A Tale Of Two Trips (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep152)

Our match against the Irish is the first of 2 away games we’ve got this week.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 151

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Episode 153 >

Katowice 2.0 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep151)

This might be the best chance we have for a while to turn our form around.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 150

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks, I think that much has been clear. The atmosphere in the changing room and training sessions isn’t exactly somber but it’s noticeably quieter than after our opening day win over Lorient. That already seems like quite a long time ago. There are a few silver linings though: First of all Crouchie’s earned his Continental Pro License, meaning that he’s actually more qualified for my job than I am. Good job, Crouchie. I’ll get there at some point, maybe starting next Summer when the Ligue 1 revenue kicks in and the club can afford my course.

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And secondly, the club’s training facilities have been improved to excellent Ligue 1 standard, which seems pretty minor but could actually be a huge moment in our season. The better our facilities are, the more our players can improve and the better chance we have of staying up.

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We get the opportunity to bounce straight back from our loss at Guingamp with a Wednesday night home match against Nantes. This is a must-win. After 4 straight defeats we’re 19th in the league with only Nantes themselves below us. This might be the best chance we have for a while to turn our form around.

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So with that being the case I’m not messing around today. We’re serving a huge helping of Meatloaf for our guests, with Mike Kakuba making way for Zoun and Joël coming in for McCarthy. Both lads have had disappointing starts to the season and I’m hoping that this will be the day that they get going and recreate their form from last season.

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We should go ahead when Hikem’s corner is turned towards goal by Sissako after half an hour, but the keeper does well to keep the ball out. Just before half time we do manage to take the lead though when Nathan Andre skips away from his flat footed marker, picks his spot and fires the ball in from the edge of the box.

We go to a more standard mentality at half time and with 25 minutes to play, Raf comes on replacing the knackered Loïc Goujon. With 20 minutes to go though, disaster strikes: A Harit free kick is swung into the box, Ardaiz goes for the ball and Issa Samba very unsubtly shoves him to the floor, conceding a penalty that Harit puts firmly to Lenogue’s left to equalise. Aguilar replaces Samba late on as it seems like our usually reliable right back is falling apart to some extent and McCarthy comes on too, but we can’t find our way back into the lead. 1-1 it ends.

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Don’t get me wrong, considering this is our first point in 5 matches it’s not the end of the World that we didn’t get all 3. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. We once again have an instant opportunity to dispel any lingering feelings of disappointment though with a trip to Saint-Étienne just 3 days later. Although we’re 18th at the minute, the league’s so tight that a win here could take us as high as 11th, so let’s make it happen. Please let’s make it happen.

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We’re swapping to Project: Meatloaf Mk II for this one, with McCarthy coming in for Joël and Bassani replacing Brahim Ferhat, who’s been struggling of late, like 17 year olds will. With Zoun over on the left and Bassani on the right, I want our 2 wide players to swap sides every now and then and play as out and out wingers to keep Saint-Étienne on their toes.

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We’re behind after just a quarter of an hour. Captiste originally heads the hosts’ corner clear, but when Iturbe brings the ball down on the edge of the box and chips it invitingly into the mixer, Barba can’t resist smashing it into the net. 5 minutes later our day goes from bad to worse when Iturbe cuts in from the right and has a pop from 20 yards, smacking the ball against the bar and setting up an easy rebound for Alexandre to tuck away. With nothing to lose, we go Meatloaf after 20 minutes.

The next 10 minutes are ridiculous. I’m not joking or being hyperbolic, the next 10 minutes are actually batshit insane. It starts when Bassani gets away down the right wing and whips a cross in, only to see the ball cannon back off the post. Not that “mental” in isolation I realise, but stick with me. Less than a minute later McCarthy curls a corner in and Sissako rises to head the ball against the very same post. 5 minutes after that Bassani has a potshot saved and then with 10 minutes to go before the break, the young winger once again gets away down the right, once again whips a cross in and once again watches it come back off the post. That’s 3 times in 10 minutes we’ve hit the sodding woodwork. Luckily this time Toult springs into action and attempts to clear the ball but only succeeds in smashing it against Andre’s face, after which it bounces over the line and in. Ridiculous.

A minute after our goal, En Nesyri gets the wrong side of Captiste and hits the post himself, before we go up the other end, Samba plays the ball through for Bassani and his effort’s tipped over the bar by a superb reflex save. Andre and Zoun both go close before the break with shots from just outside the box but in what’s becoming something of a pattern this season, we’ve got nothing to show for our dominance.

We go 4-2-4 at the break with Aidir replacing McCarthy and joining Andre up front and it very nearly pays off within seconds of the restart, when Andre feeds Aidir and the Saint-Étienne keeper is forced to tip our Moroccan’s shot over the bar with another fantastic save. The second half’s quiet though. Fomba and Ferhat both make cameos but it’s another bloody loss.

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Taking a very welcome break from thinking about yet another loss though, Auxerre as we know are a great producer of footballers, as is proven by the fact that we’ve produced the 6th most French National team players after Lyon, PSG, Stade Malherbe Caen, Lens and Metz. It does make me think though… I mean, I’m about to announce my France squad for the matches against Ireland and the Netherlands so this list of teams that produce National team players is completely in my hands. I could seriously skew those numbers, although I don’t think such a move would do wonders for my reputation.

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We’ll get to the France squad though. For now Auxerre have still got a match to play before the international break. Bordeaux are coming to town and I’m actually going to take a bit of inspiration from Project: Renaissance. We’ll be without Raf, who’s gone and given himself food poisoning, Captiste, who’s strained his neck, McCarthy, who’s twisted his ankle and Samba, who’s suspended. But this is where our Project: Renaissance inspiration comes in: As well as Aguilar, Ferhat and Kakuba, Lamine Fomba’s going to come in and start at number 10 as a destroyer/second striker, similar to Paul Pogba’s role for the national side. He’ll play behind our young striker Nathan Andre, who’s given more of a facilitator role like his International counterpart Antoine Griezmann. We’ve got just 6 on the substitutes’ bench as another clerical error means that a lot of the lads line up for the reserves a few hours before the first team match. In the absence of Captiste, Aidir and Samba, Mamadou Doucouré takes the armband as we try to end this horrible slump.

