2014 FIFA World Cup, 32 players to watch, April 2014, Featured

32 Players to Watch in Brazil 2014: #28 Mathieu Valbuena

France found a #10 in the most unlikely of places.

France found a #10 in the most unlikely of places.

Neil W. Blackmon

Our 32 Players to Watch at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil series continues today with what I’ll call an “engines and glue piece.” This is what it sounds like: an analysis and salute to a player who is somewhat less highly regarded but is, with little realistic debate, an engine for his side and a piece of the puzzle that if missing would spell trouble for his teammates. More than any other player thus far, Mathieu Valbuena of France, our #28 Player to Watch in Brazil this summer, fits that description. France are a fine collection of talent. Of that, there’s no question. Without Valbuena, they aren’t nearly the well-constructed, finely tuned machine they are capable of being this summer. Valbuena is essential to Les Bleus, even if he’s not the best player or even the second-best player France have to offer.

Before reading about why, check out how these pieces work by reading our piece on Shinji Kagawa of Japan, who came in at #29 in the countdown.

Number 28: Mathieu Valbuena

Country: France

Position: Midfielder

Club: Marseille

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox

 General thinking is that a handful of countries can win the World Cup this summer: Brazil as hosts, Spain, Argentina, Germany, perhaps Holland. France, who have won the World Cup before, sit somewhere on the periphery of this limited discussion. If France won, you’d be surprised but hardly shocked. If France flamed out again as they did in 2010, you’d be surprised but hardly shocked. Historically, when you talk about a nation that’s had consistently massive talent and wildly different results, you are likely talking about France. In 2010, Raymond Domenech looked to the stars for answers about the Les Bleus team he led. That ended terribly. Fortunately for Didier Deschamps, he can look to Mathieu Valbuena.

Deschamps has noted that his French team should not be considered a favorite to win in Brazil, but he’s still adamant the side will perform well, perhaps even beyond his own expectation. He’s suggested that’s possible because this French team, unlike its 2010 predecessor, has critical players who aren’t superstars, glue guys he’d rather bring to the World Cup than me-first superstars. Chief among those players is Valbuena. 

Finding a replacement for Zidane was impossible,  but finding even a functional #10 for France was a disaster until Valbuena.

Finding a replacement for Zidane was impossible, but finding even a functional #10 for France was a disaster until Valbuena.

Valbuena plays midfield for Marseille, a good European side but by no stretch a giant. He’s not a celebrated global icon like his teammates Franck Ribery or Patrice Evra, but, as noted above, he’s arguably more important. A little background to explain why:

Since France won the World Cup behind Zinedine Zidane in 1998- and reached and outplayed Italy in the 2006 final– Les Bleus have searched and searched for a middle-of-the-park playmaker, whether he be a true #10 or not. France have attempted all manner of formations and players in the position: Sidney Govou, a fast and underachieving winger played it miserably at the 2008 EURO and 2010 World Cup; Karim Benzema wore it to unsatisfactory reviews and a quarterfinal exit at the 2012 Euro, and so forth. Enter Valbuena. 

Valbuena first wore the #10 for France in a qualifier against Georgia last March. The results were brilliant, with Valbuena pulling the strings centrally, scoring a brilliant second goal and assisting another on a tantalizing ball to Ribery to put the match away. The 3-1 French win kept pressure on Spain (who ultimately edged out the French and won the qualifying group) and Valbuena, when available, has not played elsewhere since.

How Valbuena got there is a much more fascinating story. 

Valbuena was not a player valued too much in the French youth system. He was uncapped as a youth international and only called up to join the French team in his mid-twenties. Now 29, Valbuena doesn’t look the part of a dominant soccer player. He’s small (5’6), a bit frail looking, and doesn’t wow you with pace. Your Football Manager scout doesn’t come back from watching him play and report that “Mathieu Valbuena must be signed at all costs.” In fact, when Didier Deschamps was the head man at Marseille prior to taking over the France national team job, he wanted to part ways with Valbuena, who he felt was a bad fit for the 4-3-3 system he wanted to utilize at the storied French club. As Michael Cox writes in this fine piece on Valbuena, Deschamps felt that he needed “powerful, quick players such as Bakari Kone and Mamadou Niang on the flanks, while Benoit Cheyrou and Lucho Gonzalez would play the central midfield roles ahead of holder Edouard Cisse,” and Valbuena fit none of those molds. The Marseille board blocked the transfer however, so Valbuena sat on the bench, playing only four games the first six months Deschamps held the job. Finally, in early 2010, Marseille suffered injuries up top and Deschamps’ hand was forced. He slotted Valbuena in behind Niang centrally and the diminutive midfielder never looked back, guiding Marseille to both club and League Cup titles. To Deschamps’ great credit, he admitted he had been wrong, praising Valbuena’s work ethic, effort on the pitch and understanding of the game. This great run of form caught the attention of Domenech in the build-up to South Africa, but it wasn’t in the stars for the suddenly-a-star Marseille man to feature in South Africa, as he played in only one match while the superstars around him imploded. When Deschamps took charge of France, Valbuena suddenly found himself with a genuine opportunity to play regularly at the international level. That France enters this World Cup on its best run of form since 2006 has a great deal to do with that shift.

