Use your head, Raymond

September 14, 2007
By Paul Marshall
(Archive)

Raymond Domenech will be faced with a selection headache of migraine proportions when he takes France to the Faroe Islands next month: Should he put himself on the bench?

Pierre Mankowski
GettyImages / DamienMeyerPierre Mankowski mans the dugout at the San Siro with Domenech in the stands

The conundrum comes from the fact that having scavenged an away point against world champions Italy with Domenech in the stands, the French then coq-ed things up by succumbing to Scotland in Paris with their leader back in the dug-out.

Prior to the Italy contest - for which he was suspended for having alleged an Under-21 match he was involved in against an Italian junior side eight years ago was fixed - Domenech suggested he would use the 'power of thought' to communicate his match strategy to telepathic assistant Pierre Mankowski.

Judging from what his side got from the two contests, the ex-Lyon boss should urgently start enquiring about how to apply for Yuri Geller's 'Advanced Spoonbenders' course.

Having been sent to the naughty corner for his credible but totally unproven allegations by the headmasters at UEFA, Domenech admitted it was his dream that he 'serve no purpose' on the day of a match, and so it appeared at the San Siro.

A dogged, counter-attacking display marshalled by an inspired Patrick Vieira - reminiscent of England's goalless stalemate in Rome prior to the 1998 World Cup - earned a point and would have brought more but for the brilliance of Gigi Buffon.

'A golden point' L'Equipe - France's main sports daily - called it, and so it looked before Vieira's fragile fitness collapsed and James McFadden's speculative punt - and Italy's win in Ukraine - left the French playing 'catch up' in Group B.

While it remains a footballing truism that it is the manager who takes the fall for on-pitch failure, France's fate is of the players' and not Domenech's doing, in much the same way that Zinedine Zidane et al took a large slice of the credit for reaching the World Cup final.

Over the two contests, there is little the man in charge could have done differently, and, ironically, it was when the players were apparently left to their own devices at the San Siro that Domenech's tactical cunning, so often decried, most shone through.

The message that Andrea Pirlo must be prevented from using his deep-lying playmaker role to deadly effect had clearly been hammered into the heads of Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, who hounded the Milan midfielder with Duracell-esque endurance throughout the 90 minutes.

As an expert consultant on French TV, Arsene Wenger insisted his new signing, Lassana Diarra, would be exclusively a midfielder at the Emirates this season.

Yet, Domenech - often at loggerheads with the Arsenal boss - risked giving the youngster a first run-out of the season as a makeshift right-back to fill in for the injured Willy Sagnol, and was rewarded with a man-of-the-match display from Diarra who kept Alessandro del Piero quiet throughout.

Those decisions - plus another winning bet on a barely-fit Vieira triumphing in his contest with Gennaro Gattuso - helped earn a deserved point.

Domenech also made the logical decisions in Paris - bringing in David Trezeguet for the suspended Henry, and not tinkering with the rest of the side.

The coaching staff perhaps let themselves down by failing to warn Henry he risked a ban if booked in Italy, while Vieira - coming back to fitness after a long lay-off - may have been better off on the sidelines after his superhuman exertions at the San Siro, with Jeremy Toulalan providing an effective if less imposing presence alongside Claude Makelele.

But the real problems for France lay elsewhere.

France
GettyImages / MichaelSteeleRaymond Domenech commiserates with his players at the final whistle

While they had looked dangerous as a counter-attacking unit in Italy, back on home soil and faced with a Scottish bloc of ten men that made the Iron Curtain appear as flimsy as a bridal veil, Les Bleus looked as if they could play for a week and still come away empty-handed.

A pair of useful Craig Gordon saves were all the French had to show for 72% possession, a testament as much to their lack of finesse in the final third as the Scots' defensive rigour.

With four goals in two games for Juventus this season, Trezeguet was the obvious choice in the 4-4-2 now employed by the French following Zidane's retirement, and an international scoring record of virtually a goal every other game shows the man knows his job.

Often criticised for his lack of mobility, there was clearly a greater willingness to 'show' and help build attacks on Trezeguet's part, but he thrives on service, and at the Parc des Princes it was more of the calibre of Fawlty Towers than the Ritz.

During the match, Wenger pointed out that there were 'long-range shots, crosses and set-pieces' to break down a defensive opponent, but the French players were unable to perform those fundamentals of football, rendering Trezeguet's prodigious poaching prowess useless.

So much of the possession the French 'enjoyed' was in neutral territory that Switzerland is reportedly considering claiming sovereignty over the Parc des Princes, while of the 26 shots only a pathetic four called for Gordon to get his gloves soiled.

There were 15 corners criminally wasted by Frank Ribery and Florent Malouda, before the Bayern Munich midfielder finally got one right in stoppage time only for Karim Benzema to see his goal-bound header blocked.

And even the most conscientious statistician would have struggled to keep a tally of the number of miscued crosses by Diarra and his left-flank counterpart Eric Abidal, with Diarra perhaps proving Wenger right in the sense that while very solid defensively as a full-back, he offers little going forward.

The blame for picking Diarra can be laid at Domenech's door, but his hands were tied as - like many nations - he has no ready-made replacement for Sagnol as France did in the days when the Bayern Munich defender played second fiddle to Lilian Thuram, and the new Arsenal man's five-star display at the San Siro made it impossible for him to be left out.

If neither of his full-backs nor his attacking midfielders - three of which are often put in the 'world class' bracket - can muster just one top-class centre during 90 minutes, it is hardly the fault of the man rooted helplessly on the sidelines.

Nor can Domenech be blamed for Mickaƫl Landreau's inexplicable failure to paw away McFadden's effort which must surely now afford the excellent Sebastien Frey the chance of a first international cap.

There are, however, two positives that Domenech can draw from the pair of matches, the first being the resurgence of Anelka who, eight years after destroying England at Wembley, has finally fulfilled the decade-old predictions which marked him down as a France regular.

Though recalled prior to the World Cup, Anelka eventually missed out as he had done in 2002 or at Euro 2004, but the 28-year-old has not lived up to his 'Incredible Sulk' nickname and forced his way back into Domenech's thinking, playing the last nine internationals and starting the last six.

The Bolton forward admitted recently he feels 'more at ease than in the past' in the France set-up, and looks as if he is the answer to the question, 'Who will partner Henry up front?' allowing France to play either a classic 4-4-2 or as an alternative to Henry in a 4-2-3-1 in a way Trezeguet never could.

The other plus point is that despite their faux pas against Scotland, France remain masters of their own destiny.

The quirky nature of the fixture list and their better head-to-head record against the Italians means if the French win their three remaining matches - eminently do-able as they play Lithuania at home and the virtually condemned Ukraine away after beating the Faroes - they can still say 'Guten Tag' in Switzerland and Austria next summer.


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