Oh and one more thing… After Nathan Andre’s excellent start to life in Ligue 1, I’ve put him in my latest France squad. In my defence, I want to pick my French side on form and Nathan’s scored 5 in 5 this season. To me that justifies his inclusion, but I can’t wait to hear the opinions of the tabloids…

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The first half is every bit as action packed as it was against Saint-Étienne last week. Bassani goes close first after 10 minutes, trying his luck but just putting a shot wide from 25 yards. We start trying to work the ball into the box not long after. Half an hour in, Ferhat lashes a shot at goal but is denied by the flappy hands of Dimitrievski and from the resulting corner Ferhat’s cross is met and headed against the post by Sissako. Ferhat promptly gets the ball back and tees up Nathan Andre, who also hits the post, presumably because I murdered somebody in a past life.

To make matters worse just a few minutes after our double post-rattling, Pinho slips the ball past Kakuba, Schick sprints away from Aguilar and puts Bordeaux 0-1 up. 5 minutes and a pulled hamstring for Ferhat later, Pinho slips the ball in for Schick again, who makes it 0-2 for his side. I’m beginning to lose hope as the clock ticks towards 45 minutes, but then miraculously Fomba releases Andre down the left wing, he crosses to the far post and Bassani arrives to avoid the post entirely if you can imagine such a thing and tap in his first Auxerre goal.

Ferhat makes it until the hour mark but his hamstring’s giving him too much trouble and Zoun replaces him. A couple of minutes later, Bassani spots Fomba in space on the edge of Bordeaux’s area and picks him out. Fomba slams the ball into the top corner, remarkably pulling us level. With 22 minutes to go, Andre receives the ball from Sissako with his back to goal. As he turns, time seems to slow down almost to a stop. He fires the ball low and true from the edge of the box and as the ball ripples the back of the net, the most surprising and welcome of comebacks is complete.

Now it’s Bordeaux’s turn. It’s their turn to slump helplessly to defeat and it’s our turn to watch and laugh as they scramble to salvage something from the game. I can’t bloody believe it. I was starting to lose hope. Amath hits the post a few minutes after we take the lead but not long after I bring on Raf and we shut up shop. I breathe a huge sigh of relief as the final whistle blows. It’s another extremely dominant performance and for once, at last, we’ve actually got the win to go with it.

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Episode 152 >

Youth Will Prevail (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep150)

Pretty Please.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 149

A torn hamstring. Perfect. Not even 3 matches into our big Ligue 1 adventure, we’ve lost Phil Foden for up to 3 months with a torn hamstring. I’m actually a bit annoyed with Phil. His timing’s awful, tearing a muscle when he knows full well Adama Ba’s out of contention while he finds a new club. Suddenly we’re left with Zoun and the transfer listed Corentin Tirard as our only senior wide players and we’re looking really light.

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Luckily though, senior players aren’t all we have here in Auxerre. In fact I get a very timely reminder mid-meltdown that Auxerre are actually the joint best French producer of footballers playing in elite leagues, along with AS Monaco. Both of our clubs have brought through 25 players that are currently playing in the top leagues around the world. That’s how we’ll get out of this mess. Our academy grads will have to step up. Youth will prevail.

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So as the transfer window closes I look through my reserves for reinforcements. What I want really is a left footer who can cut in and fulfil the same role as Phil, so why not young Alessandro Bassani, the left winger that was plagued with injury during my first year in charge?

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I’ll tell you why not: Because Adama Ba is filled to the brim with rage that I didn’t let him move during the transfer window, even though his only option was playing sparingly for a Ligue 2 club, and is trying to lead something of a mutiny. His most vocal – Nay, only supporter? That’s right, Alessandro bastard Bassani. For fucks sake. So now I’ve got Tirard on the transfer list, Foden injured, Ba, who even if he wasn’t revolting has still lost all of my respect for the way he’s kicked off and Bassani who can absolutely get back in the reserves, having successfully set back his introduction into the first team by a few games at least. It never rains but it certainly fucking pours over there on the flanks, doesn’t it.

We do have some good news over the International break though: Mike Kakuba’s “Pulled a Corchia” and scored his first goal for Uganda, while Dennis Sundberg’s set us up with a new Bosnian affiliate club: HŠK Zrinjski Bostar. So that makes up for not even having enough natural wide men to organise a game of catch, doesn’t it.

AC Ajaccio are our next opponents in the league and they’re coming to ours, which in all fairness is one of the kinder matches we could have at this awkward time. Just as I’m starting to feel something close to optimism though, Abdoulaye Sissako strains his thigh in training the day before the match as a helpful reminder that this has been a really shit week.

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So some decisions need to be made. Firstly, I’m bringing out the Meatloaf. We need to be beating the clubs around us this season if we’re going to have any chance of staying afloat so I want us to plant an early flag here that we’re the best recently promoted team around. In the absence of Sissako, Fabian McCarthy’s going to make his full debut as our box to box midfielder. I’m leaning into our predicament with a radical new front line: Zoun drops out after a disappointing start to the season and Brahim Ferhat and Serge Bamba come in to make their full debuts on the flanks, while Nathan Andre replaces the equally disappointing Hicham Aidir up front and will make his first Ligue 1 appearance. I wince as I glance down the final team sheet. This isn’t what I thought my team would look like for the 4th match of the season. There are an awful lot of square pegs in round holes. But I think… No, I know I have confidence. Youth will prevail. Pretty please.

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With just over 20 minutes to it shows. One such square peg named Ruben Aguilar is drawn way out position and James Tavernier is allowed to receive the ball in acres of space on the right wing. From there he cuts the ball back for Robinet, who slots it into the net.

