Today we take a look at Les Blues second World Cup triumph. France was a side featuring a handful of the best players in the world, but it won the World Cup because it played the best team football. And with its 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final, it became a fitting winner, as the most successful sides in Russia 2018 were all built around the collective, rather than star individuals.
The trend for modern football punditry and fandom is to speak about the game as though it revolves entirely around its biggest stars. This World Cup was billed as Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi when in reality it had virtually nothing to do with their faux personal battle. Brazil was supposed to win because of Neymar’s personal redemption narrative, but it didn’t make it past the quarter-finals — and Neymar’s reputation is probably worse off because of his constant play-acting. Some have tried to paint France’s win as a changing of the guard, with Kylian Mbappe the newly minted superstar surely the next guy to feature on the cover of video games as Ronaldo and Messi’s careers fade. But Mbappe was able to show off his breathtaking talent because his France side, coached by Didier Deschamps, was a much better collective unit than either Argentina or Portugal.
Les Bleus were not always dazzling — though the implication that they were dour and defensive throughout is a simplistic exaggeration — but they were a well-balanced unit with a clear plan. They could win ugly, as they did against Australia and Peru in the group stage, they could play an almost risk-free style to beat high-quality attacking teams like Belgium and Uruguay, and they could go keep their heads and out-gun opponents in more chaotic, attacking contests, like their 4-3 win over Argentina or the final itself. The most famous names in the France squad, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, both sacrificed personal glory for the good of the team, with Pogba foregoing much of his attacking instinct to anchor the midfield and Griezmann playing as a number 10 to link play rather than poaching goals up front. France’s defence was among the best in the competition, and its midfield flair players were backed up by fanatically hard workers like N’golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi.
A look across the other three semi-finalists reveals a similar story. Belgium is another squad full of brilliant players, but it has taken them years of playing together to forge a real team ethos. Russia 2018 was where it all finally clicked, with selflessness resulting in some gorgeously fluid play. England was not expected to go far in the knock-out stages but coach Gareth Southgate galvanised the side, with team spirit and training ground toil the keys to success. Beaten finalist Croatia was built around its midfield duo of Luka Modric, the player of the tournament, and Ivan Rakitic, but from front to back everyone contributed to see the team through three 120-minute knockout games to the final. Meanwhile, Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar, despite having moments of brilliance, simply couldn’t drag their flawed teams through to the latter stages. That’s because it simply doesn’t happen in modern football the way it was once possible. The hype around Mbappe and Pogba, and Griezmann and defender Raphael Varane, will soar into the stratosphere following their successful World Cup tilt, but in reality none of them would have lifted the trophy without Deschamps’s careful planning and pragmatic approach.
Didier Deschamps was the captain when Les Bleus lifted the trophy in 1998. As head coach, he has faced his fair share of criticism. France should have won Euro 2016 on home soil but, as favorites in the final against Portugal, lost 1-0. Their subsequent World Cup qualifying campaign also had some uncertain moments, not least the shock home draw with minnows Luxembourg. After winning their opening two World Cup finals matches with sluggish performances, questions remained over Deschamps’ method. But, though his team has rarely thrilled, they have won matches. Deschamps stuck to his pragmatic style and it has done the job. In winning the World Cup as a player and now as a head coach, he joins an elite club – only Brazil’s Mario Zagallo (1958, 1962, 1970) and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer (1974, 1990) have done the same. France had the most valuable squad at the tournament, worth $1.28 billion (£972 million), according to Transfermarkt. The first 11 was packed with stars plying their trade with the best European clubs and France’s quality didn’t end there. They didn’t have to rotate too much, but when they did there were ready-made replacements. Corentin Tolisso of Bayern Munich and Steven Nzonzi of Sevilla both fulfilled duties when needed in the central midfield triangle. Nabil Fekir, Lyon’s playmaker who was on the verge of a move to Liverpool, also made cameos. Only one outfield player in the 23-man squad, Adil Rami, failed to play a single minute. Such was the strength of France’s squad, Deschamps could afford to leave out talents like Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Adrien Rabiot and Marseille’s Dimitri Payet, the star of Euro 2016.
Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé have been two of the players of the tournament. They scored four goals each to finish joint-second with a clutch of players behind England’s Harry Kane (6 goals) in the race for the golden boot. Both players scored in the final. The attacking duo has sparkled throughout the tournament with Mbappé showing the world why he was the second most expensive player at the World Cup. Striker Olivier Giroud may not have scored despite starting six of France’s seven matches, but he held the ball up and created space for his fellow forwards to shine. Considered a possible weakness before the tournament, France’s defense had been solid. The center-back El Clásico pairing of Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti did a great job and were ably supported by 22-year-old full backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández. Behind them, goalkeeper and Captain Hugo Lloris was dependable, aside from his shocker for Croatia’s second goal in the final. In front of them, midfielders Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kanté protected their defense, broke up the play and won back the ball, allowing Paul Pogba to roam and create.
Of France’s starting 11 in the final, six of them won major European trophies in the season before. Umtiti (Barcelona), Matuidi (Juventus) and Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain) all won their respective leagues. While Hernández and Griezmann won the Europa League with Atletico and Varane won the Champions League with Real Madrid. Chelsea’s Kanté didn’t win the league that year, but he did win the Premier League the two seasons previously – with a different club each time. There was also a clear desire to make amends for their Euro 2016 defeat. That loss in Paris hurt a lot, and, again going into the final as favorites, the French made sure they wouldn’t make the same mistake. After the win over Croatia, Deschamps said: “It hurt so much to lose the Euros two years ago, but it made us learn too.”