Can France be considered dark horses at this World Cup? Yes and no; there’s an uncertainty about where to place them in world or European standings.
Like Spain, the French have a sparkling recent history on the international stage, having won World Cup ’98, Euro 2000 and reached the final of the World Cup in 2006. Like Spain, they’ve also had tremendous falls, and, unlike their Spanish counterparts, been a part of off-pitch embarrassment on the world stage.
It’s a new squad this time around. Four years ago in South Africa, Karim Benzema was overlooked; Olivier Giroud was still a relative unknown outside of Ligue 1. The team have enormously exciting young prospects in Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane. Creatively, Mathieu Valbuena has been a livewire in the final third. All this in the absence of Franck Ribery.
France have won their opening two group games of this World Cup emphatically, combining for eight goals scored against Honduras and Switzerland. There’s depth and quality all over the pitch, youth and vitality blended with experience. It’s difficult to see where the clear weakness is in Didier Deschamps’ squad.
One of the positives has been Olivier Giroud’s performance against Switzerland. The Arsenal striker was reportedly said to be unhappy about being benched for the opener against Honduras. In the following game against Switzerland, Deschamps offered up a three-man attack with Giroud central and Benzema and Valbuena on either flank.
Bar the Dutch, it’s difficult to think of a more complete attacking outfit at this finals. Giroud looked a player reborn against the Swiss, a completely different forward to the one that infuriated some and generally disappointed most at the Emirates last season.
His header to open the scoring was an excellent finish. It was by no means a tap-in – something he’s become somewhat known for in an Arsenal shirt – and the striker had a lot to do to beat Diego Benaglio in the Switzerland goal.
France’s third came via a Giroud cross to Valbuena, the Arsenal striker thundering down the left touchline in a burst of pace that left most Arsenal fans stunned. This mobile, confident, clinical Giroud looked nothing of the player who trudged through most of last season.
One of two things is happening here: either Giroud is improving, which would be unusual and surprising at 27; or he’s benefitting from a mixture of rest and players Arsenal have lacked at many points throughout last season, basically forward runners.
Benzema and Giroud can interchange roles in France’s XI. The latter benefits from the former’s obvious pace and direct approach. Benzema, on the other hand (and Valbuena and Blaise Matuidi), are taking advantage of Giroud’s hold-up play, with the Arsenal forward regularly able to send his teammates through on goal.
The right environment is bringing the best out of a striker who can be horribly exposed when isolated.
A good World Cup – and there’s no reason to believe France can’t go far in this tournament – will be a small victory for Arsenal. The good feeling from a positive summer tournament can be invaluable, while Giroud is also showcasing what’s needed to get the best out of him at club level.
It doesn’t change Arsenal’s need for a new centre-forward, but the form of Giroud for France, both at the World Cup and during pre-tournament friendlies, will help to make for much better reading when Arsenal’s squad for next season is complete following the right summer additions.