With around 10 minutes to go in the half though, we’re looking far more cohesive. A dangerous move sees the ball worked up to McCarthy 40 yards from goal and looking up he sees Tavernier leaving far too much space on the left. He waits for Aguilar, stood right next to the full back, to make the run into the vast expanse of open turf beyond him… We all wait for Aguilar to make the run… “Make the bastard run, Ruben!” I bellow, as Fabian awkwardly holds onto the ball in the middle of the park. Ruben finally steps forward, but it’s too late. McCarthy’s stalled for too long and is tackled. This, I think as I watch Ajaccio counter attack, Scarpellini cut the ball into our box and Vasseur power in the visitors’ 2nd, will not do. Aguilar, who if we’re being kind is only mostly culpable for both goals and has not stopped fouling since kick off, is replaced by Hikem with 7 minutes of the half to go.

That does the trick. Eager to impress in his first Ligue 1 appearance, Faouzi Hikem calms us right down with his presence on the left. So much so that just 5 minutes later we play the ball up the left wing, Ferhat cuts inside and passes to Andre and the striker fires us back into the game. This is more like it.

On the stroke of half time we’re looking good for a second. McCarthy spots Ferhat’s run inside, picks him out and the 17 year old moves the ball straight on to Nathan Andre again. Andre shoots first time and the ball’s surely destined for the top corner, but Riffi Mandanda pulls off a world class save to tip the ball against the bar. After such a rough start it’s encouraging that we’re unlucky to be trailing at the break.

Tavernier’s continuing to leave space at the right back position so we’ll target the left hand side in the 2nd half. This has the added benefit of taking some pressure off Bamba, who’s been anonymous so far. 5 minutes after the restart, Munoz slips a clever pass through for Robinet, but the striker wellies his shot over the bar. He evidently learns from his mistake though because when Jovane gets away down the right flank and chips a cross in for him, Robinet coolly applies the finish for 1-3.

With half an hour to go I throw on Aidir and Zoun for Joël and Bamba and we go to our usual plan B of a 4-2-4. The impact should be instant as within seconds Goujon plays a lovely pass down the line for Zoun to chase. The nippy winger chips the ball in from the byline and Andre lets rip with a volley from inside the 6 yard box… And hits the post. My head goes to my hands. Fortunately just like Robinet, Andre soon gets the chance to redeem himself. Once again it’s a nice pass from Goujon and this time a square ball from Zoun, allowing our young striker to slot in his 2nd goal of the day. We’re back in the hunt.

With just 5 minutes to play, Ajaccio have a corner, but it’s cleared and we counter! Andre’s the man on the edge of our box and he hoofs the ball upfield for Zoun. Dropping the shoulder, the Burkinabe winger leaves Tavernier in his dust, then skips past centre back Diarra. He’s through on the right wing! Ferhat and Aidir are arriving unmarked in the box! All he needs to do is square it and we’ll pick up a point! Square it! Square it, Zoun!

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He balloons it over.

I’m not even surprised when McCarthy’s free kick smacks against the bar in the 91st minute, or when Andre’s denied a hat trick by a fingertip Mandanda save in the 93rd. Or when Ferhat’s follow up shot is deflected wide by a last ditch tackle. This has been a nightmarish 90 minutes.

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The one thing I’ll say is what a bloody Ligue 1 debut that is for Nathan Andre. The lad’s got potential aplenty and I think that for now at least, he’s just become my first choice striker. Moving on so swiftly that we all give ourselves whiplash though, the Coupe de la Ligue 3rd round draw is made a few days later. We get Dijon at home, which won’t be an easy game, but could be much harder. Maybe a decent cup run would renew some of the squad’s rapidly depleting confidence.

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The following week brings us a trip to Guingamp, who’ve had a pretty good start to their league campaign with 5 points from 4 matches.

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Against Lyon I opted not to bring out Project: Burnie Mk III against a 4-4-2 in case it disrupted our momentum from our first 2 good performances. With no such worries 2 matches on though, I’m changing things around for Guingamp and their 4-2-4. The Serge Bamba experiment is over for now and he’s replaced by Mike Kakuba, who’ll make his own Ligue 1 bow in our back 3. Hikem will start in place of Aguilar on the left and I’m also dropping Joël and bringing Sissako in, who’s recovered from his thigh strain. He’ll run box to box while McCarthy starts in his favourite number 10 position behind a promising front 2 of Ferhat and Andre. Our biggest centre backs Kakuba and Doucouré will man mark their 2 huge strikers Privat and Pavlovic and our wingbacks will hold their position in defence against Guingamp’s advanced wingers. In the absence of their width we’ll focus our play down the middle where we have a numerical advantage. My plan is flawless and I’ll fight anybody who tells me otherwise. This slump ends now while it’s still in it’s infancy.

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25 minutes in, Guingamp score with their first shot. We’re undone by a hoofed ball up the left for Lefeuvre, who gets goal side of Samba. The 4 attackers work the ball around the box before it’s played back to Lefeuvre and he taps it past Lenogue. We need more structure and I tell the team as much, because the hosts have taken the lead massively against the run of play with a fluid move. With 5 minutes to go we put together a good and well structured move of our own, which is pleasing. It ends with Sissako drilling the ball low against the post though, which in contrast makes me want to pummel the ground with my feet until I break through to the Earth’s core and become a steaming bowl of cyborg soup.

In the second half Andre comes off, having shown none of the cutting edge I saw in the last match. Aidir gets half an hour, but 15 minutes later we’re 0-2 down. I’ve no idea what Samba thinks he’s playing at but this time he actually abandons Lefeuvre and allows him a free cross for Privat, who slams the ball in from 6 yards. More changes are required, so on come Zoun and Joël for Captiste and McCarthy and we change to a 2-2-2-3-1 formation and set out to control the game. 2 minutes later, Samba’s caught upfield after a throw in, the ball’s hoofed over the top for Lefeuvre, he’s allowed a free cross and stop me if you’ve heard this one before but Privat slams it home from 6 yards.

