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Didier Deschamps, France and the Rebirth of Les Bleus

In 2010, France was the laughing stock of the World Cup. With a dismal performance, Nicolas Anelka being sent home, the team opposing the coach, and then the so-called “strike”, France was doomed. But if anyone knows French national team football, France seems to go through cycles. In 1998 and 2006, France played exceptionally well. In 2002 and 2010, they were extremely embarrassing. If the cycle continues, 2014 should be an “exceptionally good” year. So far, that seems to be the case.

The biggest change for France has been at coach, from Raymond Domenech in the 2010 World Cup to Didier Deschamps in the 2014 World Cup (with Laurent Blanc in the position in between). The way that these men have coached the French team has been night and day. Here are some of the main differences between Domenech and Deschamps. As you will be able to see, France does have a new look. And right now, it seems to be working to create a stirring rebirth of “Les Bleus.”

Defense – In the Domenech era, the defense was more fluid in their approach, whereas they are more rigid under Deschamps. Domenech would have his defenders close down on the player with the ball, with the defending midfielders offering support, as well as taking control of any lose ball in order to start the counter attack. The problem with this approach is that when the opposing player would move the ball to one side of the pitch, the opposite side would be venerable, and allow an unmarked player in alone on goal. As for Deschamps, players stay within their positions, covering more of the east-west sides of the pitch. This closes the holes for the opposition. As with Domenech, the midfielders are still part of the defensive play for Deschamps, but the transition is much different, which will be discussed later.

Another change in the defense is that Deschamps allows the right and left defenders to be part of the offensive play. While Patrice Evra has always been allowed to push forward, he has been able to push up much high than under Domenech. Mathieu Dubuchy has also been able to be involved with the offensive play. The possible reason for this is Deschamps plays the traditional French 4-3-3 formation, while Domenech had a tendency to play a 4-4-2, which limited the forward push by his left and right defenders, which also slowed the transition.

Midfield – One of the biggest differences between Domenech and Deschamps is the way that the play transitions from the defensive midfielders to the forwards. Domenech relied on two strong defensive midfielders controlling the ball, such as Jeremy Toulalan and Claude Makelele. That would then be accompanied by two strong offensive-minded midfielders, like Zinedine Zidane and Franck Ribery.  Players like Toulalan and Makelele rarely pushed up high, and Ribery rarely dropped back (though Zidane did some times).

With Deschamps, the midfielders have more of a box-to-box mentality, with the midfielder who is playing the defensive role (which has mostly been Yohan Cabaye) bringing the ball up themselves. Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko are all box-to-box midfielders who can be interchangeable parts of the French midfield.

Also, the midfield selection by Deschamps offers an element of surprise. With the Domenech system, the pass from the defensive midfield to attacking midfield was always expected, and interceptions by the opposing midfield were quite easy. With Deschamps’ system, the midfielders can either push the ball forward themselves, pass it up to one of the attacking midfielders, or dish it off to a streaking defender on the left or right, which would then offer more offensive options once the ball is in the attacking third.

Offense – In the case of the offense, there is a flip in offensive and defensive strategies for these two coaches. Deschamps is allowing his attacking players to roam more freely in the offensive third, while Domenech was more rigid. Domenech only seemed to trust Thierry Henry and Franck Ribery to attack the net while dribbling in the ball. Even Zidane did much less dribbling into the box under Domenech than he did under Aime Jacquet, Roger Lemerre or Jacques Santini. He was also very reserved in allowing Karim Benzema to move out of position (which was noticeable during the 2008 Euros). For Deschamps, all the players are allowed more freedom in the offensive third. Moving up the box-to-box midfielders and allowing defenders to push high on the flanks has led to more room for Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena to produce goals. Most of the offensive players look comfortable on the pitch, much different that under Domenech.

Possible Intangible? Another interesting note is that there seems to be much more respect by the team for Deschamps than with Domenech. One must wonder if this is because of the lack of a generational gap between players and coach. In the case of Deschamps, the players on this team were probably kids sitting around the television when Deschamps raised the World Cup trophy in front of President Chirac in 1998. Therefore, there is a level of respect for Deschamps and those on the 1998 World Cup-winning team. Domenech didn’t have this connection, and very few of his players were able to respect him in the same way. While this is just a stab-in-the-dark comment regarding player commitment to the coach, I think it is possibility that should be considered.

Overall, Deschamps has been making excellent decisions for France during this World Cup. From formation to player selection, he has done everything right for the team. The biggest difference has to be the role in which the midfield transitions the play. So far, it has been quite successful and has opened up France’s game.

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