History every now and again brings us heroes made by circumstances. Sometimes, they are not as beautiful and radiant as we are used to seeing in tale books, however, it does not necessarily mean that they are not capable of achieving great things. After 50 long years, France was in charge again to host another Football World Cup, but at this time, they were ready to win.
Despite the ecstasy that inflamed the whole country´s atmosphere, they had a huge and old problem to face with: they have never made to a World Cup Final before. Their best performances were three setbacks in semi-finals, 1958, 1982, and 1986.
Far from being the most stunning football performed, France was very criticized, mainly at the knockout stage, mostly due to the lack of goals and, let´s say, the unusual tactical options of its French commander, Aimé Jacquet. His story is full of dramas and improbabilities, he emerged to the role in a “provisional status” after France had failed to make to the 1994 World Cup. The first impressions he left after a couple of matches were enough to upgrade his condition to “permanent” though. These good performances went on during the 1996 Euro Cup where he managed to bring France to the semi-finals, being defeated just in the penalty kicks against Czech Republic. The honeymoon stage was over from that moment on. Both the French supporters and the media, the latter was actually quite cruel, were basically wishing to put Jacquét in the guillotine because of his defensive mindset and a supposed “absence of offensive ideas”.
The fact is, despite all criticism and “lack of beauty” on his team, Jacquet´s squad had an extra aid coming from outside the pitch: their own people. The French fans boosted the team´s motivation by unstoppably singing “la Marseillaise” melody and chanting “allez les blues” in every single game.
With so many voices charging up the team, the Gauls finally made their way to the glory. They not only won their first World Cup trophy ever but they also contributed a lot to the football world with a bunch of ingredients: a solid defensive system, an “unconventional offensive idea”, and a mix of great versatile players, having Zinedine Zidane as their main character.
Indeed, an authentic “Révolution Française” happened in 1998, so despite all judgments over Aimé Jacquet´s ideas, which sometimes are taken too hard, let´s check out why they succeed and what we can learn from them.
The French defensive system was close to perfection in 1998. They played 7 games and were scored just twice in the whole tournament. Just for comparison, Brazil reached the final being scored 7 times and were severely punished with 3 more goals against France, a total of 10 goals given. If the numbers were impressively positive for Jacquet´s troop, most of it was due to an incredible synchrony and willingness to defend presented by his players. They definitely took defending as a serious matter.
The primary defensive action started with their forwards, as soon as they lose a ball, Djorkaeff and Guivarch would be the first to combat the opponent´s defenders while Zidane would drop a bit to guard the center. If Djorkaeff or Guivarch went to block one of the side backs, Zidane would come to press the closest defender to this player. The opposite French forward would be on guard for a switching play then, therefore, protecting the diagonal.
The second 3-line was the real deal of the French defensive success: Deschamps, Petit, and Karembeu were three authentic guard-dogs, backing up the forwards and shielding the last defensive line. While the first would block central attacks from reaching closer to the box, the last two did not only help to protect the center but they also confronted the opposite´s side backs as soon as they crossed the midfield line, giving a real extra aid to Thuram and Lizarazu to protect the flanks and, consequently, avoid crosses. In addition, Zinedine Zidane sometimes would drop deep to this line being the fourth man, hence, composing a classic 4-flat-line in the middle.
The last barrier was an impenetrable back-4-flat-line led by Thuram, Blanc, Desailly, and Lizarazu. Together they formed a true “French wall” before Barthez.
Just like the midfield line, this last one was also made of fantastic and robust players. They were very aggressive when defending, shortening spaces, and hunting any player who eventually floated between the lines. Their solidness was, in fact, out of reality. They were great both on the ground and in the air. A superb alliance of great players, a balanced tactical system, and a true teamwork mindset.
The French not only put too much intensity when defending but they also excelled at every single defensive principle: delay, cover, balance, concentration and defensive unit. With such organization, France would always have superiority in most sectors. All these were crucial aspects of the French defensive effectiveness.
In simpler words, France mastered the art of defending!
Even though France did not receive the best compliments regarding their offensive power, they did bring some clever offensive ideas when attacking. Playing in a 4-4-2 diamond, France overloaded the midfield and had their great playmaker, Zinedine Zidane, playing as a false nine. He was the man in charge to bring hope to the hosts.
The interesting fact is that despite having a crowded midfield, France did not opt for a possession game. In fact, they actually did not waste time when they had the ball. Taking advantage of an extraordinary fitness level, their mindset was pretty set in performing fast offensive transition actions at most times.
Let´s check out how…
The polyvalent Petit and Karembeu were authentic “engines stuck in fifth gear”, always ready to start a counter-attacking as soon as they retained the ball, helping the French team to create superiority around the penetration zone. They would mainly exploit the spaces down the flanks.
Another key element of France´s “machinery” was their energetic side backs, Lizarazu and Thuram. They actually contributed a lot to Jacquet´s offensive strategy, bringing in “unconventional moves”. Instead of taking over the flanks to go for crosses, they preferred to cut inside, creating superiority in the penetration area while, as above-mentioned, Karembeu and Petit would fill the gaps down the flanks. A great example of these actions were the two goals ever scored by Thuram in the semi-final against Croatia and the one taken by Lizarazu against Saudi Arabia.
Video: Thuram and Lizarazu goals
These offensive movements would alternatively be performed by the French side backs and midfielders. When one surprised by the center, the other one opened wide on the side, puzzling the minds of any defensive system.
The desire for quickness would also make France explore long diagonal balls to the sides, hoping to surprise the opponent at all costs.
Video: Long balls
Another “tactical masterpiece” of coach Jacquet was to have Djorkaeff, a really high caliber “meneur de jeu”, playing as a second forward. When the French midfielders or side backs would be in possession, Djorkaeff and Guivarch would alternatively exchange positions with Zidane. With a perfect timing amid these switches, spaces were created for passes inside the penetration zone.
Video: Switching positions
The fact is, differently than most teams that preferred to play wide, the French trio played very close to each other, prioritizing lots of “give-and-go” passes and leaving the flanks “free” to be exploited by the players coming from behind.
Video: Passes and give & goes
Although France was criticized in regards to not scoring many goals they, in fact, created quite a few chances per game.
Probably the extra “doses of anxiety” left some side effects in their finishing!?
But at least they managed well to keep the opponent busy while defending!
Luxurious options on the bench
One of the main complaints against coach Jacquet was the fact that he preferred to use more experienced players, from the quarter-finals on, rather than relying on youngsters but fearless ones, like Henry, Trezeguet, and Pires, just as he did during the group stage.
The lack of goals is probably the main reason the media and French supporters used to justify such disappointment.
We never know what could have happened if he chose differently than he did. But the fact is that when one of these boys was on the pitch, the French team got that final spicy taste.
To sum up, all the ingredients that France had in its bag in 1998, we come up with the following formula:
“La formule du succès”
[(Versatile players + a couple of spicy options + a great playmaker) x a surgical tactical system] x (teamwork mindset)2 = World Cup Trophy.
A great legacy, that actually started in 1996 Euro Cup, was left after the 1998 World Cup. A new generation of French players would rule football for the next couple of years, writing other chapters in football history by winning the 2000 Euro Cup and being the runner-up in 2006 World Cup against Italy.
Indeed, the French era was far more productive than pessimists expected.
And football is thankful for that!
So does us.