Mendyl skying a free header 6 yards out is of scant consolation. As is yet another dominant loss. As is our actual consolation in the 90th minute when Djuricic turns Ferhat’s cross into his own net. I can see what’s happening here. I know the script. It’s all happening again.

It’s Katowice 2.0.

Send wodka.

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Episode 151 >

Vive le Franj! (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep149)

We will of course be throwing caution to the wind today and unleashing the full power of 16th Century France.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 148.5

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“OK, is everyone clear?” A few players nod and murmur in response. Respect me, you bastards. They say that in prison you win respect by going up to the biggest bastard in there and punching him right in the face. I’m not much of a fighter, so I simply follow up with: “Paul, are you clear?”

“Boss, you must call me ‘The Pog Man™’.” Says my captain, Paul Pogba. A few players cover their mouths to try and hide their laughs. I sigh. This has already backfired.

“I’d rather call you Paul.” I reply curtly.

“But Boss, all of my friends call me ‘The Pog Man™’. I can’t play at my best unless you call me ‘The Pog Man™’.” I feel myself turning red. The players are starting to hide their laughing less and less. I need to stand my ground though, I can’t bend the fucking knee before my first match.

“I’ll tell you what, Paul,” I begin, “For now I’m going to call you ‘Little Poggy Boy™’. Impress me today and we’ll see about promoting you to Pog Man™.”

Pogba laughs and feigns applause as his team mates continue to giggle, but seemingly more in his direction now than mine. Success. For now at least, I’m King of the Prison. Who’s got all the cigarettes now, Little Poggy Boy™?

The French vice captain is Antoine Griezmann by the way. Both he and Paul were already in place before I arrived and I thought it unwise to risk losing the dressing room by replacing them after their recent triumph in Canada.

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My first match as head coach of the world champions is a home tie in the European International League Group A against the Netherlands. It’s a 3 team group containing ourselves, the Dutch and the Irish so after this first match we’ve got a friendly while the other 2 play each other. I want us to get off on the right foot today though and the Dutch won’t be easy opposition.

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We will of course be throwing caution to the wind today and unleashing the full power of 16th Century France upon our Dutch counterparts. The line up is as follows:

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Goalkeeper – Hugo Lloris – Tottenham Hotspur

He may be 35 years old, but for my first match I’m going for tried and tested players and Hugo is certainly that, with 156 caps for France and over 15 years of top flight experience with Nice, Lyon and Spurs.

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Right Back – Djibril Sidibé – AS Monaco

The full back spots are one of the only positions where I’m not completely spoilt for choice, but then I don’t need to be with Sidibé in the team. Widely recognised as one of the best right backs in the world, he’s the obvious choice.

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Centre Backs – Raphaël Varane & Aymeric Laporte – Real Madrid & Chelsea

Speaking of spoilt for choice, we have more than enough quality centre backs. Real Madrid stalwart Varane and serial entrant in the Premier League Team of the Year Laporte beat the likes of Samuel Umtiti, Lucas and Dayot Upamecano to start because they’re coming into their primes and quite frankly they both absolutely ooze class.

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Left Back – Lucas Digne – Manchester City

Lucas is my kind of player. Determined and hard working as hell with the pace and fitness to effectively charge up and down the left wing all day. Like the rest of the defence he’s hovering around 30 and is in his prime.

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Central Midfield – N’Golo Kanté & Tiémoué Bakayoko – Chelsea & AS Monaco

In my midfield I want legs. Lots of them. These two players between them have at least 4. But it’s not just the fact that these 2 can run all day that’s inspired me to pick them, it’s their all round games. They’re both quick and strong, can tackle and pass and if absolutely necessary, crack off the odd shot.

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Right Sided Attacking Playmaker – Kingsley Coman – Manchester United

Kingsley’s a tad younger than most of the players who’ll line up around him today but you wouldn’t know it. Experienced more than you’d expect for a 26 year old in a hugely competitive squad, the rapid and versatile midfielder’s already racked up 76 caps.

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Attacking Midfielder – Paul Pogba – Manchester United

Our captain slots in alongside his red devil teammate Coman and I’m looking for him to be the sun around which everything else in the team gravitates. He’s certainly got the ability and his performances for United and France have rarely been anything but spectacular, so hopefully he’ll show me something similar.

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Left Sided Inside Forward – Kylian Mbappé – AS Monaco

Kylian’s the baby of our starting XI at just 23 years old, but he may well be one of if not the most talented French footballer out there. Make no mistakes, Kylian, I don’t often say this but I do expect fireworks.

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Complete Forward – Antoine Griezmann – Atletico Madrid

Another player who’s reached the remarkable landmark of 100 caps and yet somehow doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down for his club side. He’s two footed, there’s barely any weaknesses in his game and he can play anywhere across the forward line, so I look forward to seeing how he fits into my system.

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Two things should be immediately apparent: Firstly, the quality in this team is absolutely mouth watering and I need to keep pinching myself because I get to put them in a team together, but secondly as far as International squads go, ours is old. Very old. I firmly believe that this is the best lineup currently at my disposal and only 2 of them are under 28. Russia 2018 and Canada 2022 took place right in the peak of this generation of players’ careers. By the next World Cup only Kylian Mbappé will be under 30. Lloris will be almost 40, although granted it’s not unheard of for a keeper to still be world class at that age. So it’s bittersweet to see this team together because I think over the next couple of years, the vast majority of this true golden generation will need to be replaced. It’ll be a big job, but that’s for another day. For now let’s see what these lads have got.

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What these lads have got becomes apparent almost immediately. What they’ve got is so much talent that I could break down and openly weep in the middle of the Stade de France. It takes 5 minutes of beautiful football for us to win a free kick 25 yards from goal and Paul Pogba steps up to dispatch it perfectly, looking almost bored as he curls it right into the top corner for 1-0.

