ehfTV has a lot of matches available in its “on demand” bin and sometimes it takes me awhile to getting around to watching them. A couple of days ago I decided to check out the Belgium – France Euro 2018 qualification match. I generally prefer to watch matches oblivious to the final outcome and I had avoided the final score of this match. As if, it really mattered. Belgium is one of the weaker teams in Europe. Mostly amateurs and just qualifying for the Group Stage is a major achievement. Meanwhile France has been consistently the best team in the world for the past 10 years or so. I figured that I would watch a few minutes of this curiosity and then move along to the next match. Well, that didn’t happen. I kept waiting and waiting for a blowout that never happened. Why if Belgium hadn’t lost their team captain, Arber Qeremi, to a red card maybe they would have even won. How did this happen and what can be gleaned?
The 7 Court Player Strategy for Huge Underdogs
Well, we’ve all seen the impact of the new rule allowing any court player to substitute for the goalie. Most teams when down a man now empty the net and play with 6 on offense. And, occasionally we’ve seen teams attack with 7 court players, but this was the first national team match where I’ve seen it pretty much used the entire game. Most interestingly, it’s the first time I’ve also seen it implemented by an overmatched underdog. And, Belgium player per player was clearly overmatched. There’s no doubt in my mind that not a single Belgian player could make the French roster. Heck, it’s doubtful that any Belgian player would make a roster depth chart that went 10 deep into the French national talent pool.
But, the 7 court player strategy evened out that lack in talent dramatically. With the extra player Belgium was able to score consistently. How else to explain 37 goals? 37! And, they controlled the tempo and had France totally out of their game. It’s a high reward, high risk strategy, but in this one game the rewards far outweighed the risks.
And, it’s surely a strategy to be duplicated (if, it hasn’t already) by overmatched squads everywhere. What would Team USA have to lose against Brazil, for instance? If you’re going to get scored upon anyway at the defensive end, you might as well dramatically increase your scoring percentage at the offensive end. Sure, you might end up with an uglier score line than you would get with a more conventional game. But, you also might take a good team down to the wire.
It will be very interesting to see how this tactic plays out in the years to come. It’s surely to be tried again, but most likely top teams will be better prepared to punish this strategy. Which leads to a big question mark regarding the French national team.
What’s Going on with France?
France’s inability to secure an easy victory against a team composed almost entirely of amateurs raises some big time questions. Most notably, why wasn’t the team better prepared? Why couldn’t the team adapt to the situation? Here are a few possible answers to that question.
Answer #1) Coach Dinart and Coach Gille are not Ready for Prime Time
Let me go on the record and state what I think is a factual statement: Didier Dinart is the greatest of all time defensive handball player. In his prime, for sure, there can be no serious debate that anyone was better at clogging up offenses in the middle of the crease. It doesn’t show up in a score sheet, but France’s success on the national level for a decade can be closely correlated to his presence. Heck, to a large extent he created the position of defensive specialist. Guillame Gille wasn’t quite the player that Dinart was, but he was a reliable mainstay in the backcourt for several years.
But, great players don’t necessarily make great coaches. And Dinart and Gille have being given the reins to arguably the most historic national team dynasty without either having been a head coach before. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in my opinion. Sure Dinart has been at Claude Onesta’s side for a couple of years, but that’s no substitute for striking out on your own at some club team and doing the day to day preparation and making the game time adjustments necessary to being a successful coach. Additionally, and as a former defensive specialist myself I hate to say it, Dinart might well lack the expertise to make smart offensive adjustments.
I’m not sure how the French Federation came up with its succession plan, but I can guess that there’s a few head coaches in the LNH who’ve been plying their trade for years wondering why they didn’t get a shot. Patrice Canayer of Montpellier certainly has a long track record.
Answer #2) Enough with the Co-Coaching Cop Out
Here’s a list of the great co-coaching duos from all major sports: crickets, crickets, crickets. There’s a reason for this: It just doesn’t work. There’s a reason virtually all teams have one head coach, businesses have one CEO and nations have one political leader. You can have debate on the decisions to be made, but there can be only one decider. And one person ultimately responsible for success or failure. And, this person has to be clearly identified and given the authority to do their job. France needs to pick one coach and go with it.
Answer #3) Maybe the New Additions to the Roster aren’t that Good
Finally, maybe the close game has more to do with the players, rather than the coaching. France did a little experimenting with its roster mixing some newcomers with veterans. Time was when it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot who was on the court as long as Karabatic was there to direct traffic and make everyone around him look better. Heck, I’ve joked at times that I could be a decent left back on the French National team if Karabatic was at center. Well, I think there are some cracks in this maxim. Karabatic is still a great player, but at 32 he’s showing some signs of age and he’s not quite as unworldly as he has been in the past. And, the new additions in the backcourt aren’t quite up to Jerome Fernandez and Daniel Narcisse quality. Or even Accambray level for that matter. Maybe they will be someday, but they’re not there yet.
It’s usually a mistake to look at one match and to conclude that the house is on fire. Still, a 38-37 win over Belgium for the defending world champs is a huge red flag. For a decade or so, France has been the team to beat at every major tournament. They’ll be hosting the World Championships in France in January, so surely they’ll be favorites again. But, for once I’m not so sure that’s fully justified.