Newcastle's obvious, persistent interest in Mathieu Debuchy has been a godsend for would-be scouts like ourselves. How often do you get to watch a transfer target playing alongside two of your club's current star players? The recent French national team friendly matches have given us that opportunity. Here's what I've learned from watching Debuchy, especially in the France-Iceland match that featured a right-side partnership with Hatem Ben Arfa, and Yohan Cabaye in central midfield.
The thumbnail sketch of Debuchy as a classic attacking fullback is correct, but omits the most striking thing I noticed about his approach. He stations himself farther up the field than virtually any fullback I've seen. The gamble pays off when France started its attacks. Ben Arfa pulls the opposing left back away from the sideline, leaving plenty of open space for Debuchy to overlap and whip in a cross - which he does with regularity.
If given the opportunity, he will press ahead even further. His goal against Iceland was scored from inside the six-yard box in open play. Danny Simpson may have played the whole season without getting within 15 yards of that spot on the pitch. In the same vein, he whistled a shot wide against Estonia from just outside the 18-yard box, near the center of the field - another position Simpson would find unfamiliar.
However, much like Davide Santon in his earlier games at Newcastle, Debuchy is prone to getting caught out of position, and he's been punished for it. Iceland's second goal came as Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (once tenuously linked to Newcastle himself) outran Debuchy to tap the ball in from a cross. Estonian forward Tarmo Kink found space behind him on the left wing early in Tuesday's friendly, as did John Utaka when Lille faced off against Montpellier late in the Ligue 1 campaign.
In short, this is not the sort of player you would expect the fairly cautious Alan Pardew to covet. Except for one curiosity that had to warm the hearts of the Newcastle scouts attending the Iceland match. At times, Ben Arfa was pulled back to cover Debuchy, almost as if the two had swapped positions.
Everything that was said all season about Ben Arfa's need to work on defense has most definitely paid off. And he and Debuchy (or a similar style fullback) will need to work together on both ends of the field to make the partnership successful. Had Pardew and Ben Arfa not gotten on the same page this spring, Newcastle would undoubtedly have gone for a stay-at-home fullback, a better version of Simpson.
Of course, Debuchy's positioning has been significant for France because of the shaky play of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes alongside him. That's why the key to the summer will be a new partner for Fabricio Coloccini. A center back with enough pace to slow down a counterattack from the left wing would be a tremendous asset. Someone like Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa would fit the bill perfectly. The competition for both Debuchy and Yanga-Mbiwa looks tough. Let's hope Cabaye and Ben Arfa worked some Gallic charm in the national team camp to help put both players in black and white next year.