With just over 10 minutes gone it should be 2, but for a superb reflex save from Jasper Cillessen. Sidibé bursts down the right wing and is fed the ball by Bakayoko. The Monaco full back crosses to the near post, Griezmann shoots but the Dutch stopper does brilliantly to turn it behind. Mbappé swings the resulting corner in, Pogba rises to nod it across goal and Bakayoko has a free header at the far post, but puts it just wide.

By the 14th minute we can officially consider ourselves unfortunate to only be a single goal ahead when another Pogba free kick rattles the bar, and then 5 minutes later vice captain Griezmann presses Riedewald and robs the ball from him. He runs clean through and shoots, but Cillessen makes another good save. This is complete one-way traffic.

We continue to dominate the first half, but it’s not until the 53rd minute that we have our next real chance when a beautiful passing move ends with Bakayoko playing a give and go with Little Poggy Boy™, who plays it on to Kanté. Kanté gives the ball to Coman, he slides it across for Bakayoko and the midfielder strokes it into the far corner to double our lead. Perfect.

We’re pegged back out of nowhere a few minutes later though when Buitink slips down the right wing and cuts the ball across goal for Memphis Depay to tap in at the far post. Leave me alone Memphis, you twat. 2-1.

With under half an hour to play Pogba stands over a free kick once more, but this time he passes short to fellow goalscorer Bakayoko. Bakayoko passes to Mbappé on the edge of the box, who slips the ball straight through for Kanté. The one time Premier League winner with Leicester City has a go, but Cillessen makes another terrific save, tipping the ball against the post.

We continue to push and within a minute the Netherlands have 11 men in the box defending our corner. Mbappé’s initial cross is cleared but we patiently work the ball around the edge of the box, waiting for an opportunity. Pogba finds such an opportunity, squaring the ball through the mess of orange shirts for Bakayoko, whose shot cannons off Riedewald and wrong foots the keeper. Bakayoko claims his 2nd and our 3rd goal of the day.

For the last 15 minutes I bring off Kanté and Griezmann and introduce Rabiot and Fekir, who I’ll talk more on in a minute. The Netherlands go close soon after, with Buitink skying his shot after being put through by Vilhena, and a few minutes after that Thomas Lemar comes on in place of Kylian Mbappé. Again, more in a minute.

We have the final chance of the match with 5 minutes to go when Rabiot chips the ball into the box for Paul Pogba to chase. The skipper takes it down and shoots from a narrow angle, but can only ripple the side netting. The feel good factor is marred slightly a minute later though when Pogba has to go off injured.

Nevertheless, I’m back in International football and back in the European International League with a bang. When the final whistle blows I have to leap with all my might to meet Crouchie’s high 5, before we both head onto the pitch to shake hands and pat backs as a chorus of “Vive le Franj!*” chants from the tens of thousands of French fans echoes around the Stade de France. What a fucking day.

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Fair play, Pog Man™. Consider me impressed. He’s proved today that he can be relied upon to be our main attacking threat, but unfortunately his injury’ll keep him out for the Austria game. To be fair, the plan is to make wholesale changes anyway so I can see how the rest of the squad adapts to Project: Renaissance.

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The name Noé Guillot may sound familiar as he recently helped tear my Auxerre side apart for Chelsea in a pre-season friendly. The plan for this squad was to go primarily for tried and tested so he didn’t originally make the cut, but with Pogba out for Austria and the niggling thought that some fresh blood will be needed sooner or later, I may as well give him a look. Welcome aboard, Noé.

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A few days after my triumphant debut in Paris, we travel to Vienna to take on Claudio Ranieri’s Austria. That’s bloody right. If there’s one football manager I’ve always wanted to shake hands with, it’s Claudio Ranieri. What a bloke. I just love football sometimes.

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I said before that this French team should be able to attack almost any team in the World home and away and I’m sticking by that. Even our second string should be good enough to get the win over Austria and I mean no disrespect by that, we’ve just got a bloody good second string. Here they are:

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Goalkeeper – Alban Laurent – Real Madrid

I’m handing young Alban his debut today despite the fact that he’s “only” Real Madrid’s 2nd choice goalkeeper. At 20 years old his potential is staggering and there’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll eventually take over the number 1 jersey from Lloris.

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Goalkeeper – Alban Lafont – Stoke City

Laurent won’t be playing the whole match though because he’s got competition. Stoke’s 23 year old shot stopper Alban Lafont. At the minute he’s much more experienced and rounded than Laurent so it’ll be interesting to see who performs the best. I’ll give the 2 lads a half each.

“But Franjo,” guffaw the masses, “How can you have a Stoke City player in your France squad?”

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Right Back – Sébastien Corchia – Stoke City

Well how you like me now, guffawing masses? There’s 2 Stoke City players in my fucking France squad. Sébastien’s not exactly one for the future but as I said before we’re not exactly overflowing with fantastic options in the full back areas and at 31, Sébastien is still a bloody good player. He’s also got that determination, work rate and sky high fitness that I laud so much but thanks to the likes of Sidibé he’s been almost criminally under-utilised by the national squad throughout his career.

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Centre Backs – Lucas & Samuel Umtiti – Paris Saint-Germain & Barcelona

As I also said before, there is an abundance of great centre backs for us to choose from. I’ve had to leave very good options like Upamecano, Kurt Zouma and Mamadou Sakho out altogether because we’re so well stocked. Like Varane and Laporte, Lucas and Samuel are 2 extremely classy centre backs: Quick, strong, mentally bulletproof and comfortable on the ball. I have confidence that they’ll do a job.

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Left Back – Benjamin Mendy – Atletico Madrid

I actually considered playing Benjamin over Digne for the Netherlands match because of his fantastic crossing and dribbling ability, but he drew the short straw. He can still impress me today, mind.

