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Why Didier Deschamps is still the man to lead the French national team

Dayann C looks at the contribution of Didier Deschamps at the helm of the French National team.

The turn of the year marks four and a half seasons at the helm of the French national team for Didier Deschamps, with the 48-year-old World Cup winning captain penciled in for the role through to the next international showpiece tournament in 2018. Though sometimes chastised and even ridiculed for his decisions back home and elsewhere, compounded by the heartbreak of losing the European Championship final on home soil, there is much to admire and I staunchly believe his tenure so far has been greatly successful.

To really comprehend how far Deschamps has taken the French national men’s team, some contextual understanding of the situation in 2012 is required. It’s not a stretch to describe the national team as having been on a deteriorating path for the best of a decade that culminated in losing 2-0 at the quarter final stage of Euro 2012 to eventual champions, Spain. Though on paper the result seems reputable, the corresponding behind-the-scenes, which had dogged the team for years, really soured the outcome. With exception to the 2006 World Cup, which saw a world-class Zinedine Zidane single-handedly grapple the team to the final, France’s tournament performances post-Euro 2000 were hugely disappointing. The 2002 World Cup saw the reigning champions exit with a whimper in the group stages whilst the 2004 Euros ended at the hands of eventual champions Greece in a shock 1-0 quarter-final defeat.

The 2006 World Cup was an incredible anomaly because there was nothing to suggest a good tournament was possible. Raymond Domenech was more than just a divisive figure, some of his actions were downright bizarre. He was at odds with Robert Pirès, partly because as an astrologer, Domenech distrusted those born with a Scorpios Zodiac sign, of which Pirès was one. Pirès, a vastly experienced and talented midfielder was thus omitted from the 2006 World Cup squad. Other notable omissions included an up-and-coming Philippe Mexès and Ludovic Giuly, who was coming off the back of a fantastic season with Barcelona, where they won both the league and Champions League, with Giuly scoring the solitary goal in their semi-final clash with AC Milan. Giuly’s omission was simply farcical. Beyond this, Domenech insisted on playing Fabien Barthez ahead of Grégory Coupet, which led to tensions within the camp. All these off-field obstacles, coupled with Djibril Cissé’s broken leg in a pre-tournament warm-up, made it all the more astounding that the team reached the final and came so close to winning it all.

Despite all the problems, Domenech remained as the national team manager for Euro 2008 as he had reached the target of the semi-finals at the previous World Cup. France were humiliated at Euro 2008, languishing at the bottom of the group of death with one point, below Netherlands, Italy and Romania. Fortunes did not improve at the 2010 World Cup, an appearance that only occurred after a tense tie with the Republic of Ireland swung by that infamous Thierry Henry handball. An incredible off-the-pitch capitulation that saw Anelka being sent home for criticising Domenech with expletives and a training ground row involving Patrice Evra and a coach that led to the refusal of players to train the following day, was exasperated by France’s elimination at the group stages, accumulating just one point in a group of Mexico, Uruguay and hosts South Africa. The Sports Minister, under the guise of the then-incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, confronted the players after they had refused to train, explaining how they had let the nation down and though it is reported to have had an effect on the players, the team still left the tournament early, flying home on economy class.

Their return was met with widespread ramifications; new manager Laurent Blanc asked for all the players to be banned for one game by the FFF. Furthermore, Anelka, Evra, Jérémy Toulalan and Franck Ribéry were further punished, with the 18-game ban imposed on Anelka effectively retiring him from the international scene. Public perception was at an all-time low, and there was no love between the public and the national team anymore. France were an embarrassment. Funnily enough though, Domenech still stands as the longest serving manager of the French national team in terms of games (79 matches).

Euro 2012 was the final tournament before Deschamps’s arrival, and though the loss to Spain in the quarter-finals wasn’t humiliating, though underwhelming for sure, extenuating incidents once again marred the team, as disharmony was again cited as an issue, with Samir Nasri being banned post-tournament for three games after an expletive-laden complaint he directed at a journalist after the team’s exit. Laurent Blanc would resign shortly after, with Didier Deschamps taking the reins following three very successful years at Olympique Marseille where he led them to their only three Coupe de la Ligue successes to date, as well as their first league triumph since 1992. But the turnaround required of the national team was arguably his greatest managerial challenge yet.

Qualification for his first major international tournament did not come easy and failure to make the 2014 World Cup would have most likely ended Deschamps’ tenure. France were drawn in a group with defending World and European champions Spain, and though Olivier Giroud was able to salvage a draw with a late goal in Madrid, a solitary strike from Pedro in the return fixture in Paris condemned France to the playoffs. France drew Ukraine out of the hat, as well as the prize of playing the second leg at home. But the game in Kiev went disastrously, as the team seemingly imploded, conceding two goals in the last thirty minutes before Laurent Koscielny received a red in stoppage time, suspending him for the crucial second leg. On the brink of yet another embarrassment, 77000 fans showed up in Paris to spur on Les Bleus and it was Mamadou Sakho, ironically the man that replaced Koscielny, who scored two goals, his only two for France so far, in a 3-0 victory which saw France qualify by the skin of their teeth. This was a turning point; the team showed passion, they responded to urges of the crowd and they performed, as a team. It did not win everyone over, but it allowed us to start forgetting the recent failures.