Valbuena's pint size has hurt his global reputation!

Valbuena’s pint size has hurt his global reputation!

For country, Valbuena is an object lesson in tactical innovation. Playing in the center of France’s 4-2-3-1, Valbuena is the string puller, a distribution hub but in a non-classical sense. Unlike a typical #10, Valbuena creates havoc through constant movement. He doesn’t line-up directly behind the striker “in the hole”, instead darting in all directions, sometimes deep to function as a third midfielder, sometimes to the wing to help overload or deliver crosses, and sometimes very high to aid the forward in attack. Regardless of what role he’s tasked with, Valbuena is a hard-working, gritty and decisive player who demands attention from an opposition defense. Valbuena is also a very capable defender, and when asked, will do the dirty work to win a tackle or contain an opposing playmaker- something he did famously well for Deschamps at Marseille in the Champions League. There’s an argument that, outside of Wesley Sneijder, Valbuena is greatest among the new trend of “central wingers”, players who redefine the classic #10 central playmaking role by doing a variety of things elsewhere on the pitch, including but not limited to finding space on the flanks and generating extra width despite traditional deployment in the center of the field. 

Much has been written about France’s superstars- the aforementioned Ribery, Benzema and Evra. Yohan Cabaye has also received a fair amount of press in the run-up to the World Cup, with one publication suggesting the PSG man “will be responsible for controlling the pace and flow of France’s game, connecting the backline with Ribery and facilitating play.” My hope is that opposing scouts are more aware of how wrong that is, realizing that it is in fact Valbuena who orchestrates proceedings for Les Bleus. Otherwise, France’s opponents could be in for long days in the Brazilian sunshine. 

For a sporting soulmate, Valbuena meets his match in Boston Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia stands at 5’9 in soaked hightops and doesn’t at all look the part of MLB superstar. At Arizona State, there’s a relatively well-known story about Theo Epstein going to see Pedroia play and calling Boston, half-joking, to see if they’d sent him to look at the right guy. “Just watch him play– ignore what he looks like”, came the response on the other end. Epstein did, and came away so impressed he drafted Pedroia in the second round. The rest is Red Sox folklore.

Always surrounded by brand name stars, Pedroia is Boston's engine that drives winning.

Always surrounded by brand name stars, Pedroia is Boston’s engine that drives winning.

After moving to second base, Pedroia captured the 2007 AL Rookie of the Year Award, hitting over .300 and playing fantastic defense. His monster rookie campaign was capped with Boston’s 2nd World Championship in 90 years, and he became only the second rookie in the history of baseball to lead off the World Series with a home run. The following year, Pedroia won the MVP Award, batting .326 and showing great power and speed as well with 17 home runs, 83 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases. Pedroia is a guy who, like Valbuena, is a new type of infielder, one who can hurt you a variety of ways offensively while maintaining the integrity of the position on defense. 

One baseball adage that absolutely applies to soccer is “you’re as good as you are up the middle”, and thanks to Pedroia and Valbuena, France and the Red Sox have little to worry about there. Pedroia leads the Red Sox defensively, where he’s won three Gold Gloves at second base since his 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign. What’s more, on a team constantly loaded with superstars like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and the like, Pedroia has remained the constant– the team’s heartbeat, captain and unquestionably its most important piece. At age 30, Pedroia has become, even in a city that worships David Ortiz, the “face of the franchise” according to The Boston Globe, and his leadership, glove and bat helped Boston win another World Series for a city that desperately needed it last fall. 

Every team with superstars needs a glue guy. Sometimes the glue guy is actually the team’s engine as well. Dustin Pedroia is that player in Boston. This summer, Mathieu Valbuena will play the role for France. And it will be brilliant to watch.

Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt