While their European neighbours Spain have swept all before them, France have endured a series of underwhelming and often embarrassing outings in major tournaments since their own period of dominance around the turn of the century.
Les Bleus’ golden era of Zidane, Desailly and Deschamps slips further into the history books with each failure, and the data tells us that in their Group E foes Ecuador, Honduras and Switzerland, France are faced with three teams capable of prolonging the wait for a return to the glory days.
Ecuador are not to be underestimated. While they have a small number of squad members playing European club football – Manchester United winger and captain Antonio Valencia being the most notable – they have players capable of being instrumental in Brazil.
Christian Noboa of Dynamo Moscow is likely to be the team’s engine room – he is both the ‘top pass receiver’ (average of 47.3 per game) and ‘top pass deliverer’ (average of 43.3 per game) in the side.
Their Group E rivals should be aware that Ecuador seem to take time finding a foothold in matches. While they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the time periods from 30 to 90 mins during qualifying, they see less of the ball than their opponents from 0 to 30 mins, so maybe striking early is the key.
The best chance of upsetting France might be to score first. They average 57.4% possession when leading games, the highest in the group, suggesting it could be a hard way back for teams that fall behind.
Decorated Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery is seen as a danger man and rightly so. He registers an average 21.4 ‘good actions’ when France are building attacks, the 2nd highest of any player in the group behind Ecuador’s Valencia. However – his average number of ‘severe’ lost possessions per game is the highest in the squad – 1.2 – showing he is also capable of handing the advantage to France’s opponents.
Midfielder Paul Pogba of Juventus has been heralded by some experts as Europe’s top midfielder this season and the data would support his claim to a place in France’s starting 11. Pogba is the ‘top pass deliverer’ in the squad with an average of 46.6 per match and performs the 2nd highest high number of actions when France are building attacks through the middle – 53.5.
Honduras boss Luis Fernando Suarez is one of two Columbian coaches in the group, along with Ecuador’s Reinaldo Ruena, and coincidentally managed his team’s opponents at the 2006 World Cup, where they made the Round of 16. Suarez will look to striker Carlos Costly to fire his team into the knock-out phase for the first time – Costly netted nine goals in qualifying with an excellent conversion rate of 29% from all his chances around the box.
Switzerland made it through their UEFA qualification group unbeaten in a less challenging pool of Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. There will be sterner tests ahead in Brazil, including a travelling schedule which covers 3,700 km.
Evidence of an easy ride in qualifying can be seen by Switzerland’s dominance in possession through all time periods of matches. They enjoy a particularly high share in the first 15 minutes of matches, and their route for building attacks involves three main protagonists.
Captain Gokhan Inler dominates the centre, with a group-high average of 49.2 delivered passes per game and a squad-high 53.1 actions in this area of the pitch, left-back Rito Ziegler is responsible for 37% of his team ‘s actions in this area, while on the right Stephan Lichtsteiner takes 42% – nullify Inler and the Swiss full-backs and you take away their main outlet for constructive possession in matches.
So all eyes will be on 1998 winners France in Group E – can they negotiate three potential booby-traps and march on towards the final in Rio de Janeiro?