Despite this, expectations were modest, and the team was not expected to make a huge impact in Brazil. France finished ahead of Switzerland on 7 points to top the group, with the outstanding game being the one against the Swiss, which ended 5-2 in an entertaining performance which saw 5 different scorers for France. The last 16 tie required two late French goals to overcome Nigeria and set up an encounter against footballing juggernauts Germany, who needed extra time to surpass Algeria in their last 16 match. The tie was decided by an early Mats Hummels header, with the attack proving somewhat impotent at penetrating the German defence. Though as was seen when Germany faced Italy at the 2016 Euros, Joachim Löw holds great respect for tough opponents and he chose to reshuffle his defence for this quarter-final, leaving Per Mertesacker out to combat the pace of the French attack. Germany would go on to overpower Brazil in that unforgettable semi-final before lifting the trophy against Argentina.

Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet have shone for France under Deschamps (Photo credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Though the team eventually ran out of steam, they returned to a positive reception. Deschamps was not expected to fix all of the team’s problems within the space of one tournament cycle but he had helped mould the team in view of the next tournament, the 2016 Euros in France. He demonstrated a liking to the 4-3-3 formation and integrated Antoine Griezmann, who was continuously improving, and Mathieu Valbuena, who ran the show. This was all after veteran Franck Ribéry, who finished 3rd in the 2013 Ballon D’or rankings and won the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award in August 2013, was ruled out from the tournament late on due to injury. France showed some flair, especially in the group stage match against Switzerland, orchestrated by Valbuena. Once again, there was a cohesion within the team, just like in the second leg of the playoffs. Deschamps had done well to deal with or crowd out the bad eggs; Toulalan had still yet to make an appearance since 2010 and Nasri, who exclaimed that no one would like to sit on the bench for their national team, was omitted from selection. He would go on to announce his retirement from national team duties. Conversely, Patrice Evra remained in the team, following on from the reintegration enacted by Laurent Blanc. Deschamps’s task now, was to prepare the team for the home Euros, without the help of competitive games.

The build-up to the Euros came with a mixed bag of results; good wins against the likes of Spain and the Netherlands were counteracted by losses to Belgium and Albania. But off-field problems reared its ugly head again. The national team roster was caught in the midst of a sex tape scandal, with Karim Benzema being charged with blackmail against teammate Mathieu Valbuena. The drawn-out case left Deschamps with no choice but to overlook Karim Benzema for the Euros 23-man squad. Mathieu Valbuena, who had established himself as the key component of the 2014 attacking line-up, was also left out, partly due to the case but more so due to a dreadful run of injuries in the 2015-16 season that minimised his game time. Their varied reactions said it all; Valbeuna was graceful, explaining his disappointment at not being able to represent his country and choosing to avoid expressing his full feelings until after the tournament, in order not to disrupt the team ethos or preparation. Benzema, on the other hand, suggested that Deschamps had surrendered to France’s racist element, disregarding his own obvious indiscretions. On top of this fiasco, Deschamps had to overcome issues of a greater reality, as the November 13th terrorist attacks in 2016 hit so close to home. The tragedy, as well as its proximity to some of the players who were affected and the France vs Germany encounter on the night of the incident made the national team a real symbol in the fight for something greater than football. The next fixture against England, where fans from both sides sung the French national anthem, was emblematic of the solidarity shown. The result on that night was irrelevant. And so, when the national team rocked up at their own tournament, which was under heavy security scrutiny, it was more than a team hosting a tournament. Much like the 1998 World Cup, when a talented multi-cultural team was lauded for its successes, the nation was engrossed by the progress of France, and that just heaped the pressure even more onto Deschamps’s shoulders.

But all this did not make Deschamps immune to footballing criticism, of which he received a lot based on his final squad selection. Many questioned his omission of Kévin Gameiro and Alexander Lacazette in favour of André-Pierre Gignac and Olivier Giroud. Greater disapproval was shown for leaving out Hatem Ben Arfa, who had a fantastic season, instead including the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko. He had effectively put his neck on the line by choosing players he trusted rather than picking players who had come into form but hadn’t established themselves in the team. He did not want a huge voluntary reshuffle as the tournament began. He did however select a revived Dimitri Payet and overcame a centre back crisis, which saw Kurt Zouma, Mamadou Sakho, Raphaël Varane, Jérémy Mathieu unavailable for various reasons, by including Adil Rami and Samuel Umtiti.