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Central Midfielders – Corentin Tolisso & Adrien Rabiot – Barcelona

Similarly to central defenders, we downright have too many world class midfielders in our ranks. I opt to play Corentin and Adrien together because of their club connection and I’m certain that either or both of them have the ability to win a first team spot if they put in the performances.

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Right Sided Attacking Playmaker – Jeff Reine-Adelaide – Inter

Ah, how long has it been? How long has it been since I’ve had a true anti-winger in my team? I couldn’t resist giving Jeff a try despite the fact that he isn’t a first team regular at Inter because he’s such a great option to have. He’ll still be the playmaker in the side today and not an actual winger because we’re still playing Project: Renaissance, but it’s great to have him on board even so and I hope he does well.

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Attacking Midfielder – Noé Guillot – Chelsea

As I said before, Guillot gets a chance to impress today thanks to Paul Pogba’s knock so he’d better make the most of it. Arsene Wenger obviously thought very highly of the lad, having used him in the World Cup and most notably started him in the final, but I’m yet to be entirely convinced. He’s quick and mentally assured but I feel like he may be lacking technically. I want to see how he does before making any decisions on him though.

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Left Inside Forward – Thomas Lemar – AS Monaco

There are probably only 3 attacking midfielders in the world that could keep Thomas out of my first team and unfortunately they’re Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé. He’s an absolute dream of a player and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he ousted one of the other three at some point.

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Complete Forward – Anthony Martial – Paris Saint-Germain

Anthony’s a solid choice either on the left or up top, having scored 21 in 69 caps so far for France.  He’s not a regular at PSG at the minute but again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he made himself undroppable for me going forwards. When he originally burst onto the scene he was meant to be the best French footballer of his generation and while he’s done well, he’s yet to live up to that billing in my eyes.

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Complete Forward – Nabil Fekir – Real Madrid

Nabil is officially the only striker I called up to my squad, which I found pretty funny. Griezmann’s my first choice and there’s obviously Martial, but we’ve got a host of versatile attacking midfielders who I’m sure could step in with ease. I want to look at Nabil though so he’ll come on at the break with Lafont.

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I shake Ranieri’s hand as our teams line up on the pitch. I can’t hear what he says to me over the deafening noise of the Austrian fans, but I’m sure it’s something endearing and charming, so I smile and nod.

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Austria go close within the first minute when young Inter striker Andreas Seidel escapes the clutches of Samuel Umtiti, dribbles into our box and skies his shot. I wouldn’t mind but he does it again 15 minutes later. Salijl passes across Umtiti, who’s left flat footed, for Seidel. He shoots but Laurent makes a great save, tipping the ball onto the angle. What really makes me panic though is when he does the exact same bastard thing 5 minutes later. Seidel receives the ball, shrugs off Lucas, steps around Umtiti and fires at our goal. Laurent gets a hand to it again but calamitously can only spill it into the net. Bloody hell. It’s a richly deserved 0-1 lead for Austria and I’m already forgetting everything I said about our embarrassment of riches at centre back.

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With half an hour gone I’m starting to fear a mauling. We’ve not really started playing yet. I get the feeling that perhaps Project: Renaissance should be reserved for when we’ve got the absolute crème de la crème on the pitch. Pardon my French. Sorry. Anyway, we go on the counter attack after half an hour but at half time we’ve still not turned up. As promised, Alban Lafont and Nabil Fekir come on replacing the unfortunate Alban Laurent and the anonymous Anthony Martial. I feel for Laurent. He’s made a mistake on his debut and as Ryan Shawcross will tell you, that does not a good international career make. He did pull off a magnificent save though and I won’t forget that. Just as I won’t be giving up on the lad and his International prospects.

After the hour mark Andreas Seidel’s transfer value is still skyrocketing. Running rings around our centre backs once more he has another dig at goal, but Lafont tips the ball behind. But then finally with 20 minutes to go, we get our chance. A period of possession that echoes the beautiful football we played against the dutch culminates  with a Mendy cross from deep on the left wing, right into that sweet spot between the defensive line and the keeper. Fekir, by no means the tallest striker, leaps majestically to connect to it but sees his header smack back off the bar. Lemar tries to get to the rebound but the ball’s cleared before he reaches it.

With 12 minutes to go we have a free kick 25 yards out and slightly right of centre. It’s a perfect position for a left footer like Thomas Lemar. Lemar steps up, bends it… Not quite enough. It’s too central and the keeper saves it, but he can’t keep hold of the ball. It bounces down and Sébastien Corchia reacts quickest, darting over to boot in the rebound. We do celebrate, but it’s mild compared to the Netherlands match. Nobody celebrates quite as wildly as Corchia, who’s just scored his first international goal at the age of 31. How you like me now, guffawing masses. Don’t answer that actually, this has not been a good match.

Seidel goes close once more with 5 minutes to go and my late introductions of Kingsley Coman and Antoine Griezmann can’t turn the tide. The match ends 1-1, which to be honest I’ll happily take. I’ve just learned an absolute tonne about this squad and not all of it’s good.

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*Credit and thanks to Markus on wordpress for “Vive la Franj”. Bloody love that!

Episode 150 >

Project: Renaissance (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 148.5)

This is our rebirth.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 148

“How’re you feeling, Boss?” Asks Crouchie, stepping out of the hotel and following me onto the team bus.

“Like a Höllviken manager with a France squad.” I mutter, managing a weak smile. Crouchie laughs.

“It’ll be fine. International football’s a doddle.”

“Well you would say that wouldn’t you, Mr 20 goals in 40 games. For some of us International football has so far been a harrowing experience.”

“22 in 42”, he corrects me quick as a flash. “And this isn’t exactly Liechtenstein, is it? These players know what they’re doing. No offence.”

“I suppose.”

“And lest you forget, we’ve got Project: Renaissance ready to go. You know it’s a good system. It’ll be fine.”

