Les Bleus transforming under Blanc
After the World Cup fiasco, Laurent Blanc is changing France's team culture
Blanc has tried out various combinations of players, searching for a solid core
Early returns are promising as France tops its Euro qualifying group
Laurent Blanc claimed to have had no second thoughts about taking the job as France coach after its embarrassing World Cup campaign, and in his five months in charge, he has led the team to the top of its Euro 2012 qualifying group. France was in London this week for a friendly against England at Wembley, which it deservedly won, with the 2-1 score line greatly flattering the hosts. This week provided a good opportunity to look back at Blanc's comments from his first news conference as France coach, and see how much progress has been made.
"What interests me above all is to speak about the future, not the past. For me, the past has no future."
Blanc was quick to draw a line under the World Cup fiasco, omitting all 23 players who were in South Africa from his first squad for the August friendly against Norway. But it has not been quite that simple to forget what they did last summer, even if 10 of the 22-man squad against England were not then part of the group.
The main problem, Blanc quickly realized, was a mental one: he needed to improve the players' attitude, and help them overcome the fear factor from playing at home stadium Stade de France. "When you have 76,000 fans behind you, it gives you a real boost, but if you hear whistling after five minutes, you can't feel the same thing -- it does affect us," former captain Patrice Evra admitted to L'Equipe earlier this year.
Blanc also instilled a code of conduct, which has worked so far (bar one late attendance to training by Karim Benzema, Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra) though his efforts to bring former France greats to speak to the current crop has been less successful: Zinedine Zidane and Fabien Barthez, 1998 World Cup winners, turned up before the qualifier against Belarus, which France lost 1-0; Just Fontaine, the iconic French forward from the 1950s, was due to speak before the Romania game, but withdrew through illness. France won the game 2-0.
The French media was outraged that Blanc made his players answer a 50-question multiple-choice test to assess their psychological state, but this is no different to what Arsene Wenger's youth players at Arsenal have been doing for years. Arsenal's profiler is Jacques Crevoisier, a former Liverpool assistant coach who gives players 117 questions to answer. "Of course psychology is crucial to how players perform and those tests can show up weaknesses we did not know about," he told SI.com.
It was said even before the World Cup that the France team lacked leadership and Blanc has rotated the captaincy at times between Alou Diarra, Philippe Mexes, Florent Malouda, and Hugo Lloris on Wednesday, with Diarra expected to keep it for the long-term.
The next challenge, though, will be how Blanc decides to handle Evra, now available again after his five-match ban, and Franck Ribery, who will soon be fit again after a long injury layoff. Evra may find his place barred by Eric Abidal. Abidal restored to the left-back position he plays at Barcelona (he was in the center under Domenech), was excellent against England.
Blanc gets more respect from his players than Domenech ever did, and does things differently enough to remind us that his predecessor is gone, if not forgotten.
"A new coach should be able to lean on a solid core of players, but I don't even have a melon's pip. My task is to find that solid core."
Blanc has said that the only player certain of his place in the starting lineup is goalkeeper Lloris, although he has kept the same center-back pairing of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami for each of his six games. Both men endured difficult moments against debutant Andy Carroll, but with England missing three senior forwards, the center-backs did not get the stern test Blanc would have wanted.
Alou Diarra, who was Blanc's title-winning captain at Bordeaux in 2009, has emerged as the key figure in midfield. Blanc courted controversy by selecting Diarra for the squad to face England, even though he is currently serving a six-game domestic ban for pushing a referee. Diarra did not start the game but came on as a second-half substitute. Blanc also thinks highly of midfielder Yann M'Vila, who excelled in the 2-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, but he is only 21 and needs more games to establish himself.
Samir Nasri could become one of Blanc's few "Untouchables," as he has been in excellent form for club (Arsenal) and country this season, unlike his rival for the playmaker role, Yoann Gourcuff, who has struggled to adapt to his new Lyon teammates. "It's about time that I imposed myself on the France team, so it's a big season for me," Nasri told RMC Radio this week. The Nasri-Gourcuff midfield axis reminded Aime Jacquet, Francešs Word Cup-winning coach, of the Djorkaeff-Zidane partnership in 1998. "I can play with Yoann, just like I can play with Cesc [Fabregas] at Arsenal," Nasri added. "Look at Spain, they don't have problems with two technical players like Xavi and Iniesta in their midfield."
Blanc has said that he had only two players in his squad who were "potentially great," naming Florent Malouda, whose France performances have not hit the heights of his Chelsea ones, and Ribery. He did add that Nasri could join them and, perhaps significantly, did not mention Gourcuff.
Again, how Blanc handles Ribery and his return to the team could be decisive in how the "solid core" takes shape. The only available place is on the right wing, as Malouda and Nasri-Gourcuff have the left and center tied up. Ribery has said before that he does not like playing on the right but it's unlikely he will repeat that in Blanc's earshot.
Verdict: Almost there
"I don't want a team living behind closed doors, closed in on itself and cut off from the outside world. Football has to open up a bit more."
Blanc wants the French public to feel closer to its players and understands that comes not just from his team's performances on the pitch, but its behavior off it too. The main problem here is the ongoing issues with the French media, which is of course the main conduit to the public.
Defender William Gallas has not played for France since the World Cup, but he summed up many players' feelings when he described how the French press operated. "The press wrote anything they wanted, the information was not true," he told Les Inrockuptibles. "I did not give an interview for three years because I read too many lies -- I was silent, stuck with a personality that is not mine."
While Blanc's dealings with the press are a total change from the Domenech era -- one journalist was so used to hearing Domenech respond in riddles and jokes that he was stunned when Blanc answered his question directly -- his players still have some way to go. After the 2-0 friendly win over Luxembourg in Metz last month, only three of them stopped to speak to the press in the mixed zone after the game.
After the next match, another 2-0 win over Romania in Euro 2012 qualifying, forward Loic Remy was clearly embarrassed when he was pulled away from the press mid-sentence by communications Chief Philippe Tournon. One other senior player, who was part of the World Cup squad, was heard ranting at a journalist, "Why donšt you become France coach?" when he was accused of straying out of position.
Blanc may want a new era of transparency but with this group of players, still scarred by the past, it may just be too much to ask.
"I want a team which controls games and imposes its style of play on opponents. The aim is to be back among the elite within two years."
"I am optimistic but not euphoric," was Blancšs reasoned verdict after the England game, and it was easy enough to see why. France has now won four games in a row -- it was only minutes from a fourth straight clean sheet -- and the last time that happened was at the 2006 World Cup (Togo, Spain, Brazil, Portugal). But England's performance was so abject that no one is getting too carried away. L'Equipe only gave one England player, Carroll, a rating of more than 5/10. Gareth Barry, it said, was "slow, clumsy and therefore often late in the tackle" while Phil Jagielka was "catastrophic, at fault for both goals, and no better when he moved to the center.".
"I was hoping this would be the first real test for our defense but it was nothing of the sort, it was more like a training session," pundit Bixente Lizarazu wrote in L'Equipe. France's ability to keep the ball and pass it decently looked so impressive only because England was not capable of it. "It was great to see the team at last decide to play together at the same time," wrote Le Parisien. "Today the World Cup fiasco seems far away." Le Figaro added: "Les Bleus' annus horribilis ends with the pledge of a happy future."
In less than six months, Blanc has improved the team's mentality, developed that elusive collective spirit and given himself selection options all over the pitch. Last Wednesday, Fifa announced its latest world rankings and placed England at number six and France at 21. To everyone watching at Wembley, it looked like they had got it the wrong way round.
Verdict: Getting there