Learning Experience for France
A former reserve stepped up while current fringe players impressed but France's balance remained a work in progress in Tuesday's 4-0 win vs. Norway.
Valbuena is ready
In 34 league games with Marseille last season, Mathieu Valbuena amassed six assists; last night vs. Norway, the midfielder claimed three in one game and showed why he will be a starter in Brazil.
Not every game will be as easy as this friendly against a Norway side that looked some way short of international standard but the 29-year-old was a constant threat both in open play and on set-pieces and his trio of assists could have easily been four or five but for the heroics of Orjan Nyland in the Norwegian goal and the profligacy of the French forwards (Antione Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy) had been more clinical.
Valbuena started on the right in the 4-3-3 favoured by Didier Deschamps but moved constantly and it was from the left wing that he gave two of his assists. He also played at times in a playmaker role behind Giroud and his performance was a continuation of what he has been doing for France over the last two years.
He has been the national team's most consistent player in that period and the only question mark over his place in the team was his form after a poor season in Ligue 1 which led to the loss of his starting place at Marseille.
The absence of the injured Franck Ribery is also beneficial for Valbuena who, after playing in just one game at the 2010 World Cup (a 21-minute appearance as a substitute vs. South Africa) and not seeing any action at Euro 2012, is ready for his first real competition with a big role to play.
The reserves are sharp
As well as checking Valbuena's form, monitoring the partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho, who was captain for the first time in his international career, and focusing on the performance of Mathieu Debuchy in his battle with Bacary Sagna to start at right-back, the game also gave several fringe players a chance to impress.
In the absence of Karim Benzema, who will join the rest of the squad on Wednesday (like Raphael Varane, following their Champions League final exertions), Giroud had a great opportunity to shine and took it with two goals, good presence in the penalty area and effective linking with his teammates.
Benzema is ahead of him but the Arsenal man will be very useful to come on during games to put more pressure on the opposition defence. Giroud is not the only striker to have done well; Remy deserves credit too having scored within two minutes of coming on.
The goal was reminiscent of Thierry Henry: latching on to a through ball and running through one-on-one with the keeper, before sliding the ball home with his right foot alongside the post. Even in his celebration he looked like Henry. Remy can play wide and in the centre and is a great asset, especially now that he is totally fit after a few physical problems at Newcastle in the last few months.
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Another forward who made a good impression was Griezmann. Winning just his second cap, the Real Sociedad winger was active in France's possession, had a couple of good chances and his movement (he moved a lot from the left, where he started, to the centre and right) was interesting. He won't start in Brazil but will be handy to have in the squad.
Finally, there was also a second cap for Stephane Ruffier in goal. In the space of three weeks, the Saint-Etienne keeper went from being on the standby list to backup for Hugo Lloris in the pecking order, after an injury to Steve Mandanda.
After making his debut in Norway back in August 2010, Ruffier faced them again and kept a clean sheet which was highlighted by a good save just before half-time. There is not enough evidence to be completely reassured that, should something happen to Lloris, he will be ready to step up but he looked sharp and confident and that's enough for now.
Don't forget the team's balance
Tuesday was a good recreation for the French with four goals and a clean sheet but everything was not perfect, especially considering the level of the opposition.
What is worrying is that France were too exposed defensively at times, once again. The midfield three is well constructed and Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi complement each other well.
However, Cabaye is not a holding midfielder, unlike Rio Mavuba or Jeremy Gonalons for example. He can play there and is a better player than them both but at Newcastle, before he joined PSG in January, he often played behind the striker and is naturally attracted to going forward.
Cabaye doesn't have the mindset of someone only sitting back in front of his back four, despite it being his role and was out of position a few times on Tuesday. The problem was exacerbated by neither Matuidi nor Pogba covering for him. Against a better opposition, France could get punished.
The issue was the same on the right hand side. Valbuena was decisive going forward but did not track back and Debuchy was left on his own against one or two opponents far too often. Pogba should have covered Valbuena but again, he is too attack-minded and hardly defended.
When Moussa Sissoko came on for him at half time, he put on a better defensive shift and the difference was clear. There is a thin line between balance and unbalance in a 4-3-3 formation. Deschamps still has a couple more weeks to get it sorted.