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Crouchie’s right. Project: Renaissance has become my obsession lately. Despite not knowing what he was talking about, the beeb’s Don Collins was right about one thing: France need to play more than just functional football and along with my assistant, I’ve designed a system that should allow us to win beautifully. It’s probably the first time ever I’ve set out to play truly attractive football, but in my defence this is a system that very few teams would have a chance of pulling off. If anyone can do it though, it’s the French national team.

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Project: Renaissance, put basically, is Project: Meatloaf taken to the extreme. Whereas Project: Meatloaf and pretty much all of my systems to date have tended to be simple in order to be picked up quickly and easily by “lesser” players and limit their creative freedom to make sure they’re doing their job, Project: Renaissance is quite the opposite. The players are told to play more instinctively and express themselves, especially in our front line where I want the 4 most attacking players to roam, float and interchange at will, finding pockets of space to receive quick passes to feet and play it on. The “wide men” are encouraged to come in and affect the game in the centre, the “striker” will have almost complete freedom to link up with his team mates as he sees fit, while our number 10 becomes almost a second striker, driving into the box as our primary attacking threat. The 2 full backs will charge down the lines providing a wide option to stretch defences and the central midfield pair will press high up to win the ball back in our opposition’s half. With our defence pushing up we’ll play the offside trap and we’ll use a sweeper keeper to mop up any loose balls at the back.

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So far this should all sound fairly familiar, albeit with more freedom and fluidity. I do of course have some instructions for the team other than “Do whatever you want” though. On the ball I want us playing quick give-and-go football, using our superior movement, intelligence and passing to move up the pitch. We’ll play narrow and with a high defensive line to keep the game as compact as we can in the opposition’s half, which will help us off the ball where we’ll chase and harass the opposition mercilessly in order to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Above all, we’ll attack, attack, attack. This side should be able to attack nearly any other team home and away and impose our game on them. We’re taking elements from German gegenpressing and Dutch total football and on paper at least, I think Crouchie and I have come up with something pretty special.

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Finally, the meaning behind the name Project: Renaissance. The Renaissance is a defining period of European history covering the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries and is named after the French word for “Rebirth” as it’s seen as the artistic and cultural rebirth of Europe. The huge cultural shift from the middle ages into a more modern, humanistic Europe led to developments in things like the Arts and Sciences, just as my introduction as the French Head Coach will surely lead to huge developments in our style of football and eventually (Hopefully) a new generation of French World Cup Winners. This is a new era for me and it’s a new era for France. This is my rebirth. This is our rebirth. This is Project: Renaissance.

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Episode 149 >

Runaway Train (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep148)

Never Going Back.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 147

This last week has been fantastic. The sun’s shone brighter, the beer’s been colder and training sessions have been light hearted but tremendously effective. There’s just been a genuine feel-good atmosphere around Auxerre since Phil Foden struck to get us off the mark in Ligue 1. He’s named in the first Team of the Week of the season and it’s richly deserved.

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Yep, everything’s going just fine for old Franjo, I think to myself, leaning back in my comfy chair and putting my feet up on the desk. I glance towards my office door, but nothing happens. Huh. That’s right. As I said, everything’s going just… Suddenly and to my utter surprise, the door bursts open dramatically and in steps Adama Ba.

“I need to leave”, He pants, out of breath for some reason. “I’ve achieved all that I can at Auxerre.”

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I pause for a moment, then say “Are you serious, Adama? Achieved all you can? We’ve just been promoted! Have you achieved helping us stay in the bloody division?” He says nothing, staring at his feet. “Have you spoken to Captiste?” Adama shakes his head. I walk to the door, lean my head out into the corridor and bellow “Captiste!”.

“Yes Boss?” Comes a voice from about 2 feet away.

“Oh, there you are.” I say, spinning to face him. “Adama thinks he’s achieved all he can here, could you work your magic on him please?”

Nodding solemnly, Captiste strides into the room and stands in front of the inside forward, studying him for a moment. I smile. I’m quite excited, having never actually seen him in action before. I usually find it better to let him deal with these situations one on one. The skipper closes his eyes and takes a very long and very deep breath. There’s a palpable silence before Captiste reopens his eyes and clears his throat.

“You will be happy to stay.” Says Captiste, waving his hand slowly in front of Ba’s face. My smile vanishes. Ba slowly turns his head to face me, looking as confused as I feel.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I ask. Captiste looks at me, then back to Ba.

“You will be happy to stay.” He repeats, his voice slightly more strained as he waves his hand more forcefully in front of our bemused Mauritanian.

“No, I want to leave.” Says Ba meekly. “I feel that I’ve…”

“Are you shitting me, Captiste?” I ask, exasperated. “This is your secret? This is how you keep the dressing room happy, bloody… What, Jedi mind tricks?” Captiste turns to me, raises a finger to his lips in a shushing motion and winks. My brow furrows dangerously. “No, don’t shush me as if it’s top secret mate, it’s bollocks isn’t it.”

“You WILL be happy to stay!” Barks Captiste, whipping back around to face Ba and swinging his hand around wildly. Ba shakes his head and walks out of my office, leaving Captiste looking crestfallen, holding his hands out in front of him and staring disbelievingly down at his palms.

“I don’t understand how you’ve managed to turned so many players around.” I sigh. “I mean it’s still impressive, but in an entirely different way than I thought. It’s baffling, really.”

Captiste turns towards me, smiles, winks and raises his forefinger to shush me once again. He then begins to back slowly out of my office, smiling and shushing as he goes, until he closes the door behind himself. Oh captain, my captain. I fucking despair.

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I catch up with Adama and we have an actual grown up chat. He’s a polite lad and he seems to have made up his mind, so although it wouldn’t be ideal for him to leave, I agree not to stand in his way. Adama’s a runaway train and he’s never going back. On his decision. Personally I think he’s going the wrong way down a one way track.

