By Charlotte Vincelot
The 2017 EUROs ended with one of the best advertisements possible for the women’s game. A highly entertaining final between the Netherlands and Denmark, and the consecration of the best team of the tournament, the home team, in a stadium full and very Oranje. The Netherlands used the support of a whole nation and the work of a new head coach to provide a very enjoyable brand of attacking football to win its first European title.
Sadly, the French national team wasn’t involved in the latter stages of the EUROs after a disappointing tournament, but is now most certainly dreaming of the same fate, at home, for the 2019 World Cup.
Since reaching the semifinals in the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, France hasn’t been able to go further than the quarterfinals. Against Denmark (2013), Germany (2015), Canada (2016) and England (2017), it’s been close, every time, but Les Bleues never progressed onto the semifinals, in tournaments that they entered as one of the favourites for the title.
France has to learn how to win, especially when it matters. In the Netherlands, Les Bleues didn’t show much, if anything. Unable to score except on set pieces, twice thanks to goalkeeping mistakes, we’ll remember the reaction after being down to ten early against Switzerland and the capacity of earning two draws after trailing. The team had its best game against England, but it didn’t matter. One win, one loss and two draws without playing well, France didn’t act as the favourite it was.
After the quarterfinal loss, Olivier Echouafni declared: “It came down to one detail. That’s what high-level is, we’re learning.” (AFP/Eurosport).
As a young coach, Echouafni may be learning, but France has done enough of that the last few tournaments, and now is the time to put these learnings into effect. It was the most experienced squad of the tournament, a team with players used to winning at the club level, and who took part in several of the last major tournaments – players for the most part, used to playing with each other. It wasn’t a team to learn, it was a team to win.
Once again, France failed to reach at least the semifinals. Efficiency (three goals scored in four games, all on set pieces), playmaking, defence (three goals against) have been lacking. Those exits can’t be explained only by what’s going on on the field, but also in player’s minds. Right now, there is no better example to take than the Netherlands to build going forward. This young Dutch team has become the European Champions just seven months after Sarina Wiegman was appointed head coach, while playing the kind of attacking and entertaining football France can now only wish to level.
Head Coach : A bet in the making
Noël Le Graët, the president of the French federation (FFF) had set a goal to reach the semifinals. Not that ambitious on paper for the third nation in the FIFA rankings (2nd in UEFA) prior to the tournament, who had won the SheBelieves Cup earlier in the year, but still not achieved. As soon as the tournament ended for Les Bleues, Le Graët renewed his confidence in Olivier Echouafni, under contract until 2018 (soon to be extended until the 2019 World Cup according to the FFF president).
After the loss against England, Le Graët admitted the result and the quality of play hadn’t been exactly what he expected, but that Olivier Echouafni had been “really involved, not knowing much about women’s football when he accepted the job less than one year ago,” and that he was “motivated and popular among the players, and also smart enough to analyse how the team can do better.” His record, fifteen games and only one defeat, also seemed to play a role in him staying put.
The questions raised when Echouafni was appointed last September were primarily about his lack of coaching and women’s football experience – these haven’t been answered. The team certainly hasn’t progressed from previous tournaments, and it can pretty easily be argued they did worse, barely making it out of the group stage without showing much in terms of quality, something that has long been associated with the French national team – although it had already dipped under former head coach Philippe Bergerôo (2013-16), who focused more on getting them fit.
By appointing two coaches in a row with no experience in women’s football, Le Graët gambled on them bringing the missing ingredient that could lead quality players to obtain results worthy of their talent. It could be argued the FFF could have looked abroad to find experienced head coaches familiar with women’s football and able to lead the team to another level if there was none available in France, but they has been historically reluctant to do so.
Those gambles haven’t paid off yet, and with the 2019 World Cup played at home, Echouafni now has less than two years to find the right formula, with one year of experience, a big tournament under his belt, and many friendlies ahead. It’s a big task, and the pressure is only going to get higher the closer the World Cup gets. The new adventure begins on the 15th of September against Colombia.
The domestic league, an obstacle?
Is the French Division 1 the culprit in the national team’s mishaps? It can’t be the only reason, but it may play a role. The lack of competitiveness is an important fact. The Division 1 (D1) is really unbalanced between the rare professional teams and the amateurs (large majority). Players of the national team – almost all playing in the D1 – aren’t used to having much adversity with their club, and it can play a part in them not being able to go far in major tournaments, which sees them going out as soon as things are getting serious.
