Jean Tigana – A Thoroughly Modern Midfielder

Every great team is composed of different characters. There may be stars but there’s also those with more grounded ambitions who work for the team tirelessly. It’s such individuals who are the reason why the marquee stars are capable of showing their best qualities because they don’t need to sacrifice any part of their game. And for Michel Hidalgo’s French national team in the early 1980s, that selfless individual was Jean Tigana.

The 1960s and ‘70s was a period of decline for the French national side. Performances on the pitch were unimpressive, while the situation off it wasn’t doing the country any favours either. The French Football Federation changed manager after manager in the hope of arresting the decline, however, each of the appointees was duly dispensed with after failing to qualify for major tournaments. Michel Hidalgo stepped up from the assistant role in 1976 and with that appointment, France’s fortunes changed for the better.

Today the French national team consists of many players of African heritage, but back in the early days under Hidalgo, international players who came from the French-governed colonies were not common. The most recognisable name of the time was Marius Trésor who is regarded as one of France’s finest defenders of all time. He came from Guadeloupe, then a French-controlled archipelago in the Caribbean Islands.

Tigana’s influence on French football can be seen in modern box-to-box midfielders like N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi and Tanguy Ndombele – players who venture forward when necessary and contribute to their side’s attacking play while having a primary purpose of maintaining balance and defensive solidity in the middle of the park. This assurance in midfield allows more creative players to express themselves freely without having to worry about tracking back or marking opposition attackers.

Tigana’s career in football started a little later than many of his peers. The Mali-born Frenchman first made his name at Toulon before moving to Lyon where he made more than a century of appearances. Next came the club that would define his career: Bordeaux. At the south-western club, Tigana enjoyed his best years and his form there inspired similarly fantastic performances for France too.

Tigana’s move to Bordeaux was a reunion with his old coach Aimé Jacquet, the man who had taken him to Lyon from Toulon. Jacquet would later go on to manage the French national team and lead them to glory at the 1998 World Cup on home soil in France, and it was at Bordeaux where he started to make his formidable name as a coach. The style of play he favoured was a perfect fit for Tigana and it was no surprise he flourished.

Jacquet wasn’t the most expansive of managers and was quite methodical about the way he wanted his teams to play. His primary focus was defensive solidity and there can be similarities drawn between his system and that of typical Italian teams of the time. Jacquet worked closely with ambitious club president Claude Bez to bring in several other promising French internationals of the era.

Tigana was a player for every manager. His attitude was top class and his work ethic was of the highest order. Although he was deployed typically as a holding midfielder, Tigana’s tireless work-rate allowed him the option of the occasional burst forward to support his attackers in the final third. His ability to dominate the middle of the park defensively – despite being neither tall nor muscular – made him popular in the early 80s French game and led to an inevitable call-up to the French national team under Hidalgo in 1980.

Speaking in an interview with The Coaches’ Voice, Tigana revealed that he had the opportunity to join Barcelona in 1982 who already boasted other foreign talents such as Bernd Schuster and a certain Argentine superstar by the name of Diego Maradona. Furthermore, Tigana also rejected a move to Tottenham Hotspur while Italian champions Juventus – where his compatriot Michel Platini was starring – also tried to acquire the Frenchman’s signature. Tigana rejected all these offers because of sheer loyalty to Bordeaux’s cause. This seemed to be a pattern at the club with his teammates following his example, simply because the president Claude Bez demanded loyalty from them which they duly delivered. Tigana himself would spend almost a decade with Les Girondins and make more than 250 appearances.

The highlight of Tigana’s career was his vital contribution to French success at the 1984 European Championships. Hidalgo deployed a spectacular midfield quartet consisting of the star man Michel Platini, two other talented midfielders in Luis Fernández and Alain Giresse and Tigana completing the group which came to be known as le Carré Magique (the Magic Square).

Each of the players knew his role perfectly and performed them as instructed by Hidalgo. The Magic Square’s first test came at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Hidalgo was blessed with talent across the pitch and France reached the semi-finals, only to lose out in highly controversial fashion to West Germany on penalties. It was little consolation to Les Bleus that they had been involved in one of the greatest fixtures in World Cup history.

France’s best moments were still ahead of them and at Euro ‘84 the team realised its considerable potential. The Magic Square was already a well-established and much-feared threat with opponents struggling to figure out a way to play through this near-perfect midfield quartet. Platini was the most advanced of the four, playing in the number 10 role and given creative license to generate the attacking threat. While he also created chances for team-mates, Platini’s major strength was his deadly eye for goal which brought a fantastic tally of 9 goals during the tournament. Giresse’s role was the classy creator; a composed figure on the ball who knew how to get behind a defence. Fernández was the deepest-lying of the four who played the role of playmaker, whilst Tigana did much of the actual defensive work – hounding and pressing opponents in a manner he sought to encourage his own players to do when he later moved into management.

One of Tigana’s and France’s most memorable matches was the semi-final clash against Portugal, a match now regarded as one of the greatest in international football. The Magic Square continually created chances only to be thwarted by the opposing keeper. Finally, a breakthrough as a sweetly struck free-kick from Jean-François Domergue handed France the lead. A dogged Portugal equalised through Rui Jordão, the game went to extra-time and France finally won it 3-2 with a late Platini strike.

Tigana’s performance was instructive: deep into extra-time of this exhausting game his boundless stamina meant he was still popping up in threatening areas of space between Portugal’s midfield and defence. It was his late surge into the box which dragged the Portuguese defence with him, freeing up space for Platini to rifle home the decisive goal. France defeated Spain in the Final in front of an impassioned crowd at the Parc des Princes and this magical team had the silverware it deserved.

Back at Bordeaux it was business as usual. At the time the club was the leading power in the French domestic game and Tigana was a significant reason for that success. In a squad already blessed with plenty of international talent including Gernot Rohr, Gerard Soler and Alain Giresse, Tigana represented the heart of the side which won three Ligue 1 and two Coupe de France titles.

After calling time on his career, Tigana would go on to make a mark in management taking charge of clubs like Lyon, Monaco and Fulham, the latter he revolutionised upon his arrival in English football. Tigana said to The Coaches’ Voice, “When you don’t have the ball, you are not strong. You are obliged to fight to get it back. So we don’t lose the ball. We keep it.” The Frenchman favoured playing out from the back and encouraged his players to carry on with the new style of play, despite initial setbacks.

Youngsters flourished under Tigana and the likes of Louis Saha, Luís Boa Morte and Steed Malbranque improved and grew under his management. The fast and fluid Saha replaced an old-fashioned centre-forward in Geoff Horsfield and reflected the drive towards a different approach. Tigana took over in April 2000 and helped Fulham towards the Division One championship and promotion to the Premier League. Competing at a much higher level, he guided his charges to a mid-table finish and into the UEFA Cup via the Intertoto Cup.

The former Monaco boss subsequently enjoyed a spell at Beşiktaş where he won the Turkish Cup and later returned to his old club Bordeaux in 2010 for a season-long spell there. He called time on his managerial career in 2012 after a series of poor results brought a stint with Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League to an end.

The Frenchman was a fundamental part of several successful sides at Bordeaux and the thrilling French national team of the era. His talents earned him multiple individual nominations and in 1984 – probably the peak year of his career – he was voted French Player of the Year. Tigana’s legacy in French football remains as fresh as ever and he remains an ideal exemplar of the thoroughly modern box-to-box midfielder.




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