From players “trembling like dogs” after training to superstitions behind the white jersey, Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard adds to his legend

Herve Renard spent most of his early years coaching lower-tier teams. He started out in 1999 at little-known French club SC Draguignan. After helping them to three consecutive promotions, he took charge of Cambridge United, who at the time were playing in the third division of English football. From there his journeyman career took him to Vietnam to train Nam Dinh. After a few months in Southeast Asia, he returned to France, where he joined fifth division club AS Cherbourg.

No matter where he was or what level he coached, Renard’s teams developed a distinctive style: for the Frenchman, possession-based football was paramount; When his players weren’t in possession, they were expected to use high pressure to win the ball back. To play with such intensity, he placed a lot of emphasis on improving his fitness, and wherever he went there was a shift in off-field culture, whether it was in terms of food and nutrition or post-field recovery To play.

While Saudi Arabia’s strategy of using a high defensive line and heavy pressing against Argentina was called “bold” by pundits, for Renard it was the most fundamental approach. The 54-year-old did what he had always done and would not turn his back on his style even if he risked a humiliating defeat in his team’s World Cup opener.

For a few minutes it looked like Lionel Messi put Argentina ahead before they were denied two goals and caught seven offsides in the first half alone. Some might have thought it was a lucky reprieve, but from Renard’s perspective it meant his offside trap worked perfectly.

The high-risk, high-reward strategy finally paid off as Saudi Arabia – who had only three wins in World Cup history prior to Tuesday – recorded a staggering 2-1 win over tournament favorites Argentina in Pool C lay down.

Make players “shake like a dog”

Saudi Arabia showed remarkable tenacity and fitness to first neutralize Argentina’s threats and then launch counterattacks against them. What came as a surprise to the world was routine for a typical Renard team. In an interview with The Guardian, former Cambridge player John Ruddy recalled how Renard made players “shake like dogs” after practice.

“One of the greatest memories I have of Hervé is the work rate, which he not only demanded of us but also showed in the gym. The pre-season under him was and is the hardest I’ve ever done,” said Ruddy. “Hervé would have us do planks for two minutes at the gym, and I remember shaking like a dog. All he did was laugh and call out, ‘Come on, John!’ He also used to do crunches for five-minute sets and was in exceptional shape himself. It looks like he still is.”

He did the same with the Saudis, turning them into one of Asia’s most improved teams since losing 5-0 to Russia in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup four years ago.

Tuesday’s victory was another stroke of luck for the unpopular coach, who has a history of turning underdogs into winners, particularly national teams. Renard has not always been successful at club level – his earlier stints have produced mixed results, while later in his career Renard’s Sochaux was relegated from France’s top flight in 2014 and was sacked by Lille after 13 games the following year.

But with national teams it was a different story. He is the only coach to have won the Africa Cup of Nations with two countries – in 2012 with Zambia and three years later with Ivory Coast. In 2016, Renard became Africa’s highest-paid manager when he took charge of Morocco, which he guided to their first World Cup appearance since 1998 in 2018.

Renard’s Morocco opened the season with a surprising 2-2 draw against Spain. That result pales in comparison to Tuesday’s overwhelming victory.

Not just the green jerseys that have struggled down the middle, Renard’s white jersey is likely to become one of the most recognizable in world football. The white shirt unbuttoned at the top is something of a superstition for Renard.

He told Espire how and why he started wearing the jersey during games. “We (Zambia) played Cameroon in the second game of the Africa Cup of Nations (2010),” Renard recalled to Esquire. “I wore a light blue shirt but we lost 2-3 so I wore a white shirt in the following game. We won and finished first in the group, ahead of Cameroon.”

The white shirt has been the Frenchman’s favorite ever since.

“Of course I’ve lost a few games since then,” laughs the Frenchman. “Maybe I even lost a lot. But I also won a lot. I like this style but I would say the weather has to be nice. When I was training in England, the white shirt wasn’t possible in December. Or maybe that was the reason why I didn’t succeed in England!”

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