with his rating for France (7.22), where he is tasked with retaining possession in midfield. Of every player with at least 2 World Cup appearances, Cabaye is averaging the most passes per game (54.3) for Les Bleus, while his pass accuracy (89.6%) shows he is consistently finding a teammate. With temperatures soaring and humidity playing a role in Brazil, keeping hold of the ball and making the opposition tire by working harder to reclaim possession is essential to breaking down teams piece-by-piece as the minutes tick by.
In Moussa Sissoko and Morgan Schneiderlin, France have options in midfield in reserve, with both impressing against Switzerland and Ecuador respectively. This strength in depth will be crucial in the latter stages of the competition and their performances in the group stages suggest they can slot into the starting XI seamlessly when needed. With the midfield impressing, the front-three have also upped their game to fire France to the quarter-finals.
The absence of Ribéry could have been enough to wreck their chances of winning the World Cup, but Karim Benzema in particular has exceeded expectations for the national team. A chequered past for France and a poor start to the season for Real Madrid has since been forgotten having netted 3 goals and assisted 1 in 4 appearances. His WhoScored rating (8.11) is the best of every France performer and ranks among the top-20 of every World Cup player.
However, his creative ability is what has also impressed in South America. Only Lionel Messi (18), Xherdan Shaqiri (17) and Kevin De Bruyne (15) have played more key passes than Benzema (13) at the World Cup, while only James Rodríguez (7) and Thomas Müller (6) have directly contributed to more goals than the Frenchman (5).
Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have each started 2 games a piece in attack alongside Benzema, though it looks like the latter will start against Germany. The man completing the attack, and perhaps the key cog in the offensive engine, is diminutive playmaker Mathieu Valbuena. Marseille may have stuttered to a 6th placed finish in Ligue 1 last season, but the poor performance of L’OM did nothing to dissuade Deschamps that Valbuena is a crucial player in his starting XI.
His WhoScored rating (7.98) is also among the top-20 players at the World Cup, and for good reason. The pint-sized schemer is averaging the most key passes per game (3.7) of every Frenchman, while his average number of accurate crosses per game (3.7) is the best of all players at the World Cup. His quality delivery benefits Benzema, Giroud and Griezmann, while he also has the ability to drift inside and allow Debuchy to overlap on the right. Either way, his impressive attacking performances have eased the loss of Ribéry and with Loïc Remy and Remy Cabella offering impressive competition - and the necessary quality in other positions - France have the talent to secure glory.
The strength in depth available to Deschamps is enough to rival any team and while Colombia and Chile have been winning the plaudits as a result of their offensive ability, France’s solid displays have guided them to this stage of the competition. A repeat of the 1982 World Cup encounter with Germany awaits them on Friday and should Les Bleus overcome their European counterparts at the Maracanã, fans will begin to believe they can become world champions for the 2nd time later this month.
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