LONDON — Among the awards passed out at FIFA’s annual celebratory gala earlier this month was one for the year’s top coach. The shortlist’s star power was provided by Zinedine Zidane, who signed off as Real Madrid’s coach with a third straight Champions League title. Then there was Zlatko Dalic, the previously little-known manager who led Croatia on its improbable journey to the World Cup final.
And then there was Didier Deschamps.
In guiding France past Dalic’s Croatia in Moscow, Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as both player and coach. Yet while Zidane and Dalic received thunderous applause when their names were read inside London’s Royal Festival Hall, the mention of Deschamps merited little more than a ripple of polite applause. That came as no surprise to Deschamps: Even though he would go on to win the award, Deschamps, a pragmatist as a player and now a coach, is accustomed to the more flashier men in the trade stealing the spotlight.
Yet that was precisely why France’s World Cup victory — criticized as more of a workmanlike ramble than a triumphant march — offered a vindication of sorts. In an era of the superstar coach, of names celebrated for their grand, attack-minded philosophies — think Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp — Deschamps, 49, remains something of a throwback: an artisan among the aesthetes, an unapologetic supporter of efficiency over effervescence, a champion of substance over style.
“In some of the matches we didn’t have as much possession as the other teams, but it wasn’t because we weren’t dangerous,” Deschamps said of criticism of his unabashedly cautious style. “In football, you don’t hold on to the ball just to hold on to the ball. When you have it you need to be dangerous, create opportunities and score goals. And when you don’t, you make sure the opposition doesn’t.”
To Deschamps, short of stature with a smile that exposes a row of crooked teeth, beauty on the soccer field isn’t important. He noted that it wasn’t to the team that he captained to the World Cup title in 1998, either. But just like then, he knows that there now will be inevitable pressure for France, the best team in the world, to play like The Best Team in the World.
The 1998 team, he remembered, lost its balance in seeking to dominate opponents two years later at the 2000 European Championship. France still won the tournament, but that memory, he said, will guide his decisions amid the current calls for Deschamps to take off the hand brake, to give up on throttling opponents and instead to allow players like Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann to dazzle them.
“We could change it up but it’s risky,” he said. “At the highest level, if you don’t have a solid defensive base, you can’t get by. In one match, yes. But over a whole competition? No.”
Deschamps has been in his post longer than all but five of the 55 national team coaches in Europe, and that staying power is a product of a conservatism that he says is necessary given the dynamics of international soccer. In club management — a function he has filled with a level of success at Juventus, Monaco and Olympique de Marseille — coaches can tweak their tactical schemes on a daily basis, allowing the best of them to gradually inculcate greater complexity into their game plans.
National team coaches like Deschamps, on the other hand, can go months without having their players together, and their job security diminishes with every defeat.
“It’s hard to evolve when you only have fifteen days or three weeks to practice and correct and change tactics,” Deschamps said. “The players are smart, but they play a particular way with their clubs. The Real Madrid coach won’t ask for the same things as the P.S.G. coach or Chelsea. So you need to find a tactical plan that works for all them.
“For me, the goal is to make the most of each player, play them in the position they feel best in. And then repeat, repeat, repeat.”
The work of some of Deschamps’s rivals in Russia suggests he may have a point. England, for example, reached the semifinals behind a stolid, safety-first approach and a focus on set pieces. But after defending champion Germany crashed out in the group stage, its coach, Joachim Löw, admitted that in attempting to refine his attack he had allowed his team to lose focus on the basics.
“My biggest overestimation was that we would reach at least the next round by dominating games,” Löw said. “It was almost like arrogance: I wanted to persist with this tactic for too long and I kept trying to perfect it.”
Perhaps wary of Löw’s experience, Deschamps does not plan to make the same mistake: he said his biggest fear now is complacency. The issue is one of psychology, according to Deschamps, who said that it becomes tougher to motivate players once they have won soccer’s biggest prize.
“There’s a sort of natural relaxation, conscious or unconscious, but it is there,” Deschamps said. “It influences everything: effort, determination. There’s a danger there.”
In choosing his Wold Cup roster, Deschamps cut about a dozen players who were on the squad that reached the final of the 2016 European Championships. Now, as he prepares for the 2020 Euros, Deschamps won’t hesitate to do so again.
“You can’t hesitate, even if it’s hard, to say no,” he said. “It’s often after the biggest victories that we make the biggest mistakes. We think we’re all the way up here, it’s great, we’re the best, everything is wonderful, we’ll keep winning. But no.”
“There’s always more.”