So France thrashed the Netherlands 4-0 on Friday night. The reflex response might be to curl into a ball and rock gently back and forth, crying “if they can do that to Holland, what will they do to us?”
Actually, from Ireland’s point of view that result is good news. Not just because it’s probably better for Ireland’s qualification chances if France dominate the group, leaving the rest to fight over second place, but also because the win will have France arriving in Dublin feeling very pleased with themselves.
When you compare France’s team with Ireland’s team, France’s results with Ireland’s results, Ireland’s task looks all but impossible. It looks that way to France as well. This is when it is important to remember the words of Hervé Renard after his Saudi Arabians defeated Argentina at Qatar 2022.
“You need to believe in yourself because everything can happen in football. Sometimes your opponent is not at his best motivation. This is normal. It’s also happened to us sometimes when we play a lower team. This is sometimes what the people do not understand. Imagine Lionel Messi against Saudi Arabia. Of course he will say ‘we need to start very well’ but you know the motivation is not like when they play Brazil. This is normal, this is part of football.”
For France, after Friday in Paris went like a dream, Monday night in Dublin is an anticlimax. The French hardly know who these Irish players are. Nothing Ireland have done since the last time the teams met competitively in 2016 will have led France to expect much trouble.
It remains to be seen if the home team can spring a surprise, although if Stephen Kenny is planning one, his press conference yesterday was one long exercise in misdirection.
Asked whether, given France’s quality and form, there might be “a temptation to set up a little more conservatively”, Kenny dismissed the idea: “No, absolutely not. We’ve been working on the way of playing for the last two years. We’re very comfortable in possession . . . Why would we change now? Why would we take a step back now? This is the time that the team needs to show conviction. . . France, one of the best teams in the world coming at us, do we just suddenly then change and not have the courage to do that? And just accept a slow death? Definitely not.”
Notice that Kenny equates a more conservative approach with “a step back”.
This is the price of culture war; everyone gets pointlessly entrenched in their positions. Not all coaches look at it the same way. Take Lionel Scaloni. Maybe he was always going to win Fifa Coach of the Year after leading Argentina to their third World Cup, but in his case the award was well-earned. His team’s defining characteristic in Qatar was their ability to reshape themselves to meet the different challenges they had to face.
After losing to Saudi Arabia, Scaloni radically changed the system and selection to win the next two group games. In the quarter-final against the Netherlands, he surprised everyone by mirroring Louis van Gaal’s 5-3-2.
In the semi-final against Croatia, he decided that these opponents – one of the older teams in the tournament, who had already battled through two 120-minute knockout games – might be vulnerable to an aggressive press, and Argentina duly destroyed them before half-time with high-tempo attacking.
Their exuberance that night was exemplified by Julian Alvarez’s first goal, when he galloped through the centre and virtually pressed the ball into the net by himself.
Such an emphatic win in the semi might have tempted many managers to go with the same approach for the final, but Scaloni thought otherwise. Just because something had worked against the slow Croats did not mean it would work against Mbappé and Dembélé.
So in the final, Argentina sat deeper and played on the counter-attack.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t play good football: Angel di Maria’s strike to make it 2-0 – the five-man, five-pass, seven-touch counterattack – was one of the greatest World Cup goals.
It just means they recognised that attacking as they had against Croatia would mean playing to France’s strengths and that might not go well for them; that if they wanted to win the World Cup they had to find another way.
Scaloni showed himself to be a shape-shifter in the tradition of Carlo Ancelotti, whose Real Madrid team last summer made him the most successful coach in the history of the Champions League final by beating Liverpool with one shot on target.
“We don’t have a clear identity because we don’t want one,” he said recently, “We are a team that knows how to do many things, not just one.”
We have lived through an era when the coaches who have carried all before them have been the ideologues – Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp – coaches who have been committed to a particular idea of how to play the game. Based on what he’s said and done since becoming Ireland manager, it seems likely Stephen Kenny sees himself in this tradition.
Maybe, though, now that once-radical ideas about possession and pressing have permeated the elite game and become familiar, we have entered a period of retrenchment, when the successful teams are not so much the ones who are committed to a single idea, as those who have the flexibility to switch between them as the game demands.