Not many people predicted France versus Belgium would be one of the lowest scoring matches at the 2018 World Cup, and yet perhaps we should not have been so surprised this was not an end-to-end classic. Didier Deschamps doesn’t do end-to-end, the 4-3 victory over Argentina a strange anomaly that highlighted the South Americans’ hopelessness (and good fortune in front of goal) more than anything else.
Throughout the tournament in Russia France have played with great caution, scoring six goals from their five other matches in a continuation of the cautious, conservative football that defined their Euro 2016 campaign. Two years ago it was Deschamps’ dull football that saw much of the French public turn on him, that meant they lost to Portugal in a final they should have easily won.
History could very well repeat itself on Sunday. France’s 1-0 victory on Tuesday evening was a stoic, professional performance that has drawn as many plaudits as critics, but with so much young talent at his disposal Deschamps remains teetering on the edge of failure. He is finding out that playing defensive football is perfectly acceptable… until you lose.
It is a problem that Jose Mourinho, the master of reactive tactics, knows all too well. His Manchester United team faced a similar dilemma in May of 2017 when the Europa League final against Ajax was billed as an all-or-nothing game for the Portuguese coach. Win and his methods would be forgiven; lose and face serious recriminations, a backlash that questions why the fans should be made to endure such dull football.
Deschamps is facing a similar problem; France fans asking similar questions. Should France win the World Cup then none of this will matter, but should England or Croatia grind their way to victory pundits will rightly question why France haven’t won this tournament at a canter. In a year in which Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and Italy all failed to make the latter stages, it would frankly be a disaster for France to fall short with Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembele, Benajmin Mendy, and Thomas Lemar on the bench.
Those four players, plus Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, would be key players for a coach willing to exploit France’s abundance of young, quick attacking players. There is a sense that Kylian Mbappe has made an impact this summer despite his manager’s tactics, not because of them; if the French fall at the final hurdle fans will wonder what could – what should – have been.
This might seem like an odd time to be criticising the manager, but the performance against Belgium suggests Deschamps has no interest in building an exciting team – either in this World Cup or the next. They held just 36% possession in the semi-final, with the entire team camped 40 yards from goal with the sole intention of limiting space for Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Granted, they won the game, but it could easily have swung the other way. Belgium had the better chances and, had it not been for poor defending from one of France’s four corners, the narrative could be decisively different today.
For two years pundits in France and around the world have struggled to understand exactly what Deschamps is trying to achieve. There has been nothing like a coherent plan, and certainly no interest in bringing through their most talented youngsters. A troubled group stage could easily have been followed by defeat to Uruguay (had Edinson Cavani been available) and, if anything, their performance was even more flat in the semi-final.
The story of how the World Cup is won is invariably rewritten after the tournament has ended. The apparent destiny of Spain and Germany winning the last two seemed far less so at the time, with both nations struggling up until the semi-final stage. Should France narrowly win on Sunday, they will be remembered as a professional-but-cautious team that calmly won the World Cup. That would be a false narrative.
France still stand for little; their performances still fail to convince. Deschamps is the Mourinho of this World Cup, and just like the Man Utd manager this leaves his caged team in an all-or-nothing situation. Win, and all will be forgotten. Lose, and the team’s performances over the last two years will be rightly seen as an unforgivable failure.