France are world champions after an incident-packed 4-2 victory over Croatia. Didier Deschamps had been criticised for his conservative tactics, but his team were the most efficient in the tournament and that was all that mattered in the end…
At half-time of this World Cup final, it was difficult to comprehend quite how France were ahead. Croatia had dominated the first period, with Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic picking up where they left off against England, and yet they were 2-1 down. With an own goal and a controversially-awarded penalty, France had scored more goals than they’d had shots on target.
It was a freakish scenario but in many ways it was typical of a France team who simply know how to win. Deschamps insisted on substance over style and he was vindicated in the most emphatic way possible. France were fortunate with the penalty but they made their luck count after that. In the end, they were winners and worthy world champions.
Deschamps deserves credit for his bullishness. He is only the third person to win the World Cup both as a player and a manager and it owes a lot to his refusal to bend to public pressure. The critics were out in force as France laboured through the group stage, only narrowly beating Australia and Peru and playing out a dour draw with Denmark, but Deschamps was unfazed.
France had the most lavishly gifted squad in the tournament but winning was all that mattered to him. Crucially, he convinced his players to think the same way. “I don’t care how,” said Antoine Griezmann after the semi-final win over Belgium. “I want a second star to be on this shirt, and if I have the star, I do not care about the game we have done.”
France’s success has been built on solid foundations. They conceded three times against Argentina and twice more against Croatia, but for the most part they have been dogged and difficult to break down. In total, there were four clean sheets on their route to the final. They were the only team to stop Uruguay from scoring and it was the same story against Belgium.
“They are not just good players, they are not just skilful players, they are tough, they are resilient, and they can come through difficult games,” said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville in the ITV studio. “They don’t necessarily have to play well to win.”
Of course, the emphasis on defence did not strangle France’s attacking potential. A more adventurous coach might have implemented a more free-flowing style, but Deschamps knew that the counter-attacking pace of Kylian Mbappe was their most dangerous offensive weapon and he found a way to maximise it.
France had just 34 per cent of the possession against Croatia and they finish the tournament with a lower average than Australia, Tunisia and Japan, but by ceding the ball to their rivals they were able to play to their strengths. Mbappe destroyed Argentina on the break and he was similarly effective against Croatia. France did not control the ball but they controlled where it ended up.
Olivier Giroud spearheaded their attack without scoring, but his aerial presence and link-up play were invaluable and France were still clinical when it mattered. Of the 13 sides to attempt more than 50 shots in Russia, their 17.3 per cent conversion rate was the highest. That ruthlessness made the difference.
“We’ve been accustomed over these last 10 years to thinking that possession is the dominating factor in a game because of what Spain and Germany have done with the influence of Pep Guardiola,” added Neville. “But at this World Cup it has turned a little bit.
“Croatia are always going to have more of the ball, they are always going to push France back, but France have counter-attacked them, punched them and knocked them out. That’s a tactic of winning a football match. Don’t allow the possession to fool you into thinking that France weren’t in control of that game. France were in control while not having possession.”
Of course, effective counter-attacking requires the right distribution from deep positions, and Paul Pogba provided it in Russia. The 25-year-old has appeared inhibited at times under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, but it has been a different story with the national team.
He has been disciplined in a defensive sense and his passing has been outstanding. The brilliantly-taken third goal was Pogba’s headline contribution against Croatia, but the low ball to release Mbappe in the build-up was even better. Soon after that, there was another sublime pass for Blaise Matuidi on the opposite flank.
In the end, moments such as those made the difference. France were not always the most entertaining side to watch, but they were the most streetwise and the most clinical. The second star on their shirt owes a lot to the much-criticised figure in the dugout.