Oscar Tabarez and Herve Renard may not obviously have a lot in common. With his sober ties and thoughtful limp, the 65-year-old former schoolteacher Tabarez looks like he should be the precinct chief in a seventies detective series, while the flamboyant, 43-year-old Renard’s long hair and unbuttoned shirts make him look like the passionate lead in a 19th-century romance. And yet, in the past year, both have taken unfancied sides to continental tournament triumphs, and both have done so with similar methods.

Tactics, however, are only part of it. Roy Hodgson, for instance, went from looking like a tactical genius at Fulham to being seen as out of his depth at Liverpool, largely because his new charges seemed unable to accept his methods and he could not get his message across. With Uruguay and Zambia respectively, Tabarez and Renard both had extremely close relationships with their players, enjoying so much respect that if they made a tactical change it was acted on instantly and nobody even thought to question it. Both also presided over teams that had been put together with a long-term plan in the aftermath of failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup – and such consistency of selection leads to greater understanding both on and off the pitch.

Both men also got the balance right between closeness and distance. Tabarez insisted “we are not a society of friends”, while Renard expelled midfielder Clifford Mulenga from his squad when he refused to apologise after breaking a curfew.

Tough on players

That Renard could be tough on his players was evident in the Final when he grabbed right-back Davies Nkausu as he went to take a throw-in, screamed at him and thumped him in the chest. Nkausu’s reaction was significant; rather than shouting back or sulking as many players might have done, he nodded and put an arm round his coach as though to apologise for his laxness and to assure Renard that he would put it right.

“We saw against Mali that if you leave 50 metres behind you, Gervinho will kill you,” Renard explained. “I showed them that sequence, so I was furious he did not respect what I said.

“Perhaps it looks strange from the outside, but they know how I am. There’s no problem. I think they need someone like this. If they had a coach who didn’t react like this…”

But there is also a warmth. At the end of the Final, Renard swept up the injured left-back Joseph Musonda in his arms and carried him onto the pitch to join the celebrations.

Renard was modest afterwards, saying victory “was written in the sky”, but his ability to generate team spirit and his tactical acumen were the keys.

The basic set-up of his Zambia side was simple. He kept two men, Nathan Sinkala and Isaac Chansa, deep in midfield protecting the back four.

When not in possession the two wide midfielders, Chisamba Lungu and Rainford Kalaba, played as orthodox midfielders out on the flanks, sitting deep in a 4-4-2, with Christopher Katongo dropping off Emmanuel Mayuka to close the gap between the midfield line and the forwards. In possession, though, Lungu and Kalaba had licence
to cut infield, making the shape more 4-2-2-2 than 4-4-2.

A price worth paying

The plan became clear against Senegal in Zambia’s opening match: sit deep, absorb pressure, draw the opponent on, and then get the ball forward quickly, using the pace of Kalaba. The speed of the counters meant that moves frequently broke down – Zambia actually had the worst pass completion rate in the tournament – but Renard clearly decided it was a price worth paying for the additional threat presented.

Against Ghana in the semi-final Renard brought Nkausu in at right-back and moved Francis Kasonde into midfield, with Chansa shifting out to the right to replace Lungu. The aim was twofold: to get extra defensive bodies to combat Ghana’s 4-2-3-1 and to make sure that if Asamoah Gyan won knockdowns, there was, in theory at least, four defensive players around him to pick up the second ball.

Zambia v Ghana, first half highlights:

Having successfully frustrated Ghana early on, Zambia then switched to their more usual system midway through the second half, with Mayuka replacing James Chamanga at half-time. The extra fluency Zambia suddenly had was clear and they scored 11 minutes later, a Kalaba surge creating the opening for Mayuka.

Zambia v Ghana, second half highlights:

It was the president of the federation, Kalusha Bwalya, who imposed the long-term plan, but Renard was the man to capitalise on it. Zambia’s was that rarest of stories: an underdog that won not through luck but because they deserved it.

By Jonathan Wilson