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Foxy Herve Renard can transform Sochaux into Lions

There’s a theory that Zambia’s population was established by all the tribes which ran away from other tribes, making it one of the most peace-loving nations in the world. Indeed, a metal-detector look at Zambia’s politics will detect and disinter ubiquitous patches of peace. Interestingly, its post-colonial history has been notable for outgoing presidents accepting defeat and walking; the only one who chose not to walk, Kenneth Kaunda, was eventually forced out by a nationwide protest.

The cordial manner of Herve Renard’s departure from the Zambia national team to Sochaux isn’t too dissimilar to that Zambian theory.

In fact, appointed on the recommendation of his guru and compatriot Claude Le Roy, the modus operandi of Renard’s reign with Zambia was cordial in general.

In a continent where there is a prevalent revolving-door policy when it comes to international managers, the Zambian FA chairman Kalushwa Bwalya gave the suave Frenchman unanimous backing throughout his two two-year reigns.

The Zambia FA defenestrated myopia and were patient with him and a studious group players in a span of 6 years and four editions of the Africa Cup of Nations, two of which Renard was in charge. Cohesion, of course, is increasingly a prerequisite to be king in international football, and Zambia got their just rewards for their prudency where it mattered most – in Libreville, just miles away from where a plane full of the Zambian national team crashed into the sea in 1993, killing all aboard.

At the core of Zambia’s triumph was Renard’s tactical flexibility. Blessed with a protean group of players, the Chipolopolo (the Copper-headed Bullets) were able to transform through innumerable systems during games on the whim of their coach. A 4-4-2 system, akin to a 4-2-4 with its thrusting ultra attacking wingers and nauseatingly interchanging attackers, was Renard’s primary formation, but the versatility of the players allowed him to change to 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 or a defensive 4-4-2.

Renard is happy to chop and change during games –at Afcon 2012, he took midfielder Francis Kasonde off for striker Collins Mbesuma after 30 minutes in the group game against Libya, only for the substitute to later be substituted because he wanted players to ‘play faster’, deeming Mbesuma not to be compatible with that style of play.

With the physical composition of the squad largely lightweight, the emphasis was on keeping the ball on the floor. “Bola Panshi [Ball on the floor]!” Renard would berate his players in his trademark whiter-than-white shirt whenever the ball left the ground needlessly. Zambia would famously win the continental crown with the lowest pass completion by any team in the tournament.

That wasn’t because they were simply wasteful with the ball. It was just that they had a commitment to transition the ball from defence to attack as quickly as possible, so much so that the first pass was often misplaced. If the first pass was accurate, the attacking players would combine beautifully.

Zambia’s post-Afcon afterglow was short-lived, however. Beating Zambia became a scalp for minnows and opposition defences tightened. With deep-lying subtlety from their midfielders nonexistent and their cohort of strikers going through a lengthy period of indifferent form, the culmination was a group stage exit on the defence of their continental crown earlier this year.

Ultimately, Renard had become a victim of his own success. You sense the longer he had remained at the Chipolopolo and failed to do anything else major, the further he would have plummeted into a managerial credit crunch.

Zambia could have sacked him after the double ignominy of exiting at the very first hurdle and failing to qualify for the CHAN (Cup of Nations but for domestic players) after defeat to Zimbabwe, or the failure to qualify for the World Cup, and there would have been no complaints.

Certainly, the Afcon triumph had inflated the expectations insofar that many Chipolopolo fans had started to believe that beating teams the quality of Ghana, their main rivals in their World Cup qualifying group, was now almost a divine right. In truth, in the 2012 edition of the Afcon Zambia were merely the most well-placed team to take advantage of the disorganisation of Africa’s heavyweights, with a bit of luck in the final. Any supposed underachievement was starting to be compared against the historic zenith, though, and with the top teams in Africa getting their act together again over the last 18 months, Renard was looking increasingly inferior.

The deployment at Sochaux provides him with the opportunity to prove that he is a genuine manager. Such is his emphasis on the physical side of players that many had impudently deemed him a fitness coach, rather than an authentic, well-rounded coach. That had unlocked his inner Corleone throughout Afcon 2012.

Popular with the players, he was not reticent to be a father figure who imposes discipline. Midfielder Clifford Mulenga was sent home when he broke the curfew and refused to apologise. Whilst, in the final, right-back Davies Nkausu received a slap across the chest and the hair-dryer treatment when he made one sojourn too many into opposition territory and wasn’t adhering to his defensive duties on Gervinho. Nkausu’s placid response encapsulated the respect that the Zambia squad had for their coach.

Sochaux is by no means an ideal club to take over, but after his failures in past roles at club level – most notably being sacked from Cambridge United after only winning 4 games out of 25 – it is the perfect starting point, and probably as high as he could get at managing in the top leagues in Europe.

Les Lionceaux have just about managed to keep their heads above water in recent seasons. In the last six seasons, they have finished either 14th, 15th or 16th in five of them; a surprise fifth-placed finish sandwiched in 2010/2011. With key players continuously being sold during the summer window – Marvin Martin, Nicolas Maurice-Belay and Ryad Boudebouz, amongst others, have all gone in recent years – and many of Sochaux’s remaining decent players playing like their heads have been turned during the summer, Renard will need every squeeze of his man-management and tactical flexibility to dumbfound opponents.

When a coach takes charge of a new team it’s advisable to bring in a standard bearer, a player he has worked with previously and is a believer of his methods. Arsene Wenger, for example, did that at Arsenal when introducing a new philosophy at the club with the purchase of the diligent, loyal Remi Garde, now the Lyon manager.

Though Renard is no Wenger and he has joined Sochaux with the transfer window shut, he, fortuitously, already has a player of that ilk in Zambian forward Emmanuel Mayuka, one of the stars of Zambia’s Afcon 2012 triumph. On loan at the club from Southampton, the 22-year-old’s career has plateaued and needs some inspiration. He has accumulated limited minutes at St Mary’s, his poor work-rate pinpointed as one of the main reasons for his placement on the sidelines. Screams of “MAYUKA!” were ubiquitous at Afcon 2012 as Renard urged his young striker to stay onside, and if there is a coach to get the best out of him again, it is Renard.

Whether he will be able to keep Sochaux up is an entirely different matter. But his man-management and tactical understanding off the game are promising ingredients for a team that is in dire need of both. His emphasis on the fitness of players may help, too. To paraphrase a Jan Aage Fjortoft quote about martinet German coach Felix Magath, whether Herve Renard will save the Sochaux ship from sinking, I do not know. However, the players will be in top shape. 

Salim Masoud Said

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