Another point that should be discussed is the importance of overseas players in the best French clubs when thinking about France’s difficulties in some areas. The importance in the last few years of scorers like Lotta Schelin, Ada Hegerberg (OL), Cristiane (PSG), or Sofia Jakobsson (MHSC) is noteworthy, as is the playmaking -another area where France has had difficulties this summer – of players like Shirley Cruz and Dzsenifer Marozsan (Gaëtane Thiney hasn’t had a lot of playing time), or the defensive solidity brought by Linda Sembrant, Saki Kumagai (replaced in the midfield) or Irene Paredes. It’s not about calling the presence of overseas players in the D1 into question, but how their impact in the best French clubs can possibly have consequences on the national team as long as the D1 isn’t a competitive league, while presenting contenders for the Champions League.
Lastly, as it’s been a debate in France; should more players go and play in other leagues? In the 2017 EUROs squad, only Elise Bussaglia (Germany, now Spain) and Amandine Henry (USA) were playing (not that much in Bussaglia’s case) abroad. For some players, it seems like it could be a good thing both for them and the national team to go and get exposed to other playing styles and cultures. Wiegman (the Netherlands), Nielsen (Denmark), Thalhammer (Austria), have all done / are doing an amazing job with their teams but, it would be hard not to acknowledge how the players (especially the starters for most of them) have been able to grow while playing in other leagues – Sweden, England and Germany, for example.
Now, Echouafni has less than two years to build a team able to win the 2019 World Cup played in France. Changes are expected all round, and, as captain Wendie Renard wrote on Twitter after the tournament was over for the team: “Let’s take our responsibilities and start over with new ideas.”
A youth movement expected
The squad should experience modifications soon. Firstly, because of international retirements, even if Camille Abily is the only one who has officially announced hers at present, others are expected. The ‘golden generation’ hasn’t won anything, and it may be time to move on and focus on the future of the team (which doesn’t mean all those experienced players should go).
Secondly, France has had some success in the last few years with its young teams. Two wins at the U19 EURO (2013, 2016), two podiums at the U20 WWCs (2014, 2016), and a win at the U17 WWC (2012). Some of the players who took part in these tournaments are already a part of the national team – with different roles and playing time – and others are expected to join it in the near future, bringing their winning resume with them. The last one to be called, Grace Geyoro, has been one of the few successes of the EUROs. Great talents like Delphine Cascarino and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, who may have joined the team this summer if not injured, are expected to boost the offence of the team.
It may also be time for players on the fringes to have a real shot at earning their spot. One club in particular could see its players soon play a bigger role with the national team, and that is Montpellier. Of the five players in the squad for the EUROs (including new signing Méline Gérard), only Sakina Karchaoui has seen some real playing time. With the team playing the Champions League next season, and some of France’s most promising players in it, it would only be logical.
Rethinking France’s playing style
It’s hard not to be disappointed with what France had to offer on many levels during the EUROs. On the field, the team has lacked creativity, pace, efficiency, aggressiveness, solidarity (except when trailing and down to ten players), and the team hasn’t been good enough offensively or defensively. There is no way to know what Olivier Echouafni is planning right now, and it could depend on new players being brought in and the necessity to give a fresh perspective to the players frustrated by their previous tournaments.
Defensively, it’s more about organisation than the players, even if some have had bad games, and about being prepared, as most teams will continue to operate with counter-attacks against Les Bleues.
Plagued by injuries before and during the tournament (especially in the back), Nils Nielsen and Denmark were solid defensively during the EUROs (except in the final), and it wouldn’t have been possible without team effort and organisation. In the French midfield, the duo Henry/Geyoro has been one of the bright spots of the tournament and Echouafni could build his midfield around that promising pair. Now, there is the issue of playmaking and scoring goals. It should be the area where the most changes happen, and the return of Amel Majri won’t solve everything. France needs to have a reliable goal scorer (or more) and for her to be put in good positions to do her job.
But, whether new or more experienced players, France needs to have a real game plan, mental toughness and to be more in sync with each other if being World Champions in 2019 is the goal, because teams aren’t waiting for Les Bleues to shake things up. Some of the powerhouses (Germany, USA, Japan) have already begun working on the future (and it’s not always going smoothly). The EUROs has allowed young teams to take over, and they’re on the rise, and let’s not forget non-European teams that also with a bright future out. The 2019 World Cup already looks like it will be really competitive, and France has a lot of work to do to be a credible threat for the title. It can’t not be an objective, being at home, even if the goal is also to build on the long term and help the sport to evolve.