When France came into the tournament with one of the youngest teams, loaded with attacking weapons across the pitch, it was expected that Les Bleus would blow opponents away before exiting the tournament against one of the more experienced and stronger sides in the latter stages.
However, Didier Deschamps’s team made their intentions clear when they began the tournament with 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Australia and Peru respectively. They were not going to be the team that attacked relentlessly and scored the most goals at the tournament, despite arguably having the best personnel to do so with.
France looked laboured in those two games but a 4-3 thriller against Argentina in the round of 16 may have given birth to hopes that they would finally unleash their wealth of attacking talent for the remainder of the tournament. However, keen observers would have noticed that France did not really play with the objective of scoring four goals; it was simply the need of the hour.
A constant midfield three of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi should have indicated France’s intentions. If further clarification was needed, then Antoine Griezmann’s berating of his teammates for foraying too far up the pitch when France restored the lead against Argentina underscored perfectly how they intended to play.
Despite building a solid team which offers opponents few chances and instead breaks out on breath-taking counterattacks that have seen the world stand up and take note of one Kylian Mbappe, the French have come under a barrage of criticism for what is being described as ‘negative football’ following a 1-0 win over Belgium, the highest scoring team in the tournament, on Tuesday night.
That is quite an unfair statement to make.
When going up against some of the best teams on the planet, France have opted for the wise decision to use their weapons as effectively as possible while sacrificing nothing for the sake of flair.
They deploy Kylian Mbappe as a one-man counterattack, urge Griezmann to drop deep and find the killer ball, force Paul Pogba to restrain his forward runs and instead spread the play and ensure that their backline of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane are as untroubled as possible. All of this plays perfectly into their hands and frees arguably their greatest weapon, N’Golo Kante, to do what he does best and destroy the other team’s game-plan with his incessant, dogged and almost irritating style of play.
Yet, nobody can accuse France of being toothless in attack. They look threatening whenever they get into the opponent’s half and the 1-0 scoreline should serve only to flatter Belgium, not reflect poorly on the finalists. Les Bleus may not have hogged possession, but they could easily have scored three if not for the profligacy of Olivier Giroud. On the other hand, Belgium, for all their passing and attacking intent, barely made a dent.
Deschamps has constructed perhaps the perfect strategy to lift his nation’s second World Cup, but audiences appear unimpressed.
Despite praising Uruguay relentlessly for their dominant defensive display against Portugal at this World Cup and fawning over the Italians, who have made it a habit of wearing down their opponents with the patented Catenaccio style of play for decades now, fans want France to attack, enthral and win all at the same time.
It is not often a perfect mix.
The only other country that has this much pressure to not only win, but to also put on a show while doing so, are Brazil. They have paid the price since their last triumph in 2002 for overlooking pragmatism in their quest for ‘joga bonito‘; ‘the beautiful game’. Against Belgium, the Selecao completely abandoned any notions of a midfield and allowed Romelu Lukaku time and space on the ball, which led to their punishing 2-1 loss. The game itself was a masterpiece for neutrals across the world, but losers Brazil certainly did not win any fans. Given the fallout from that game, which saw the entire world side with a Belgium team that executed its plans to perfection against an attack-minded Brazil while withstanding a barrage of shots, France seem to be left with two options.
They can either play their game and possibly win the World Cup while having to contend with displeased neutrals. Or they can switch to an all-guns-blazing approach, lose the final and ‘win hearts’.
Our cricket team are especially good at the latter, but ask anyone — aside from Eden Hazard: would they rather be defeated and win hearts or be criticised and win a World Cup.
You already know the answer.