Winning machine Deschamps proves France's best weapon
By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) - France's ultimate weapon at Euro 2016 is probably not the scoring instinct of Antoine Griezmann nor the set-piece artistry of Dimitri Payet but rather the obsession with winning of a diminutive grey-haired man with a twangy voice.
Les Bleus have yet to deliver an entirely convincing performance in the tournament but coach Didier Deschamps has done everything right so far, making shrewd tactical changes and raising that famous voice with perfect timing.
"I had to shake the trees," Deschamps said when asked what he had done at halftime to wake up his sluggish team for a 2-1 win over Ireland in the round of 16.
Deschamps's masterstroke was to bring on speedy winger Kingsley Coman for holding midfielder N'Golo Kante at the start of the second half, pushing Payet further wide and Griezmann closer to Olivier Giroud up front. The result was a Griezmann double for a place in the quarter-finals.
It was not the astute coach's first telling move in the competition. When France laboured in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the first half of their group game against Albania, he was quick to react, sending on Paul Pogba and reverting to a 4-3-3 formation which eventually wore down Albania's defence for a 2-0 last-gasp win.
Deschamps, whose pragmatic approach is not unlike that of 1998 World Cup-winning coach Aime Jacquet, was decisive even before the tournament, carefully handling a tricky situation.
The coach left out Karim Benzema after the Real Madrid striker was embroiled in an alleged blackmail scandal and did not even consider Franck Ribery after the Bayern Munich forward hinted he could be willing to come back.
"My aim was not to pick the best 23 players but to go for a group capable of going very far in the tournament together," Deschamps said after naming his squad.
Deschamps's influence on the team has a lot do with the resume of his playing career. Neither exceptionally talented nor particularly glamorous, the tireless midfielder with leadership qualities captained France to their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs.
"My game was never spectacular so I had to compensate with other things," said Deschamps, who also wore the armband when Olympique Marseille won the Champions League in 1993, not to mention a lot of other silverware.
As a coach, Deschamps has some way to go before collecting as many trophies but he has already demonstrated he could be successful in that role as well, guiding Monaco to a Champions League final, bringing Juventus back to Serie A and winning a Ligue 1 title with Marseille.
"The fact he has won everything going is the advantage that he brings us," said Payet. "He knows exactly what it takes to win as he has been there before. We know how precious his advice is and how much more so that will be as the tournament goes on."
Deschamps, who has kept tinkering with his squad since the finals started, faces another headache before Sunday's quarter-final against Iceland with defender Adil Rami and holding midfielder Kante both serving suspensions.
Sunday's game will determine whether the tournament is a success or a failure for France, French Football Federation (FFF) president Noel Le Graet having set a place in the last four as the minimum goal for the host nation.
"I'm not worried," said Le Graet. "I know Didier will do everything to win because that's who he is."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)