In the late 1990s and 2000s, France had the best center of midfield in world football. Somehow, the nation had the ridiculous fortune of having Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira on the same pitch for around a decade. Makelele -- who replaced the similarly brilliant Didier Deschamps midway through France's greatest generation -- had better positioning than any other defensive midfielder in his era. Vieira was a world-class athlete with a mean streak, and Zidane was a magician with the ball. With Zidane and Vieira in midfield with either Donadoni or Makelele, France controlled games.
Zidane retired right around the time that Vieira and Makelele started to decline physically. Raymond Domenech didn't know what to do with his midfield when the trio was broken up, and France was embarrassing at both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Much has been made of the changes that Laurent Blanc has made to the attitude of the French national team since he took over, and it's almost certainly a very important aspect of how much France has improved from the 2010 World Cup until now. No one who wasn't in the France dressing room in South Africa can definitively say how bad morale was and how much it affected play, but by all accounts, the answers to those two implied questions are 'horrific' and 'a lot'. Sometimes, morale in a camp is truly bad enough that player selections and tactics don't matter. If the current France players are happy and they respect both each other and their manager, they're certainly a lot better off for it.
This isn't the only reason why France have gone 22 games without defeat under Blanc, however. While the changes that Blanc has made in midfield might not be quite as important as the changes he's made in the dressing room, they've had a very obvious impact on the team.
Jeremy Toulalan, who has since been made into a central defender at club level, was not his best in a defensive midfield role. His partner was, inexplicably, Abou Diaby, an athletic player with no discernible defensive or passing skills who is often injured. He rarely plays for Arsenal when he is healthy. Domenech openly admitted to using astrology to select his teams, which is the only plausible explanation for the selection of Diaby. They sat behind Yoann Gourcuff, who played poorly to end the 2009-10 season with Bordeaux. He hasn't played well in consecutive games for his new club Lyon or his country for over two years.
These guys have been, for the most part, kept out of Blanc's teams. Gourcuff and Diaby both made appearances early in the Euro 2012 qualifying cycle, but France began to play its best football when those players departed. Yann M'Vila has been the cornerstone of France's new-look midfield, shielding the back four brilliantly while providing a bit of technical quality as well. Marvin Martin and Yohan Cabaye have both made impressive appearances alongside him, providing some much needed creativity from deep central areas.
France needed these three players against England on Monday, and for various reasons, they didn't show up. M'Vila was on the bench nursing an ankle injury, Martin was kept on the bench in favor of Florent Malouda, and Cabaye started, but was nowhere near his best.
Les Bleus' center of midfield generated almost nothing going forward, as they leaned heavily on Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri to create from wide areas. Even though England packed 10 men behind the ball and never looked like scoring in the second half of the game, France played not to lose, played entirely conservatively through the midfield and hoped Ribery or Nasri would make some magic happen.
Alou Diarra, M'Vila's replacement, was serviceable but unspectacular. He completed 100 percent of his passes, but only attempted 37 passes in total and did not attempt a single through ball. Cabaye, usually excellent at hitting long passes and through balls from deep areas, only attempted one through ball during the match. In 90 minutes, France only attempted one through ball. Its three central midfield players only completed one pass that led to a shot.
Because the midfield showed so little ambition, Karim Benzema was largely ineffective and England's defense could key in on France's two wide forwards. Nasri found enough space for one brilliant shot and made the most of it with a goal, and he managed to make a seemingly stellar eight passes that led to shots, but Joe Hart was rarely tested from open play. Even the goal came after a short set piece routine. Without their midfield either willing or able -- if not both -- to try anything ambitious, France's attack was static.
The good news for France is that there's obvious room for improvement, and there's reason to believe that their midfield play will get better. M'Vila's ankle injury is just a sprain, and he could return for the match against Ukraine. At worst, he should be ready to play his team's final group game against Sweden. Cabaye has shown he's much better than his Monday performance, both in a Newcastle shirt and a France shirt, and will almost certainly play better. Malouda's had a rough season for Chelsea, but he can't possibly be more invisible against Ukraine than he was against England. If he continues to play poorly or if Blanc just wants to change things up, he has Martin on the bench.
France can and should get more creative productivity out of their midfield in their next two games. Now it's up to Blanc to figure out exactly how to make that happen.
Stats via WhoScored.