France coach Didier Deschamps marked his side’s facile 4-3 win over Argentina at Kazan in the round of 16 as a turning point during their victorious World Cup campaign.
The 49-year-old, who is now only the second person after Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer to get his hands on the highest prize in football as a captain and as a coach, is also someone who doesn’t live in past but likes to learn from it.
Looking back at his six-year tenure, the former Monaco and Marseille boss also paid tribute to his side’s shock defeat in the final of the European Championships against Portugal on home soil.
During the summit clash at Stade de France, the French, it seemed did almost everything right. But for all their pizzazz, Les Bleus simply could not get put the ball into the back of the net and were punished in extra-time.
Getting the job done was a major difference between the 2016 team and the current side that romped to the title at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday. “Maybe we would not have been the finals had it not been for that [the Euro final],” Deschamps observed.
Even Croatia’s “best game”, in the words of their coach Zlatko Dalic, was not good enough to instill fear in the French camp. France had mastered the art of a “come and get me” brand of football, luring opposition into their half, only to deliver a telling blow.
And there were many different ways through which a decisive goal arrived. The seeds of singing exactly one note higher than their opponents were sown against Lionel Messi and Co’s hapless Argentina in the round of 16. While there were standout performances across the pitch, there were different players who rose to the challenge.
In the last-eight stage, France identified a rare chink in the otherwise well-drilled Uruguay defence. From a set piece, Rafael Varane put his side in the lead. Varane’s defensive partner Samuel Umtiti was the hero in semi-finals against a rampant Belgium side. Yet again, salvation arrived from a dead-ball scenario. France simply shut shop after getting their nose ahead in the contest.
The big match nous of Varane and Umtiti was complimented by the sharpness and pace of fullbacks Benjamin Pavard and Luis Hernandez. There was not a lot that went past the irresistible midfield duo of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. Between them, there was power, pace, and a relentless drive to choke the life out of opponents. If Kante was intercepting passes and breaking down play, Pogba was there alongside him to receive the ball, and find one of his forwards or gallop down the heart of the opposition.
Smaller teams – Deschamps’ inspiration
France’s first two games – against Australia and Peru – provided the wily Deschamps with the answers he needed for his side to go far in the World Cup. His team endured contrasting fortunes against the two opponents.
“This was a difficult World Cup from the athletic and intensity point of view. The smaller teams had a far greater work-rate,” said Deschamps.
Here, he might have been referring to the encounter against Australia. France got three points in the bag following a moment of individual brilliance and VAR influencing proceedings for the first time in a World Cup. Their love-affair with the newest technology to come into effect in the showpiece event extended all the way till the final against Croatia.
After huffing and puffing past the Socceroos, the luckless Peru harshly, could not get a point despite repeatedly probing the French backline. “The small teams arrived very well prepared with defensive systems that were simple to implement. Teams that had the ball and control were hit on the counter.”
During the league phase, the local press back home was vilifying Deschamps for failing to get the best out of a side that had some of the world’s best in their positions. What the pundits might have not seen at the time was the man in charge had already decided on how his side would approach the rest of their games. Possession mattered scant little. On the counter-attack, the French could count on Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe’s ability to cover the length of the pitch in seconds.
There were a couple of changes in personnel too. The youthful exuberance that the side was brimming with needed some wise heads and in came Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud. Both players added a new dimension in attack and defense even if it meant that the Chelsea striker went 546 minutes without scoring a goal. Throughout the knockout games, France were happy to chase shadows or remain static.
By letting their opponents have the ball, France’s opponents were handed hope. But it was short-lived, almost like a school bully snatching away a kid’s candy just as he prepares to take a bite. What Deschamps couldn’t have planned was Pogba and Griezmann finishing the task they had failed to complete two summers ago. This time, though, there was greater verve and panache that arrived through Mbappe terrorizing defences.
How will this French team rank in their history? They didn’t have someone who could take games by the scruff of its neck a la Zinedine Zidane nor did they possess the flair of Michel Platini’s team from the 1980s. But when it came down to results, this team displayed a bite even better than the 1998 side. That, perhaps, differentiates the France of 2018 from the one that inexplicably finished second in 2016.