Olivier Giroud has been tasked with leading the line in recent times. (Photo credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

The tournament started off in a tense manner. Sticking with the 4-3-3 formation, Deschamps chose to play Giroud at the head of the spear, with Griezmann and Payet either side. He also included N’Golo Kanté as the holding midfielder and chose replacement Adil Rami to partner Koscielny. Giroud repaid the favour by scoring the opener against Romania in the curtain raiser, which sent the stadium into raptures. But a nonchalant tackle from Evra allowed Romania to pull level from the spot. Anxiety grew, before a wonder strike from Payet late on proved decisive. But Deschamps noted the nervousness, and chose to bench Pogba and Griezmann for the second game against Albania and opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Once again, the performance was shaky, and Deschamps was unafraid to change it, bringing on the two players he had demoted to the bench as France scored twice in the dying minutes, with the first coming from Griezmann. Though the team wasn’t playing imperiously, they were showing grit and character, and Deschamps wasn’t resting on his laurels. The third game against Switzerland ended 0-0, though riled up by the French press, Paul Pogba put in a very good performance.

The knockout stages began with a tie against the Republic of Ireland. Once again the team looked unsettled, playing a 4-3-3 formation, and a clumsy foul early on from Pogba allowed Ireland to take the lead from the spot. They held out for a 1-0 lead at half time. Deschamps chose to take off Kanté and bring on Martial at half time, changing to 4-2-3-1, with Griezmann behind Giroud. A ten-minute spell changed the game, as Griezmann first equalised and then three minutes later, broke away and finished following a knockdown from Giroud. Five minutes later, in a similar situation, Giroud put Griezmann through on goal but he was brought down by Shane Duffy for a free-kick, as Ireland were reduced to 10 men. Although France weren’t able to capitalise further, both Giroud and Griezmann had shown their worth up front. The quarter-finals against minnows Iceland, who were perhaps the story of the tournament, was a very good show, as France went 4-0 up at half-time, averting the embarrassment England faced in the previous round. The game ended 5-2, but still drew questions as to the strength of the defence, with a date set with Germany in the semi-finals. This had been Samuel Umtiti’s first cap and it presented Deschamps with a dilemma.

The semi-final was the real test of Deschamps’s tenure. Two years prior, the team lost to a single goal before Germany steamrolled past Brazil. Germany had outfought and outlasted a gritty Italian team in the quarter finals, where Löw showed great respect by playing a like-for-like formation. Deschamps chose a 4-2-3-1 formation and Löw obliged. Deschamps dropped Kanté in favour of Sissoko, and stuck with Umtiti at centre back over Rami. France won 2-0 in a fantastic performance that saw Deschamps make no changes until the 71st minute. The team showed incredible discipline, amounting almost the same number of shots (16 to Germany’s 17) despite only 35% possession. Griezmann bagged both goals and Umtiti put in a fantastic defensive display, which went some way into influencing Barcelona’s subsequent interest in him. Evra’s performance should also be noted, a great show of leadership from a once maligned character. As a fan, only one match, both club and country, has ever made me happier; the 2006 World Cup quarter final between France and Brazil, which was complimented by a vintage Zidane performance. This win against Germany had shown the progress of the team, the unity and brought belief in Deschamps’s methods and selections. The final counterbalanced the joy of the semi, as France lost in heart-breaking fashion against Portugal in extra time, a great strike from Eder condemning France to second place, all the more painful considering Gignac hit the post in the dying minutes of normal time. It’ll take some time for those wounds to heal. But it does not detract from the success of Deschamps.

Deschamps has shown he is unafraid to enact change, he has dealt with issues that have marred the team for years and he has done all he can to develop the team in a healthy manner. That final loss will always hurt, more so because it was on home soil, but the tournament captured the nation. He showed he could adapt his tactics, that he was more than a one-trick pony and he wasn’t afraid to change it up if he felt it wasn’t working out. Griezmann’s national team emergence provided great joy, and all those pictures of players crying and despondent after the final, that was what the fans felt. For so long it seemed like the players didn’t care and they thought too much of themselves, Deschamps quelled that approach. And the future looks bright. Deschamps has shown he will give chances to players that deserve it; both Payet and Evra have re-established themselves in the national team. He has said the door is still open for Valbuena should he find the form. He has given opportunities to younger players; Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Layvin Kurzawa, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembélé, Umtiti, Djibril Sidibé, Lucas Digne, and Adrien Rabiot all got their first senior international caps under the stewardship of Deschamps. The same goes for N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, and Raphaël Varane. Deschamps now has a really strong emerging pool of talent to complement the more senior players but the turnaround in the state of the national team can very much be accredited to the work of Didier Deschamps, who has carried himself with great poise and grace during a very difficult and hectic period for the national team, both on and off the field. The water-carrier who lifted the World Cup almost two decades ago is still the man to lead the team.

Dayann C

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