Solid, together, Mbappé … five reasons why France are in World Cup final

David Hytner in Moscow on 11 July 2018

Solid foundations begin in defence

France’s tactics in the 1-0 semi-final win against Belgium did not draw universal approval. “They have played anti-football,” Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium goalkeeper, said. “They defended in their own half the entire time. They’ve done that all tournament and it’s a shame. I have not yet experienced that an opposing striker plays so far from goal.” But how France defended in their own half and not for the first time, either. Their progress to the final has been built on the sturdiest of foundations, on organisation and discipline, and one thing has become clear – once you fall behind to this team you have a serious problem. The centre-back Raphaël Varane was extraordinary against Belgium and he and his partner, Samuel Umtiti, have deserved the plaudits they have received throughout the tournament. They are a physically imposing pair who suffocate the supply lines. Belgium had a lot of the game but what did they actually create? With N’Golo Kanté able to play either side of Paul Pogba, there is high-grade protection but this is a team who defend from the front. Against Belgium it was noticeable how Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud pressed the deeper-sitting midfielders Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembélé.

Mbappé and hard-hitting counters

France can set up in a defensive way because they have quality players up front, with the most eye-catching of the game-turners being Kylian Mbappé. It was a little counterintuitive to hear pundits tip him as a potential breakout star before the finals, given he had joined Paris Saint-Germain for Ł166m. He was not exactly under the radar. Yet there is no doubt he has advertised his scorching talent to a wider audience. Mbappé’s pace and directness is quite simply frightening; at just 19, he carries a fear factor. Witness the reaction of Argentina’s Marcos Rojo to the sight of him in full flight on the counter. Rojo was reduced to desperation and all he could do was foul him for a penalty. Rojo has not been the only defender to be driven to distraction. Some opposing teams have managed to keep Mbappé under control for spells but none of them have been able to suppress him over 90 minutes. His quick feet buy him and his teammates extra space inside congested penalty areas.

A set-piece threat that pays dividends

It can feel like a backhanded compliment to say a team can make the difference on indirect free-kicks and corners; it is a little late 80s Crazy Gang, with all of the connotations that entails. But set-piece prowess has been a thing at this World Cup and France have not missed out. When it has mattered the most, Didier Deschamps’s team have come up with a set-piece goal to turn the tide. First it was Varane’s header from Griezmann’s free-kick to put them 1-0 up against Uruguay in the quarter-finals (they would win 2-0) and then it was Umtiti’s header from Griezmann’s corner against Belgium. On both occasions, the defender got the run on his marker. It was all about timing and the realisation of work on the training ground.

Mentality and adaptability

France have their eyes on the prize. “I couldn’t care less about the Ballon d’Or,” Mbappé said when asked about the game’s top individual award. “I want the World Cup. I want to sleep with it.” There has been a steeliness to their belief and focus, and Deschamps made a good point after the Belgium game when he cast his mind back to his team’s defeat against Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. “It is not nothing to win the semi-finals of the World Cup after losing the final of the Euros,” he said. There are nine survivors from the 2016 squad – a low number – but each one is on a mission to avenge the disappointment. Deschamps’s new players are young and hungry. Apart from Steven Nzonzi, who is 29, all of them are aged 25 or under. The manager has said on more than one occasion this squad will be stronger in two and four years’ time but they look pretty hardy at the moment. Deschamps has adapted in each of the knockout rounds and his players have responded. Against Belgium, for example, he started Griezmann on the left, rather than as a No 10. Tactically, he has been in control.

The selflessness of non-scoring Giroud

Something was not right in France’s opening group game against Australia. Deschamps’s front three of Griezmann, Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé did not click, and so he sent for Giroud. The Chelsea striker has yet to score at the finals but France have looked better balanced with him leading the line, creating spaces and chances and providing the platform for Mbappé, in particular, to flourish. Plainly, Giroud would love to score and strikers tend to be judged on their goals. But a lesson from history has not been lost: when France won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 the strikers Christophe Dugarry and Stéphane Guivarc’h scored once and not at all, respectively.

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