Ah, the emerald isle. Ireland is a strange place for me as even though I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve visited, I’ve got a bit of Irish blood in my veins from my great grandparents and it does feel oddly like a sort of homecoming as our plane touches down in Dublin.
Our match against the Irish is the first of 2 away games we’ve got this week, with our second European International League game against the Netherlands scheduled in a few days. As I briefly mentioned, the big talking point in the French media has been my inclusion of Auxerre striker Nathan Andre, who’s had his first call up off the back of a decent half season in Belgium and a good start to the new campaign for Auxerre. The press are dubious but I stand by my decision. Nathan could have a big future in French football. The only other change to the squad is the inclusion of Paul Pogba, who missed the friendly against Austria but has long since been back to fitness. I consider just swapping him back in for Noé Guillot, who replaced him for that friendly, but I want to give Noé another chance to impress me at some point so Adrien Rabiot misses out instead, along with Nabil Fekir. Rabiot’s unhappy with my decision, being a world class midfielder and all that, but I tell him I’ll put him in the next squad and he seems OK with that.
The biggest changes since I last met with the France squad have been behind the scenes with a dramatic revamp of my coaching and medical staff. Some familiar faces have joined me as I’ve brought coaches David Bechkoura and José Carlos Oliveira Santos and physios Frida Eklund, Julien Jarlier, Becky Knight and Jamanta with me from Auxerre.
I saw in the Austria match the flaw of only having one strategy in Project: Renaissance. The non-world-class players struggled to get a foothold in the match and were bullied ruthlessly by a more efficient team. I have created a backup strategy in case such an occasion arises again but for now I won’t be using it. I’m going to use these 2 away matches to see how the first team does away from home using Renaissance.
We set up against Ireland with the exact same team that beat the Netherlands so handily in Paris: Lloris starts in net behind a back 4 of Sidibé, Varane, Laporte and Digne. Kanté partners Bakayoko in midfield and Coman, Pogba and Mbappé will weave around Griezmann up front. We should have these. I hope the home fans aren’t still mad about that Thierry Henry goal.
Turns out they’re still quite angry about it, yeah. I can’t blame them to be fair, it was a bullshit goal. The Aviva Stadium practically shakes with the home fans’ singing in the opening minutes. There’s one song about the Eiffel Tower and what the French and Thierry specifically can do with it, but I won’t go into detail.
They’re quickly silenced though. Before the 10 minute mark a diagonal ball from Sidibé is taken down masterfully by Pogba and teed up for Mbappé, who toe pokes it past Kelleher to give us the lead. Pogba nearly bags one himself in the 20th minute, applying the finish slightly too wildly after a superb move that starts with Lloris and ends with the skipper rattling the bar.
We do find the second goal 5 minutes later though. It’s a great bit of possession play in midfield that allows Sidibé to get into space on the right wing and Pogba sweeps the ball out to him. He tries a cross into the danger zone between defence and goalkeeper and Tyreke Wilson can’t get out of the way quick enough. The ball brushes off his shoulder and wrong foots the keeper, doubling our advantage.
Mbappé comes off after half an hour, feeling a twinge in his back. Not wanting to take any precautions and with the game realistically won, I bring on Thomas Lemar in his place. It doesn’t take Lemar long to put his stamp on the game either. We counter quickly after Bakayoko breaks up a semi-threatening move and Coman whips a cross into the very same dangerous corridor across the face of goal. It goes all the way through to substitute Lemar and he taps in our third goal.
It’s becoming clear that Ireland have no response to the sheer quality of this France side and we’re not about to shut up shop and save their blushes. We go close to a 4th goal before half time when Lemar’s corner is headed down by Bakayoko and volleyed from close range by Coman, but Alan Judge is stood on the near post to block the shot on the line. Unluckily for the hosts, he’s not there in injury time when Griezmann’s shot cannons off the base of the post and Lemar reacts quickest, tapping in his 2nd and our 4th.
A nasty looking collision between Robbie Brady and Djibril Sidibé results in both players coming off on the hour mark. Callum O’Dowda comes on for the home team and Sebastien Corchia comes on for us. Ireland actually score the pick of the goals with 25 minutes to go when Kanté heads Judge’s free kick clear, but only as far as Lynden Gooch, who takes the ball down and blasts it into Lloris’ top corner from 25 yards. Take a bow, mate.
I give Nathan Andre the last 20 minutes up front and make sure he knows there’s no pressure on him, but his debut’s quiet and the scoreline remains 4-1.
It’s not ideal to lose 2 key players before the Netherlands game. Mbappé’s looking at 3 weeks out with a back strain and Sidibé’s dislocated his shoulder and will miss 6-7 weeks, which is definitely a blow for France, but it’s actually great news for Auxerre as we’ll be facing their club Monaco quite soon and we’ll need all the help we can get for that one. With my French manager’s hat back on though I call up Barcelona duo Rabiot and Ousmane Dembélé to replace the injured Monaco pair and we get to work on the plan for our 2nd match against the Dutch.
All going well, we can secure a place in the European International League semi-final today. I have confidence that with Corchia and Lemar in the starting eleven we should still have the quality to get another win.
The Netherlands start the match quickly and terrifyingly. Within 4 minutes Buitink’s hit the bar twice and we are definitely lucky to still be level. Immediately second-guessing my decision to stick with the attacking and open Project: Renaissance, I move Kanté back into the hole in front of the defence to try and break up these early attacks from the Netherlands.
Our luck doesn’t hold out for long though. With less than a quarter of an hour on the clock, Ten Hove gets the ball after a Dutch free kick and dribbles down the right, where he squares it for big centre back Virgil Van Dijk, who slots the ball coolly into our net. This absolutely isn’t working. We go on the counter.
In the 27th minute Hendrix scores another for the hosts, flicking a Willems cross into the net with his head, but we respond soon after. Lemar and Coman exchange passes to move us up the pitch and then Lemar slips the ball through for Pogba, who slams it first time into the bottom corner for 1-2.
It’s no use though. 5 minutes before the break the 2 goal cushion is restored when Memphis chips the ball over our defence for Buitink, who slots it past the advancing Hugo Lloris. Straight from kick off we work the ball up to Paul Pogba again, who plays a one-two with Griezmann before smacking it against the inside of the post.
We stay as we are for the second half with the exception of Nathan Andre, who I give a full 45 minutes to in place of the so far practically anonymous Antoine Griezmann. The 2nd half’s much more scrappy than the 1st though and aside from a close miss from Memphis, neither side creates anything of note. I introduce Mendy and Dembélé in an attempt to spark us into life in the final third, but the game ends 1-3. My first loss as France manager and it’s of my own making.
There’s nothing wrong with failing as long as you learn something though. What I’ve learned today is that we need to use our second system, even the first team do when we’re away from home against decent opposition. The other thing I’ve learned is that Nathan Andre, as good a start as he’s had this season, isn’t ready to play a part for France, but at the same time Griezmann doesn’t look like a good fit for a striker in a more direct system like we used today either, so that’s another thing to think about.
Oh well, as long as we beat Ireland again next Month we’ll still qualify for the semi-finals. Until then, it’s back to Auxerre and a completely different set of problems.