France find greater balance without Olivier Giroud

The Rio Report

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You can't say that France aren't entertaining, at least. Didier Deschamps side are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup and looking pretty good, thus looking like keeping up their record of not being able to string two decent World Cup performances together. They failed to qualify in rather shambolic circumstances in 1994, won it in 1998, fell at the first round stage without scoring a goal in 2002, reached the final in 2006 and then there was the debacle in 2010.


With some fearsome opponents left in it's obviously a little early to predict another success for Les Bleus, but they have looked as impressive as any of the main contenders thus far. However, they laboured at times in the 2-0 defeat of Nigeria, and some of that could be put down to the starting XI selected by Deschamps.

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While France's most emphatic win of the group stage was the 5-2 defeat of Switzerland, they looked at their most fluent against Honduras - when they weren't being kicked all around the park by Wilson Palacios and chums, of course.

This was largely down to the system they played in both matches, with Karim Benzema starting in the middle of an attacking three and Mathieu Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann on either side of him against Honduras, whereas the Switzerland game saw Olivier Giroud come into the team, with Benzema pushed out wide.

At his best, Benzema is a devastating player, but his best is often frustratingly elusive. When off his game he can basically be a passenger, a disinterested figure whose first touch can often be mistaken for an errant pass. Coincidentally, these occasions often occur when he's played out of position, as he has been by Deschamps in order to accommodate Giroud, with Benzema flitting around as almost the spare man in attack as the Arsenal man fills the centre-forward berth.

''I haven't played on the left for a long time now, it's not my preferred position,'' said Benzema before the tournament, when his move to the flank was mooted in reaction to Franck Ribery's injury, and while he went on to make positive noises about his play there, it's clear that he's both happiest and most effective through the middle.

That was how it started against Nigeria too, with Benzema once again asked to play the role of the auxiliary wideman, both marginalising him and making France altogether less fluid than when they have a proper winger on the left side of the attack.

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Indeed, it seems odd that Deschamps would alter his team shape and indeed imbalance his side to make room for Giroud, who is a perfectly decent striker with a good scoring record in the Premier League, but not exactly a man you should make a special effort to accommodate. Griezmann equally is not Leo Messi, but he is certainly a more dynamic presence who gives France greater mobility and indeed flexibility, and Benzema's strengths are obviously in the centre, so if one was to change things to suit any of those players, then surely it shouldn't be for Giroud.

Not only is Griezmann an excellent player, one with whom France looked much more threatening after his introduction for Giroud and who forced their second goal without actually scoring it himself, his presence improves the whole team. With him providing more natural width, that creates more space for the storming midfield runs of Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, which were in full evidence on Monday night. While their forward line is strong and defence generally solid, one thinks that if France are going to go far or even win this World Cup, then it will be on the back of their two superb midfielders.

Deschamps has thus far done an excellent job at changing the mentality surrounding a French side that were mutinous four years ago, and he took quite a risk by not selecting Samir Nasri in the interests of squad unity, particularly after the Ribery injury.

However, while France were successful against Nigeria, hopefully their performances with and without Giroud crammed into the team will convince Deschamps of the most effective option for their quarter-final.

Nick Miller

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