In the 71st minute of France’s Round of 16 clash with Argentina, Antoine Griezmann provided an understated yet defining moment of Les Bleus’ 2018 World Cup campaign. With the game in its final quarter and France leading 4-2, Griezmann had a chance to open Argentina’s disoriented back line by threading the ball to the marauding left-back Lucas Hernandez. That pass, though, never happened.
Instead, Griezmann gestured to Hernandez to drop back and offered him an earful for his risky positioning, all the while passing the ball back to centre-back Samuel Umtiti. A fortnight later, Griezmann went on to lift the World Cup, championing the percentage football of Didier Deschamps that he and his teammates embraced without question.
Les Bleus, in their victorious World Cup campaign, never expended more than what was required. Of the 630 minutes plus stoppage time they were on the pitch, France trailed their opponents for only nine minutes – a validation of their game management which was aided by stable defensive structures.
One would have gotten carried away seeing the collection of attacking riches of this French squad – Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir, Florian Thauvin, Olivier Giroud – and would certainly have devised a game model to get the best out of those talents, but not Deschamps.
France even had the likes of Anthony Martial, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette left at home, a pointer to Deschamps’ conviction in his methods that culminated in the World Cup win. The French manager’s pragmatic streak was there for all to see, but it barely bothered him. As Griezmann said after France’s semi-final win, “We don’t care about it. We don’t care how we played...we won. I don’t care how, I want a second star to be on this shirt. That is all,” that second star now etched atop the Gallic cockerel is all that is important and will be in the years to come.
That Giroud, France’s only recognised No 9 and starter in all matches but one, was the favoured centre-forward in the final despite not scoring a single goal spoke volumes of how France approached their matches. Giroud failed to hit the target even once in the entire World Cup. Deschamps, who saw the goal-shy striker as his team’s cornerstone in the attack, was convinced of the idea and never shied away from backing him. Oftentimes a manager’s steadfast stance can act as a driving force, and France exactly had that.
The 49-year-old was accused of being tactically naive at the 2016 Euros, where he largely kept N’Golo Kante on the bench and played the more attack-minded Paul Pogba in a midfield double pivot, giving more freedom to the limited Moussa Sissoko. This time around, however, Deschamps didn’t blink at the sight of trouble. He had trust in his methods and the players backed him.
After his experiment without Giroud in the tournament opener, Deschamps stuck to his tried and tested setup with the lumbering No 9, thereby mostly keeping troubles at an arm’s length. He was clearly underutilising his attacking resources, but the balance meant more to him. A testament to that is the fact that France were in a negative game state for only one per cent of their total playing minutes at this World Cup.
The Les Bleus almost never had to chase games like Croatia because they played their percentages to perfection. Single-mindedly defending one-goal leads, not getting carried away at two-goal cushions as Griezmann showed against Argentina, slowing down matches when necessary – France turned out to be the team performing in the most clinical and professional manner, leaving little to chance or their opponents.
It doesn’t matter if France deserved to win the 2018 World Cup or not judging by their style of play or how they managed to cross the line. For Deschamps and his team, the only thing that matters is the fact that they won it, writing another golden chapter in the French football’s history.
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 16:55 PM