20 years after Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy at the Stade De France, the French manager was there to do the same at the Luzhinki Stadium.
Deschamps and his French team had their doubters, especially after the disaster that was the Euro 2016 final.
Since then, this team has come a long way- adding the likes of Kylian Mbappe, N'Golo Kante (who stayed in the bench in that final), Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez to their starting lineup. Yet even before the tournament, only a minority felt that the Les Blues could add a second star to their jerseys.
While Les Blues were arguably one of the most talented teams in the World Cup, this was not the main reason they won the World Cup. After all, similarly talented teams like Germany, Spain, and Brazil were eliminated in earlier stages of the competition. Throughout the competition, France held their cool even when they struggled to break down opposing defences or on the one occasion where they trailed (against Argentina in the Round of 16).
So what are some of the reasons why France managed to achieve immortality in Moscow?
#1 The Defence led by Raphael Varane
A rather stale cliché in American sports is that “Defence wins Championships”, yet nowhere is there truer than in the FIFA World Cup. Take the records of the previous five World Cup winners: from 1998 to 2014, the champions conceded two, four, two, two and four goals respectively (in seven games). Compared to that record, Les Blues were actually leaky: conceding six goals in the tournament.
Yet if one actually looks at the context of the goals, then it can be argued that France’s defence was better than previous Champions. Just take five of those six goals: a penalty conceded unnecessarily by Samuel Umtiti punching the ball, an Angel Di Maria worldie, an inadvertent deflection, a consolation goal for Argentina and a crazy Hugo Lloris error in the World Cup final.
Their underlying statistics were incredibly impressive: only conceding nine shots per game (usually hopeful long-range efforts). Perhaps most impressive was the manner in which the defense managed to shut out the tournament’s best attack in Belgium despite being under pressure for large parts of the game.
Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti were imperious in the middle of the park, shutting down opposition attacks with alarming maturity for two defenders under 26 years old. Varane was particularly brilliant, averaging 6.3 clearances per game. While many wanted Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy to start as full-backs, Deschamps decided to go with Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. The duo (like the entire defence) proved their manager right.
#2 Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante in Midfield
France’s defensive excellence can also be attributed to their midfield players. While he was strangely off-color in the final, N’Golo Kante was one of the best players in the tournament as he stopped opposition players with aplomb. The Chelsea midfielder averaged 2.1 tackles and 2.9 interceptions, helping contain the likes of Lionel Messi, Kevin De Bruyne and Edinson Cavani in the knockout stages. Overall he made more recoveries than anyone else in the tournament, with an incredible 35.
However, Kante was not the only world-class defensive midfielder that France had in the knockout stages. In the group stages, Paul Pogba was one of the best attacking midfielders in the tournament as he had a role in all three of France’s goals. However, in the knockout stages, he became a defensive midfielder in the mold of Kante as he made crucial tackles and interceptions, especially in the semi-final against Belgium.
Despite all their defensive effort, Pogba still managed to have an attacking impact. In the group-stages, he was the rampaging physical specimen that he has been (intermittently) for Manchester United and Juventus in the past. However, in the knockout stages, we saw a different more technically adept Pogba whose through balls ripped apart Argentinian, Uruguayan, Belgian and Croatian defences, especially on the counter. Pogba and Kante bode to be the best international midfield for the next decade.
#3 Kylian Mbappe’s Dynamism
When Diego Maradona was a teenager, he was guiding Argentina to international glory…………….. in the 1979 FIFA Youth Championship. When Lionel Messi was 19, he was an unused substitute in the World Cup quarterfinal. Even a 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo could not guide his side to glory in the 2004 Euros. When Kylian Mbappe was 19, he was scoring an absolute screamer in the World Cup Final.
Mbappe has done more at 19 than any footballing legend barring Pele. It was his pace and technical ability that allowed France to be so conservative throughout the tournament. They knew that as soon as they got on the counter, Mbappe would be able to run onto through balls and punish opposing defenses with his pace along with dribbling.
The 19-year-old had as many great moments in the tournament as many legends do in their careers. There was his goal against Peru. The brace against Argentina. His dribbling against Belgium. The second-half run against Croatia. Of course, his peach in the 59th minute of the final. Yet, if there was one moment that encapsulated Mbappe’s tournament, then it was his run in the 10th minute against Argentina which earned France’s penalty. It had everything: pace, dribbling, intelligence and the youthful enthusiasm that makes Mbappe so great.
#4 Antoine Griezmann’s Set-Pieces and Penalties
Coming into the tournament, many expected Antoine Griezmann to have the same sort of attacking impact as he did in Euro 2016, as the lynchpin of the French side. However, the fatigue after another great season for Atletico Madrid showed as Griezmann did not have the same offensive impact as he usually does.
Griezmann still worked hard throughout the tournament without the ball, especially in pressuring opposing defensive midfielders into mistakes. Yet, his biggest impact for Les Blues in the tournament came on set-pieces. In the knockout stages when France struggled to create from open play (or when Oliver Giroud missed crucial chances), it was Griezmann’s set pieces that helped France break upon several defences.
It was Griezmann’s set pieces that were nodded in by Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti and Mario Mandzukic (in his own net) to give France the lead in the quarter-final, semi-final and final respectively. Equally important were No.7’s penalties, as he converted all three chances he got from the spot, including the vital one in the final. Now he returns to Madrid with a winners’ medal, the Bronze Ball, the Silver Boot and the man of the match award from the World Cup final.
#5 Mature Veteran Leadership from Didier Deschamps and Hugo Lloris
Let’s be honest, before the tournament, many were skeptical of Deschamps’ ability. He was ridiculed by many for his conservative team selection and tactics. In the first game against Australia, Deschamps listened to his doubters and played an unbelievably attacking lineup, featuring Ousmane Dembele and Corentin Tolisso. It didn’t work as France needed an inadvertent deflection to give them the win against the Socceroos.
From that point onwards, Deschamps stuck to his instincts. He chose to play natural defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi as a left-winger, a controversial move that worked as Matuidi provided energy and defensive steel to the team. He also selected Oliver Giroud, a World Cup-winning striker who had no shots on target throughout the tournament. Yet, Giroud’s knockdowns and movement helped complement Mbappe and Griezmann. Deschamps would have been criticized relentlessly for those selections if France would have failed- he deserves credit now they that they have own.
However, France’s “coach” on the pitch was just as important. Goalkeeper and Captain Hugo Lloris helped marshal the aforementioned defence. As one of France’s only three players over 30 and the only squad player with more than 74 caps, Lloris’s leadership has been key to this French side.
His tangible impact was also significant- the Tottenham goalkeeper didn’t have much to do in the knockout stages but was outstanding when required. Saves from Diego Godin in the quarter-final and Toby Alderweireld in the semi-final were particularly memorable. While his brain-fade in the final gave Croatia some hope, Lloris was the one lifting up the Jules Rimet Trophy at the end of the day. – SportsKeeda