FIFA World Cup 2018: Didier Deschamps' defensive tactics edge off-colour Belgium as he leads France to consecutive finals
The outcome of the final will, unfortunate as it may be, decide Deschamps' managerial future, despite taking France to two major finals within two years.
A solid defensive outing and a goal from Samuel Umtiti saw France beat Belgium and make it to the final of the World Cup. Les Bleus have now made it to two successive finals following their loss to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. Although this time around, Deschamps' side looks likely to get the job done and it is all down to his insistence on setting up his side to defend and hit oppositions on the counter.
This is not to say that France have parked the bus, a la Jose Mourinho, or have been pegged back by superior sides. Despite their attacking riches, France have been more than content to score first and then do everything they can to stop their opponents from scoring. Deschamps' need to be defensive-minded was finally warranted against a Belgium side which have scored the most goals —14 — at the tournament.
However, unlike Mourinho, Deschamps hasn't had to face resistance from his side when it comes to his tactics. His youthful side has wholeheartedly bought into his idea and is ready to do the dirty work with minimum fuss. How Mourinho would love for Paul Pogba to track back and put his body on the line for Manchester United once he's back from the World Cup!
Deschamps started the game with his preferred 4-2-3-1 line-up with midfielder Blaise Matuidi back in the side after suspension and the Juventus man didn't put a foot wrong as he covered every inch of the grass. However, Matuidi will always be remembered for the bewildered expression on his face after being knocked out on the ground. Though named on the left-wing in the starting line up, Matuidi's positioning was that of a left-sided central midfielder. That allowed Pogba to mark Marouane Fellaini preventing his United teammate to get on the end of crosses that Nacer Chadli and Kevin de Bruyne swung in. Not only was he subdued in attack, Fellaini was also at fault for France's goal after Umtiti got ahead of him to head in the only goal of the match. Umtiti and Raphael Varane kept Lukaku at bay throughout the match and had 13 clearances between them, two less than the entire Belgium side.
As Pogba dropped deeper, Matuidi and N'Golo Kante — who deserves to win the Golden Ball — nullified the threat posed by De Bruyne by starving him off space forcing him to play deeper. Eden Hazard was a different threat altogether. Four years after disappearing in the quarter-final against Argentina, Hazard stepped up on Tuesday as he waged a lone battle against the compact French. He was unlucky to get a free-kick at the death on the edge of the box after being bundled over by club teammate Olivier Giroud.
After the match, Hazard criticised France's tactics but nevertheless praised them for their dogged defending. "I prefer to lose with this Belgium than win with this France. But they do defend strongly and are very efficient. We did not find their weak point. That little moment of magic needed to score was not there."
Hazard's comments and his performance, not just on Tuesday but during the tournament, will be looked at with concern by the Chelsea board. The Belgian skipper has only a year left on his contract. He had voiced his displeasure at the defensive tactics used by Antonio Conte and with Cristiano Ronaldo moving to Juventus, Real Madrid might come calling for him.
Hazard's Chelsea and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was blunter in his criticism of France. Speaking after the match, he said "France heads a corner and does nothing more than defend. I would have preferred to have lost in the quarter-finals to Brazil, at least that was a team that wanted to play football. France are just an anti-football team."
A bit harsh given defending is an essential part of the game, and had Belgium scored first, they would have also resorted to the same tactic to keep out France. A valid criticism, which has been used against Deschamps throughout the tournament, is Deschamps' defensive mentality.
This French side has some of the best footballing talents in the world and a unit which is capable of playing with the right balance of attack and defence. The likes of Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin would have seen more game time under a more attack-minded manager. A different manager would have seen France play some of the best football on the planet. A different manager would have unleashed this side's attacking prowess in the group stage and laid down the gauntlet for other teams. A different manager though, might not have taken France to the final.
On Sunday, France will start as favourites to win the title regardless of who between England and Croatia makes it to the summit clash. The outcome of the match will, unfortunate as it may be, decide Deschamps' managerial future, despite taking France to two major finals within two years. Should he win, Deschamps will go down as France's best-ever footballing sons in history. Lose and he will always be remembered who took a talented side to the World Cup and European Championship final only to fall at the last hurdle. Twenty years after captaining France to their only World Cup triumph, Deschamps is just a match away from winning it as a coach.
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