Everyone is aware of the problems that have faced France since the World Cup in the summer. Since Laurent Blanc took over as manager, France have won three out of their five games, losing to Norway and Belarus. The former Manchester United defender, though, is slowly-but-gradually building a team which is more than capable of beating most teams, with England their next opposition.
Obviously, the man to watch on Wednesday night is going to be Florent Malouda. He will probably cause the most damage to England as Fabio Capello’s side do not have a set right back – Micah Richards hasn’t looked solid all season and Kieran Gibbs isn’t getting first team football at Arsenal. Capello, though, has stated that Gibbs will start this game. The man who is keeping Gibbs out of the Arsenal side is the player who is likely to line up for France at right-back. Bacary Sagna, who scored a brilliant goal at the weekend against Everton, is in line to add to his twenty-five caps for France. The twenty-seven-year-old will have in-form Saint-Etienne midfielder Dimitri Payet in front of him. Payet, who will probably face Stephen Warnock as England’s left-back, has scored eight goals in twelve goals this season; quite an impressive feat for a player who mainly plays as a winger or attacking midfielder.
The wings are where France are at their strongest and, coincidently, the sides of defence are England’s main weak spots. With Ashley Cole pulling out through injury Capello was forced to give Aston Villa left-back Warnock a call-up. Admittedly, the former Liverpool defender has been in fine form this season, but Payet could pose serious problems down the right wing for France.
The centre of England’s defence could well be under siege from all directions, with Karim Benzema (who is finally beginning to asset himself in Spanish football with Real Madrid) will start up front, with Yoann Gourcuff behind him in a role that Steven Gerrard is likely to play for England. Benzema may not be in top form this season (two goals in fifteen appearances is hardly going to set the world alight) but the striker’s pace and finishing ability is going to be a serious threat to Rio Ferdinand, if he starts, who said only a few weeks ago that he wasn’t “100% fit”. Gourcuff has long been touted as the next big star in French football and, after a couple of disappointing seasons in Italy, the attacking midfielder rebuilt his career at Bordeaux and is now plying his trade for French giants Lyon. Gourcuff will probably play the withdrawn striker role, whilst also being the playmaker of the French side.
Partnering Ferdinand is possibly going to be Phil Jagielka, if he shakes off the injury which stopped the Everton man from training today (Tuesday). If not, Gary Cahill must surely be next in line. The Bolton defender has been outstanding this season, and the fact that he wasn’t brought into the squad until John Terry pulled out through injury was slightly farcical.
In the French midfield is likely to be a familiar face. Arsenal’s Samir Nasri could well play the role that he enjoyed at Arsenal when Cesc Fabregas was out injured, and the twenty-three-year-old could line-up with Alou Diarra, who will play a more defensive role, allowing Nasri and Gourcuff to push forward in support of Benzema. England could almost mirror this tactic, although a defensive midfielder may not be needed if they play it right. Jack Wilshere would surely have received his first start for England if he hadn’t pulled out of the squad after a training session, and it would have been his partnership with Jordan Henderson that would have given England a solid, ball-playing midfield, instead of a simple 4-4-2. Gareth Barry has hardly played well for Manchester City this season, and Henderson certainly deserves his chance.
It should be one of Barry’s teammates, however, who plays in the centre of midfield with Henderson. James Milner is more than capable of paying in the middle, while he can also go out wide and if needed. His calmness on the ball and almost continental style will certainly help England, who lack any sort of culture when the old Barry-Lampard-Gerrard combination is used.
A lot has been made of Jay Bothroyd’s inclusion in Capello’s squad. Firstly, England are seriously short of strikers, with Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe Darren Bent all out through injury. Secondly, Bothroyd is on fine form for a top-of-the-table Championship side (fifteen goals in sixteen games cannot be argued with) and, although the Championship may not be seen as the perfect foundation for international footballers, right now Bothroyd is performing better than Carlton Cole, and Peter Crouch for that matter, so he certainly deserves his call-up given the shortage of choices given to Capello.
It isn’t Bothroyd who should lead the line for England, though. Andy Carroll has a goals-to-game ration 1:2, which is pretty good for a striker who is playing in a newly promoted side. If Carroll plays, though, there are two key issues. The first issue is that England cannot start hitting the ball up to Carroll in any sort of hope that this will bring about goals. Yes, it may well work – Carroll (6ft. 3in.) will find himself up against Adil Rami (6ft. 3in.) and either Younes Kaboul (6ft. 3in.) or Mamadou Sakho (6ft. 2in.), both of whom could make their international debuts – but there are better ways to get around France.
If England play two attacking wingers such as Ashley Young on one side and Theo Walcott or Adam Johnson on the other, their chances of breaking France down are much higher than if Ferdinand decides to pump the ball up field at every given opportunity. Whether it’s Walcott, Johnson or Young, the French left-backs, likely to be Eric Abidal and Sagna, could be in for a rough night. Both players are fine defenders but, thirty-one-year-old Abidal especially, could struggle against Walcott. If Blanc has any sense, he’ll pit Walcott’s teammate, Gael Clichy against the speedy winger.
Out of all the positions on the pitch, the goalkeeping spot is the possibly the only place which gives England fans any sort of comfort. Gone are the days where opposition attacks bring profound shattering of nerves and sheer worry of conceding a goal. The defence may not be as solid as a rock – or as solid as a piece of paper for that matter – but, with Joe Hart in goal, England have a goalkeeper who will not be beaten easily. Hart may be missing for this game but Ben Foster is a more than able replacement. France are in a similar sort of position, with Lyon ‘keeper Hugo Lloris the likely candidate to start, although Steve Mandanda could be given a chance to show his worth in a game that should be used to try out new formulas, new tactics, and new players.
How they should line up
England: Foster; Gibbs, Ferdinand, Jagielka, Warnock; Milner, Henderson, Gerrard; Walcott, Young; Carroll.
France: Lloris; Sagna, Kaboul/Sakho, Rami, Abidal; Nasri, Diarra, Gourcuff; Payet, Malouda; Benzema