French playmaker Valbuena in line for starring role
France’s midfield dynamo has the vision and ability to lay on the goals
Mathieu Valbuena (left) celebrates with Olivier Giroud during the last-16 match against Nigeria at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. Photograph: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Four years ago they were striking and issuing statements from the team bus. But on this occasion they have excelled.
Key to their success so far has been midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, whose story mirrors the fall and rise of the 1998 champions. Originally on the books of Bordeaux, he was released aged 18 – some say because of his size. He stands 167cm (just short of 5ft 5in) tall. Others claim he was let go because he failed to make the required progress. He spent the next year in the amateur leagues while working in a sports shop to make ends meet.
Valbuena was a winger in under-age football who had never once been rated highly enough to receive a call-up to one of the nation’s youth squads. But he stood out at Langon Castet where he ran the show as a number 10. His year there earned him a return to the professional ranks, with third division outfit Libourne Saint Seurin where it took a change of manager just to get him into the team. Still, having helped them to promotion in his second season Marseille came calling and picked him up for a song.
He was far from an instant hit at the Stade Velodrome. Injuries delayed his debut and indifferent form then limited his impact. But he finished the campaign well and scored the goal that got the club back into the Champions League. From there, he started to push on.
Over the next couple of seasons he played well and became a favourite with the fans but then Didier Deschamps arrived and almost immediately said that Valbuena did not feature in his plans as he didn’t have the abilities required to fit into his preferred 4-3-3 system.
The new manager’s authority was immediately challenged when the club hierarchy told him that the player would be staying. But they could not compel the World Cup winner to put him in the team and by December 2009, the then 25-year-old had had enough.
Valbuena demanded a face-to-face meeting with the coach and said he wanted a transfer during the January window. He was subsequently quoted in the press as saying he would announce his new club within days, but in fact he never left.
Instead, Deschamps brought his powers of persuasion to bear and talked him around.
“He said some things that were good for him to say, but hard for me to hear,” acknowledged Valbuena recently. “He shook me and I woke up.”
The player waited a short time longer for his chance but he stormed through the tail end of that campaign, his flurry of goals integral to the club’s title success. Moreover, his form was deemed good enough to earn him surprise selection to the national side and a trip to the World Cup in South Africa.
Valbuena confesses he was “a novice” at that tournament and seemed to take a back seat while senior players made an international laughing stock of themselves. He played little part in the competition either but he had his foot in the door which opened wider under Domenech’s successor, Laurent Blanc. Now, he is the only player to have featured in all of Deschamps’s games in charge and it is his form that allowed the manager to omit Samir Nasri and cope so comfortably with the loss of Franck Ribery.
Both are well known to Valbuena from their days at Marseille where, he says, they used to pick on him, apparently over his size.
“Despite it being over I still have a bad memory of what went on,” he told L’Equipe last year. “To be systematically singled out for bad jokes really hurts. Nobody else in the dressing room would have put up being targeted like I was. I was not ready to be subjected to that. I was too nice but I am now made of harder stuff.”
That he survived at the club is typical of his character, according to his friend and international team-mate Rio Mavuba.
“Every time he encounters difficulties, he responds,” said Mauvuba.
Other players still mention his size. He is small, a centimetre shorter than Lionel Messi but then Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli is four centimetres shorter again at 163cms and there are several players in between.
Olivier Giroud noted after May’s friendly victory against Norway, in which Valbuena produced three assists, that “it’s great to have a little guy like him there to lay on the goals”. Valbuena says he is okay with such comments now, that they are intended in an “affectionate” way.
Deschamps believes that the setbacks he has encountered over the course of his career have made him the better, stronger player he is now.
“When players like him get a second chance to get a foothold in the professional game, they always have more determination than the others to succeed,” said the national team manager.
That’s all the more remarkable given that he arrives off the back of a poor season at his club where he was badly undermined by the arrival last summer of rapidly rising star Florian Thauvin who, though still 21, has made no secret of his intention to replace Valbuena next season. Sure enough, the 29-year-old is virtually certain to go – with clubs in Italy, Spain and England
reported to be interested. And his performances this month should help to broaden his options.
Deschamps’s assistant Guy Stephen describes him as “indispensible”. And so he has shown thus far, establishing himself as the side’s key creative force at this World Cup where he has freedom to roam from his position out on the right flank. But he also has responsibility to defend when the opposition has the ball and, in particular, when right-back Mathieu Debuchy is on an overlapping run.
Valbuena has pace, which he can produce in a devastating burst, great ball control and a fierce shot. Most of all, though, he has wonderful awareness of how to open up space for team-mates and Karim Benzema has been among those to benefit from his contribution.
Against Nigeria Valbuena was outstanding, from general play and set-pieces. If he can reproduce that form against Germany then he has the potential to play a big part in determining the outcome.