Thursday 19 July 2018

Players ready to 'go to war' for under-fire French chief Deschamps

Delighted French coach Didier Deschamps hugs defender Benjamin Pavard after the victory against Belgium. Photo: Getty Images
Delighted French coach Didier Deschamps hugs defender Benjamin Pavard after the victory against Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

It seems faintly surreal to recall it now, but shortly before the start of the 1998 World Cup, the French team were under siege. Months of scathing dispatches, particularly from the daily L'Equipe, were beginning to take their toll, and the man bearing the brunt of the criticism was the man who would go on to lift the trophy just a month later: coach Aime Jacquet.

Jacquet got a terrifically rough ride in the build-up to the tournament: mocked for his slightly melancholic demeanour; chastised for his conservative football; bemoaned for his apparent inability to inspire.

In the moment of the greatest triumph in French football history, Jacquet was not inclined to let matter slide.

"Some of the press have been lying shamefully," he said in the immediate aftermath of victory. "I will never forgive them. I have only contempt for these people."

Should Didier Deschamps lift the World Cup for a second time on Sunday evening, it's unlikely he would be quite so indiscreet, but even if the rhetoric hasn't quite descended to the vicious levels of 1998, you could hardly blame him for wanting to make a point.

"When I see the faces of my players, yes, I am very happy for them," he said after France's 1-0 win in the semi-final over Belgium. "And I am not going to hide that I am very happy for myself."

Talented

Few coaches arrived in Russia under quite as much pressure as Deschamps. Though he was in possession of one of the most talented groups of players France has ever taken to a major tournament, the coach was widely regarded as the weak link: uninspiring, tactically flawed, incapable of settling on his best team.

With Zinedine Zidane making no secret of his desire to coach France at some point, anything less than a full-throated tilt at the trophy would probably have seen the trap door under Deschamps swing ominously open.

And even as France stand on the brink of their second World Cup, the man who would be the only link between their two victories still struggles to convince the wider public that he is actually very good, rather than simply very lucky.

Is Deschamps genuinely an elite manager within touching distance of his crowning glory? Or could your dad have coached the likes of Griezmann, Mbappe, Kante and Pogba to a World Cup final?

Within the French camp, it is less of an issue.

"He has a genuine belief in me, which I try and repay on the pitch," says Olivier Giroud. "He is a coach who never gives up, and knows how to talk to his players. He is very strong in his determination to inculcate a winning culture."

Ever since he led Marseille to two league titles in the early 1990s - becoming the youngest captain ever to lift the European Cup in 1993 aged 24 - Deschamps has been nothing if not a winner.

Marcello Lippi, his coach at Juventus, remembered of the tireless team that Deschamps anchored in the mid-1990s: "Zidane was a technical leader, Didier a moral leader. A draw was a disaster; a defeat, a national disaster."

Yet for all his achievements as a player, Deschamps hates dwelling on them. Even as France's progress to the final brought a deluge of inevitable questions about the 1998 team, Deschamps strove to shift the focus away from the past.

"You have to live in your times," he urged. "I'm not saying I'm not proud of what we did 20 years ago. But we can't look back into the rear-view mirror."

In contrast, the consensus among the French squad appears to be that Deschamps is very much a coach on their wavelength. He backs his players, and he backs his own instincts, such as when taking the decision to build his right flank around the unfancied 22-year-old Stuttgart right-back Benjamin Pavard.

"He's exceptional," Pavard says. "He offers little pieces of advice that allow you to develop. He uses strong words that motivate. You're ready to go to war with him."

All of which, by the same token, lends weight to the common suspicion that Deschamps is more of a motivator, a facilitator, an oiler and a greaser rather than an organic, dynamic ideologue in the mould of many modern coaches.

But in an interview with 'L'Equipe' ahead of the tournament, Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi rejected the idea that Deschamps lacks a footballing philosophy.

"It's false," he said. "Deschamps has a style. Simply, he and Simeone are from a different school to Low, Lopetegui or Guardiola. Deschamps hasn't changed his ideas in becoming a coach: defensive solidity and counter-attack. He doesn't care about being dominated, as he places more importance on defensive rather than offensive organisation."

That organisation has been much in evidence so far this tournament. With the exception of the anomalous 4-3 win over Argentina, the French defence has been the best in the tournament, nullifying Belgium's multiple threats beautifully in the last hour of Tuesday's semi-final.

"You have to be pragmatic and realistic," Deschamps said. "Belgium had more control than us. We hurt them at times. With more precision, we could have hurt them even more."

And for all the tactical confusion that characterised France's build-up to Russia, once the tournament started, Deschamps settled on his system and stuck with it: Kylian Mbappe on the right to stretch the pitch; Blaise Matuidi up and down the left, allowing Antoine Griezmann to explore the central areas. It is almost as if the crucible of tournament football focuses and steels him.

Deschamps may not be keen on talking about the experience of 1998, but clearly he leans on its lessons. Creating a collegiate atmosphere, in a squad that historically has been prone to mutiny, is a feat not to be underestimated, and also explains the omission of potentially disruptive players like Karim Benzema and Adrien Rabiot from the squad.

And so a team that was recently battling record levels of public indifference now draws thousands of revellers onto the Champs-Elysees. At the height of France's plight, when they were struggling to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, an opinion poll found 82pc of French people had a "bad opinion" of the side, making them less popular than beleaguered president Francois Hollande.

Deschamps, too, was a largely unloved coach, for all his achievements in 1998. Now he is the longest-serving French coach of all time, assured of his future with a contract lasting until 2020.

The charge that he has simply reaped the benefit of France's immaculate talent, rather than bearing any responsibility of his own, still clings to him. It is one he is acutely aware of, too.

"I do not have to complain about being in the right place at the right time," he said earlier in the tournament. "It can happen to be lucky once, but there is also a lot of work done."

Ordinary or unheralded managers have made it to World Cup finals before: Alejandro Sabella, Bert van Marwijk, Rudi Voller. Very few, however, have actually won it.

Raymond Domenech will always have the achievement of taking France to the 2006 final on his CV, but with the caveat that it helps to have Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele to call on.

Is Deschamps a great in the making, or simply a competent coach with an embarrassment of riches? Only Sunday's final, you feel, will tell us for sure.

Irish Independent

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