July 2, 2000; there exuberance in the stands of De Kuip, but one man’s face was stony. Players hugged each other on the pitch, but he remained motionless. It was the third minute of stoppage time during the Euro 2000 final against Italy, and Roger Lemerre, the veteran head coach of France, could not enjoy the moment.
After a hard-fought 92 minutes, his team used their last bursts energy to score a late equaliser. The Italian bench was ready to run on to the pitch with their arms aloft when Sylvain Wiltord luckily received the ball from a misplaced Fabio Cannavaro header on the left side of Italy’s 18-yard box. His desperate shot slipped under the left hand of Francesco Toldo, as France forced overtime and ultimately beat Italy.
As for Lemerre, he led the team to the grand slam by winning the Euros two years after triumphing at the home World Cup. It was a crowning moment for him and for a generation of older players, including experienced war horses such as Frank Leboeuf and Emmanuel Petit. Many stayed with the team for two more years, only to experience a huge disappointment when going out at the group stage at the 2002 World Cup.
Maybe the win over Italy delayed a necessary rebuild, but that group of players built around Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane was very special. “From 1998 to 2001 we were the best team in the world, like Spain later,” Marcel Desailly, France’s centre-back at the time, told These Football Times.
In 1998, Lemerre assisted Aimé Jacquet in France’s 1998 World Cup victory. That paved the way for him to take over as the national coach, as Jacquet became the technical director of the Fédération Française de Football in August 1998. Although Lemerre was experienced and by no means an unknown figure in French football – he coached several clubs in the 1980s and led the French national military team to a world championship – he had the chance to learn some important things in Jacquet’s shadow.
Jacquet caused controversy prior to the Euro 1996 when he chose to reshape the squad with some new blood, building the attack around younger players, while dropping Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin and David Ginola. Jacquet’s choice of players for the tournament caused resentment among some fans, but his team qualified for the Euros, making it all the way to semi-finals. Les Bleus managed to show they could survive without the veterans.
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However, putting emphasis on stabilising his team’s defence after the tournament, while offering no effective strategy in attack, the press and fans began to attack Jacquet again, claiming that his philosophy was outdated. France’s national coach remained calm as he concentrated on helping his team rather than playing the media game. Unfortunately, a disappointing third place at the 1997 Tournoi de France intensified the situation.
The media’s distrust of Jacquet reached a pinnacle in May 1998 when, instead of a list of 22 players meant to play at the World Cup, Jacquet gave a preliminary list of 28 players, prompting the sports daily L’Équipe to write an editorial arguing that Jacquet was not the right man to lead the French team to victory. Again, Jacquet stayed his own course. And he eventually led France to their first world title.
Lemerre was there throughout, demonstrating his ability to help the situation and learn from Jacquet’s management. After taking over from Jacquet, there was seemingly no need to change a winning team.
Lemerre stuck to the players that had been victorious at the World Cup, although a merited team member like Christian Karembeu only played a minor role at the Euro 2000. Stéphane Guivarc’h, who had been featured up front for 66 minutes in the World Cup final, made his last appearance for Les Bleus in November 1999, while Wiltord and Nicolas Anelka, two up-and-coming strikers, obtained Lemerre’s confidence, with Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet the more seasoned forwards.
France played in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2 shape. In both formations, Zinedine Zidane, whom English football historian Jonathan Wilson in his book Inverting the Pyramid called “one of the greatest playmakers the world has known, but a player of limited pace and almost no defensive instinct”, served as the pivotal point. He, as a number 10, determined the attacking rhythm, often dribbling slowly through the middle and forcing one-on-ones in static situations. In that regard, France were probably the last dominant team in an era that was still made for a smoother style of football, with less intense pressing and intense man-marking than nowadays.
France’s build-up players, notably Laurent Blanc, capitalised on the fact that they were not under immense pressure when screening the pitch in order to pick the right target for the opening pass. Opposing pressing lines did not look as compact as necessary to threaten the French build-up play. Henry and the other players up-front drifted into the half-spaces to receive vertical passes with ease.
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And if a pass slid into Zidane’s path, it made France’s attacking plays even more effective compared to the rather slow build-up play they displayed when Zidane picked up the ball in a deep position and dragged it up field. Incredibly comfortable in between the opponent’s lines, he never appeared to be the greatest strategist, but he could out-dribble anyone and, if forced to make quick decisions, he was able to assist his team-mates beautifully.
While the 4-2-3-1 shape provided a clear structure, with two wingers positioned out wide not only in the build-up but also situationally in defence, the 4-3-1-2 required a more flexible approach.
Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, both effective box-to-box runners, had to cover a lot of space from the centre to the sidelines. One of them, together with Henry and one of the full-backs, would be overloading the flank, but within a flash the same player would already be back in the middle to shut down passing lanes towards the penalty box. It helped Didier Deschamps to focus on his strategic duties. And it helped Zidane to keep his free role.
In addition, Blanc sometimes rushed forward when Deschamps was marked tightly. As a unit they were always able to get something going on the attack. Defensively, however, the age of all three players in the middle appeared to affect their performances. Blanc, Deschamps and Desailly were all in their 30s. They still had vision and positional awareness, but lacked agility to some degree. That made it tougher for them to defend onrushing opponents in one-on-ones.
France usually had a compact shape when defending their territory. Zidane acted smartly, as he first rushed forward to pressure the opposing players who were supposed to start the build-up play, but quickly dropped back to cover the space in front of the central midfielders. Even though France protected the centre very well, capable opponents frequently moved the ball across the middle.
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In the final against Italy, Lemerre chose Youri Djorkaeff over Petit so he could field a clear-cut 4-2-3-1, with Djorkaeff on the right and Christophe Dugarry on the left. Interestingly, France played plenty of deep vertical passes towards Henry. While one winger, mostly Dugarry, roamed through the deep half-space in order to help in the build-up, the far-sided winger charged forward to support Henry. However, against Italy’s 5-2-3, it was hard to get behind the compact back line.
“For France to be able to break down Italy’s awesomely efficient defence Zidane obviously had to see a lot of the ball. The Italians, therefore, concentrated on making sure that he did not catch more than the odd glimpse of it,” David Lacey noted in his Guardian match report afterwards, adding: “In these circumstances Patrick Vieira, Youri Djorkaeff and Christophe Dugarry needed to press forward to establish alternative links with Thierry Henry. No easy task when every square metre of space in front of you is being ceded so grudgingly.”
However, the French were able to control many parts of the game thanks to the versatility of their midfielders. In that particular game it became very obvious that France at the time were great at manipulating the opponent to determine the rhythm of a match, although they did not have an advantage in terms of ball possession or the control of every important zone. The team was experienced enough to identify Italy’s plan quickly, so they could adjust on the fly and not play the game of the sneaky Squadra Azzurra.
Having said that, France conceded a Marco Delvecchio goal in the 55th minute after Francesco Totti fooled two French players on the left side with a magical back-heel. Similar to their semi-final encounter with Portugal, they had to come from behind.
Lemerre remained calm and collected. And that, to some extent, translated to his players, who believed in their chance to turn things around until the final moments of stoppage time. They scored the equaliser, yet stayed focussed. When Trezeguet hammered the ball into the net with a beautiful volley in the 103rd minute, it was the last glorious moment of a glorious team.
Many players later pursued careers as pundits and coaches, or in charity and politics. They were already larger than life when stepping onto the football pitches all over Europe and delivered some great moments in the sport’s history. As for today’s Équipe Tricolore, the footsteps could not be bigger.
By Constantin Eckner. Follow @cc_eckner