Saturday 17 November 2018

Clash of philosophies at heart of last-four battle

Deschamps and Martinez poles apart in attitudes to how game should be played

Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez share a joke at the draw for the World Cup Finals Photo: FIFA via Getty Images
Didier Deschamps and Roberto Martinez share a joke at the draw for the World Cup Finals Photo: FIFA via Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

Just under six years ago, a few months after Didier Deschamps had taken the French job and when Roberto Martinez was still at Wigan, the Catalan was enthusiastically discussing his football philosophy at the club when a question stopped him in his tracks.

It was the November 2012 day after a defensively defiant Celtic had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League and, having already developed a reputation for resolutely sticking to attacking football come what may, Martinez was asked whether he would consider compromising his approach for a challenge like that.

The contrast in the licence to create between Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba is stark at international level Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
The contrast in the licence to create between Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba is stark at international level Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It took the Spaniard a long time to even start to answer.

With Deschamps, you wouldn't even have to ask the question.

Brilliant

He had actually already discussed the problem of facing that brilliant Barcelona side in an enthralling interview in The Blizzard magazine earlier that year with his mentor Jean-Claude Suaudeau.

"The most difficult thing, when you play against Barca, is when you have the ball," Deschamps said.

He said he would gladly renounce it; he would gladly do whatever it took to win.

Over the course of that interview, Suaudeau - a man Deschamps looks up to more than anyone else in the game, and who won unexpected league titles at Nantes - actually scolds his former player for such an attitude.

"There's another thing I'd like to talk to you about," the elder man says. "Your famous 'culture of winning'. Don't you think there's a bit of a problem in there? I say the opposite. I'll find plenty of elements (in the defeat) that will enable me to win tomorrow."

This was not just an eternal difference of opinion in the game, but represents the main difference between the Belgium and France sides ahead of tomorrow's Saint Petersburg semi-final.

Although they have similarly talented teams, there couldn't be a greater contrast between the managers, either in playing careers or the idea of how to play the game.

Martinez is the former lower-league journeyman who has a vision about the best way to win; Deschamps is the one of the most decorated players in history and a former World and European champion who will do whatever it takes to win.

Adding just another element to this local derby is that it almost represents a referendum on these principles of the game.

France look so constrained but solid, Belgium so exciting but open. The former are always looking to close everything up, the latter attempting to push the limits. Belgium give a lot of excitement, while France give little up.

It's similarly difficult to divorce the development of these principles from those playing careers, particularly in the case of Deschamps.

Some who know the French manager well wonder whether he has any kind of football identity or idea. It so often just seems that he is offering a continuation of what he picked up through his playing career, and that goes beyond the fact he was a defensive midfielder openly called 'the water-carrier'.

The motto of the club he is most associated with, Juventus, is literally "winning isn't important, it's the only thing that counts".

Belief in that phrase was proven by the fact Deschamps' 1996 Champions League-winning side were later involved in a court case that investigated doping, and ended in an unsatisfactory legal fudge, and that Juventus as a whole were later relegated for looking to influence referees in the Calciopoli scandal.

That actually followed the fate of Deschamps' previous club Olympique Marseille, who were relegated after winning the 1993 Champions League for outright match-fixing.

It should of course be stressed here that these were all the result of decisions by non-football people way above the team.

While this was going on, though, Deschamps seems to have been greatly influenced by his managers.

What seems his greatest quality as a coach is instilling a real canniness in his teams. They have a hugely admirable durability, an assertiveness that just gets them through, and wins so many matches by force of will.

That is not be sniffed at. It is so reminiscent of Deschamps' most celebrated side, the 1998 French World Cup winners, and so are his current tactics.

Through just setting up a strong defence and using one main striker in Olivier Giroud - what the player himself calls the "Stephane Guivarc'h role" - Deschamps looks as if he has just taken the fundamentals of Aime Jacquet's triumphant champions and transposed them on to his team.

"What matters are the two zones of truth," Deschamps told Suaudeau. "In today's football, if you've got a great keeper and a great striker, you're not that far from victory. Of course, you shouldn't have muppets in midfield!"

Fixed

France do not have muppets in midfield. They have some of the finest players on the planet, just as they did 20 years ago.

The big difference with 20 years ago, though, is that Deschamps has nothing like the fixed 2-3 in the centre that Jacquet did. He instead doesn't have anything really fixed there at all, and it has probably been the main problem area, because all of his loose configurations just seem to constrain the players. They're still a very contained overall team, though, which is the point.

It's difficult not to wonder what Martinez genuinely thinks of that, and would be equally difficult not to imagine what France would look like under him, if we didn't have the example of Belgium.

They have similar attacking talent, and properly co-ordinating them in the way that Deschamps hasn't has been one of the Spaniard's main priorities.

There's no reliance on canniness, there's a fully formed idea, largely based on the possession and pressing approach that is a core philosophy in Spain, but also taken on a touch.

Years in the lower leagues have made Martinez much more of a thinker, a calculator. He is much more of a hands-on coach, and has spent the months since qualifying preparing various different approaches. The formation and strategy used against Brazil, for example, is the result of a lot of work and planning since January.

Then there are the comments about Kevin De Bruyne to Goal journalist Pete Staunton. This clearly isn't a player just put out, as sometimes feels the case with, say, Paul Pogba.

"Maybe because at club level he's always at the end of an assist or at the end of a goal and then it's easy to bring a highlight out of him," Martinez said.

"His influence in our team has been a lot deeper, allowing us to have influence in the final third and being a real playmaker for us.

"I will always remember there was a moment at 0-2 down against Japan and he's the one that is giving a bit of composure, a bit of belief and he's getting everyone to know that we've still got time to get back into the game.

"That's a role that allows us to be a team. He's essential for us."

It's just that when one of your best attackers is also so deep, it reflects something else: how front-loaded this team is; how little regard there is for defensive resolve.

That could be seen in the two goals conceded to Japan, and the amount of chances Brazil created in that pulsating second-half of their quarter-final.

There are so many times when it seems like Belgium could greatly do with France's solidity, just as there are so many times when it seems like France could greatly do with Belgium's adventure.

Tuesday will be a time when some truth is revealed.

Back in 2012, Martinez did eventually reveal his opinion.

"I think Barcelona are the only team in the world against whom you're allowed to compromise your approach. They play every game on their terms."

That's what he'll try to do tomorrow. Deschamps has different terms.

It will end up being the difference on the night.

Irish Independent

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