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Fulham Mr Cool Jean Tigana

last updated Saturday 23rd February 2002, 9:33 AM
The battle of French footballing brains at Highbury could be called the duel between the sorcerer and the apprentice. But it is a billing that does little justice to Jean Tigana, Fulham's impressively cool manager.

As apprentices go, Tigana has displayed stunning maturity. He doesn't say much. He chews his toothpick and sets out his priorities. They are those of a football thoroughbred.

As a brilliant player in the great France team of the Eighties, he celebrated craft and insight. As a coach, he pursues the same goals.

Fulham Boss Jean Tigana
Jean Tigana, Fulham's impressively cool manager
Yes, of course Arsenal's Arsene Wenger has established his brilliance in all things except the need for strong discipline. But Tigana's work over one and a half seasons at Craven Cottage has surely lifted him out of the learner's category.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more promising opening statement by a young foreign coach in a new, tough arena.

The current criticism of the former midfield playmaker is that his team are failing to finish off their pretty approach work. But my suspicion is that this is a temporary problem.

For more significant is the fact that Tigana has laid down the fundamentals of success at the highest level: sound defence and fluent, progressive passing.

Now, with Premiership survival looking assured - a solid achievement in itself with a place in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup a nice little bonus - Tigana has the agreeable challenge of refining an extremely sound product.

Already he has displayed the flair to do it. The mark of a team on the rise, one with a real prospect of competing at the highest level down the road, is its willingness to work with the ball.

Watch Fulham, even briefly, and you have to be struck by the way their players work for each other in the vital matter of providing options.

Generations of English coaches seemed to do no more than teach players to run away from the ball. Tigana, as did Wenger when he laid his stamp on Highbury, has worked zealously to reverse that trend.

Fulham players work ceaselessly to get into positions where they can comfortably receive the ball, and reduce the pressure on the man in possession.

It is the habit of all successful teams. Liverpool, under their French manager Gerard Houllier, have made huge strides in the last few seasons, but they are still short of a style that can best exploit their talent.

Far too often they get frustrated on the ball. The result is a final pass which is often more than anything simply optimistic - or desperate.

Tigana's approach is a more patient one. He has Fulham operating on a classic principle. It is one that says that a team's first ambition must be to go forward. If that avenue is blocked, the route is sideways. In the last resort a team goes backwards. But in all of this there is one imperative. You do not lose the ball.

Early in Tigana's regime I saw Fulham play at Birmingham City. Their performance was a revelation. It was full of hard work and sweet passing, and Birmingham, longtime contenders for a place in the Premiership, were played off the park.

It was certainly no surprise to see Fulham make it to the Premiership at the first time of Tigana's asking.

Now Fulham do have to increase their bite. They haven't been helped by the injury to Louis Saha, a striker of outstanding natural gifts, and Tigana has to make a crucial measurement of the potential of strikers such as Barry Hayles and Steve Marlet.

He can do so with a little patience because he knows the structure of the team is good. John Collins has proved an excellent addition. He has experience, knows his way around midfield and is perfectly in tune with Tigana's ethos of good movement and hard but intelligent industry having played under the Frenchman at Monaco.

The jury is probably still out on the young French prospect Steed Malbranque, but he too has shown evidence that he can become a significant force as an aggressive midfielder with an instinct for scoring.

The fact that the scoring isn't happening enough at the moment would be a lot more worrying if Fulham were not playing such constructive football.

No doubt today's challenge looms particularly large for Tigana in that his work will be measured against that of Wenger, who has brought a tremendous sophistication to the English game.

Thus we had the revelation of Tony Adams playing the ball confidently out of defence. Wenger saw qualities in Adams that the rest of us just didn't suspect.

That is a supreme managerial art and the early evidence suggests that Tigana may also have it within his powers.

No doubt Fulham need to find the net more often, but it is a fact which shouldn't obscure the ground Jean Tigana has covered in just 18 months.

He may not yet be a dire threat to the sorcerer but I wouldn't be surprised if he leaves a calling card at Highbury. It will be marked by cool ambition - and an understanding of how to make real football and a real team.
Source Soccernet by John Giles
Since 1998
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