During his early years in England, Arsène Wenger turned to a brilliant generation of French attackers to get Arsenal playing the kind of slick, attacking football that would become their trademark. Nobody could argue with the wisdom of bringing Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord to north London. However, the manager’s current penchant for signing central defenders from his homeland is likely to prove much less fruitful.
Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny are both good players. In fact, they are two of the best French central defenders around. But that statement needs to be put in context.
Firstly, French football is no longer what it was. Wenger’s move to Arsenal coincided with a boom in France that would see Les Bleus crowned world and European champions. The last decade has been far harder. They continue to produce good players (Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra, Jeremy Toulalan, Yoann Gourcuff, Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema would get into most national teams). Yet one glaring problem remains: France has not produced a world-class centre-half since the days of Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly.
Say what you like about Raymond Domenech, he was continually let down by glaring individual errors during his six years at the helm. Philippe Mexes scored one and set up two – for the opposition – when France crashed in Austria two years ago. Julien Escude put through his own net in the crucial qualifier with Romania. Michael Ciani, another player Wenger admires, looked like a rabbit in the headlights during his recent debut against Spain. Adil Rami was far from solid alongside Mexes in Norway two weeks ago.
That Jean-Alain Boumsong has stayed in contention for so long says a lot. The only centre-back of true quality to come out of France in recent years is William Gallas. Given that Wenger had grown tired of the 33-year-old’s persistent injuries and occasional tantrums, it seems odd that he has returned home to reinforce this crucial area.
The issue has become so worrying France Football magazine this week launched an investigation. “We have forgotten the basics,” complains ex-France defender Patrick Battiston in the feature headlined: “SOS défense centrale!” In the same piece, Gerard Houllier claims French youngsters no longer want to play in defence, while youth coach Philippe Bergeroo reveals – somewhat alarmingly – that French kids are no longer taught the art of tackling.
Neither of Wenger’s recruits can be blamed for national team’s demise. The 24-year-old Koscielny had only one season in the top flight with Lorient before joining Arsenal, and has not yet been blooded at international level. His time will surely come. Koscielny is rated very highly, and Gunners fans are not the only ones hoping he develops into a class act.
"France continue to produce good players, but one glaring problem remains: France has not produced a world-class centre-half since the days of Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly."
Squillaci, meanwhile, has won 21 caps and has rarely let his country down when called upon. He was included in France’s 2010 World Cup squad as back up to Gallas and the error-prone Eric Abidal mainly because he was the only contender left not to have committed an embarrassing and costly blunder. The 30-year-old is strong in the air, reasonably quick on the turn, and plays with impressive consistency. He has not, however, developed into the commanding presence many hoped he would during his promising early years.
In 2004, Squillaci was being billed as a natural successor to the recently-retired Lilian Thuram. He had just enjoyed a superb season at Monaco, starring in a defence that also included Evra and Gael Givet. Squillaci was a rock as Didier Deschamps’ men saw off Real Madrid and Chelsea on their way to the Champions League final.
A golden future seemingly beckoned, yet Squillaci struggled to make the step up to international level. Picked alongside his club-mate Givet, he cut a hesitant figure in the blue of France and his passing was woeful. As Wenger might say, the Stade de France supporters had become accustomed to eating caviar and were unimpressed with the bangers and mash Domenech’s rabble were serving up. Givet and Squillaci bore the brunt of the criticism, Thuram was lured out of retirement – along with Zinedine Zidane and Claude Makelele – and Squillaci’s confidence took a hammering.
Squillaci’s switch to Lyon in 2006 prompted a recall from Domenech, and he has been a regular in the France squad ever since. But despite winning back-to-back league titles, he never truly imposed himself at Stade Gerland and was certainly not a crowd favourite. Lyon were happy to let him go when Sevilla offered €5.5m in 2008.
Moving to Spain brought the best out of Squillaci. He probably needed to leave France, where people had him pigeonholed as the talented defender who ultimately disappointed. Replacing a player of Thuram’s ilk at the age of 24 was never going to be easy and, sadly for Squillaci, he had neither the skill nor the temperament to do so.
Over the past two years, however, he has shown his true quality at Sevilla, emerging as one of La Liga’s most reliable defenders. Squillaci’s experience should serve Arsenal well. He is a steady performer and is better equipped for such a challenge than he was six years ago.
Rest assured he is definitely not the next Pascal Cygan. But Arsenal fans should not expect him to be another John Terry or Nemanja Vidic either. After all, the days when France used to produce defenders with such a towering presence have long since gone.
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