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I want to get as many points on the board as possible before the first international break in 2 games time. Our next match promises to be a big challenge though: Mancini’s Marseille are coming over for a kick about. It’s easy to forget how good Marseille are when they’re stood in the shadow of PSG and Monaco, but as they’re usually in or around the 3rd Champions League spot, they’re definitely not to be underestimated.

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To punctuate this point, OM are coming to Stade l’Abbé Deschamps off the back of a 4-0 win over Fenerbahçe in the Champions League Play Off First Leg, so it’s fair to say I’m bricking it a bit. Sport Pesa posit before the match that for us to have any chance we’re going to have to keep it tight and hope that we can snatch something on the break. I wholeheartedly agree. We’re staying unchanged and we’ll start off closing down less, staying on our feet and sticking to our positions like we did against Lorient.

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We nearly make the perfect start with Hicham Aidir going close after 15 seconds. He has a shot tipped brilliantly around the post by Samba. 15 minutes in though Marseille start to take charge. First Geraldes makes himself some space on the edge of the box and fizzes a shot wide, before Carrasco gets away down the right a few minutes later and whips in a cross that Enes Ünal smashes home on the volley. Shit.

The next 15 minutes are tense as the next goal will be vital. When Bruno Fernandes lays the ball off for Mexican winger Hirving Lozano and he slams it into the far corner of Lenogue’s net, we need to roll the dice. We hand a Ligue 1 debut to our attacking Project: Meatloaf.

From that point we match Marseille stride for stride but we can’t pull the deficit back. We start to even take control early in the second half so I make a couple of attacking changes: Samba and Aguilar are encouraged to go on the attack while Brahim Ferhat and debutant Fabian McCarthy take to the pitch in place of Zoun and Goujon, with Ferhat taking the left wing and McCarthy utilised in a deep lying playmaker role.

With 20 minutes to go we’re hammering on the visitors’ door, firing crosses into the box and going close without being able to make anything stick. Samba gets the ball on the right wing and instead of crossing, passes it inside to Phil Foden, who turns and lays the ball off for 17 year old Ferhat. Ferhat makes no mistake, tucking the ball into the far corner to put us right back into the game. Good lad, Brahim.

A minute later we’re still all over OM and a beautiful flowing counter attack ends with Hicham sliding the ball into the box for Sissako, who’s clean through on goal. Sissako shoots… Straight into the keeper’s arms. Somebody get me a water bottle to kick. With 15 to play I throw Florian Ayé on for Joël and we go to a more direct 4-2-4. It’s Marseille that go closest after that though when Lozano forces his way down the left hand side and forces a good save from Lenogue with a shot from close range.

We keep plugging away and with 2 minutes to go we put together an absolutely outstanding move. Brahim Ferhat turns inside from the left wing and plays a direct diagonal ball to Ayé, who flicks it on perfectly into Aidir’s path. The Moroccan chests it down on the penalty spot and let’s rip… Straight at the keeper.

I can’t say I’m not disappointed when the final whistle blows, but the players’ effort was admirable today. We threw everything at Marseille but it just wasn’t enough.

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We just need to move on quickly. I do get an offer the next day from CS Sedan Ardennes, who want to take Ba on loan for the season. They don’t necessarily want to play him though and don’t want to pay much for the privilege, so I reject the offer.

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During the build up to our final match before the international break, it’s time to announce my very first France squad for our European International League match against the Netherlands and friendly against Austria. It still feels a bit surreal to call them my France squad. I have a system prepared that me and Crouchie have been working on for the past few weeks, but for now we’ve got a League match to focus on so let’s save all that for another day.

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A few of our players have been called up by their countries, although none by me. Raf, Ba, Kakuba, Lenogue, Zoun, Aidir and Andre will all join up with their home nations over the break.

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A trip to Lyon isn’t exactly the match I’d choose to bounce back from our narrow defeat, but them’s the breaks. I don’t exactly help myself though by accidentally allowing most of my bench to play in a youth team game for a bit of fitness, not realising that the youth team match is also today, so they’re all unavailable for the first team. Lyon have had a decent start to the season with 4 points from their first 2 games and they sit 3 places above us in 7th.

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For the 3rd match in a row we’re keeping the exact same lineup. I do consider swapping out to Project: Burnie Mk III to sure us up against Lyon’s 4-4-2, but this side’s performed well so far and I don’t want to disrupt their momentum.

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Lyon’s Juanpi tests Lenogue in the opening stages with a shot from the edge of the box, but it’s a routine stop for our Martinican keeper. 20 minutes later we go close ourselves when Zoun plays in Aidir. The big striker dribbles and shoots from the edge of the box but just misses past the top right corner.

5 minutes later Zoun cuts in himself and has a pop, but he’s denied by a good low save from Lopes. Memphis Depay does likewise a few minutes later, cutting in from the left and shooting just over the bar as both sides wrestle to take control of the match. Lumbering Lyonnais striker Yussuf Poulsen tries to get involved with a pot shot from 35 yards just before half time, but he almost hits the corner flag with his wayward effort.

As we enter the second half it could still go either way, but with all the near misses from great shots that we’ve seen so far it’s disappointing when Lyon pull ahead through a close range Memphis header directed down under Lenogue after Brekalo’s cross. The Dutchman nearly bags a 2nd before the hour when Lyon counter from our corner kick. He skips past a couple of our defenders and tries to bend a 20 yarder into the far corner, but can’t curl it enough and watches it go wide.

Young Senegalese winger Djilby Ba, on the bench today due to my administrative cock up, gets his debut replacing Zoun for the last half hour and slots in as a poacher alongside Hicham Aidir in a narrow diamond, but we can’t pull the game back from the hosts’ grasp.

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To compound the misery of our last week, Phil Foden collapses in a heap in the 63rd minute and has to be stretchered off, with McCarthy replacing him. We’ll assess him over the international break but sometimes you just know instantly that it’s not a problem that plasters, deep heat or a week’s rest is going to mend. After our bright opening to the season, the future suddenly looks quite bleak.

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