World Cup 2018: 'Anti-football' France show how to win knock-out games
Thibaut Courtois was an angry man at the end of Belgium's semi-final against France, commenting that their opponents had played 'anti-football' to reach the World Cup final. His team-mate Eden Hazard, meanwhile, went on to say that he would rather lose with Belgium than win with this France.
Kevin De Bruyne, another of Belgium's vanquished stars, was more diplomatic, saying he is used to playing against teams who are defensive and that it was their prerogative to find an opening. He was of course referring to the English Premier League where he recently helped Manchester City clinch a record-breaking league title.
What's the issue?
The opening half of this heavy-weight semi-final had been an entertaining affair, Belgium had dominated possession and come close to opening the scoring through Hazard and right-back Toby Alderweireld. France, meanwhile, relied on counter-attacks and slowly made more of an impact as the game progresses. Kylian Mbappe was in the mood with his dazzling skill and pace and nearly set up full-back Benjamin Pavard to open the scoring, but Courtois' outstretched leg came to Belgium's rescue.
However, as soon as France had taken the lead through Samuel Umtiti's opportunistic header from an Antoine Griezmann corner, the complexion of the match changed dramatically. It was all attack versus defence for the last 30 minutes as Belgium pressed relentlessly for the equaliser that would keep their Cup hopes alive and France held on like a stubborn monolith that has weathered many a typhoon. It wasn't pretty from an aesthetic point of view but intriguing for a lover of football strategy.
Les Bleus put in a commendable defensive performance spearheaded by Raphael Varane, who kept the dangerous Romelu Lukaku in his pocket for the entirety of the match. The combined firepower of the highest scorers of the tournament rarely managed to penetrate the French back-line with the best chance falling to Marouane Fellaini whose powerful header was off target.
However, France, having the best attackers of the World Cup on paper with Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembele all in their ranks, shut up shop. Often, even Giroud, the lone striker, was seen hovering in his own half as the 1998 World Cup winners decided to protect their lead by killing the match. It was a tactical choice where they ensured that they won't attempt to double the lead by going out of their way and hold fort like they are the guardians of the galaxy.
Didier Deschamps' side have played this way throughout the Cup and no matter what the naysayers say, they have got the results they wanted having reached the final of the quadrennial event. They are just one step away from achieving their dream now.
His tactic for the entirety of the tournament has been to ensure that France hold their defensive shape and get the job done up front with the individual creativity of a Griezmann or Mbappe or manufacture it from a clever set-piece. It has left their opponents and fans frustrated but Deschamps, who won it as a player, couldn't care less. The same strategy was deployed against Denmark and Uruguay to good effect. It does not make for a great advertisement for the beautiful game but, well, it's the World Cup and it's a results business.
The most telling transformation has been in Paul Pogba's approach. The Manchester United star's effervescent delivery and marauding forward runs have hardly surfaced in Russia as he has often fallen back to shield the back four and has done a stupendous job. His clearing headers off dangerous crosses, especially against Belgium, have revealed a new aspect of the attacking midfielder's repertoire.
One thing that stood out as France defended was the amount of time they were determined to waste. Blaise Matuidi and Mbappe were particularly guilty of theatrics and time wasting that was unbecoming of their stature as players and Belgium players voiced their annoyance in no uncertain terms.
The wastage of time coupled with the defensive showing killed off the match as a visual spectacle but one could argue France could have scored on the break as desperate Belgians poured forward in the vain hope of getting back a goal.
More of the same
Didier Deschamps doesn't believe in being beautiful losers, he would rather win the World Cup than unleash the attacking potential of his super-talented side; something we only got to see for a brief interlude during the classic against Argentina.
To be fair, his players have curbed their natural instincts admirably and played to a plan; be solid, don't lose your shape. In Sunday's final at the Luzhniki, we should expect more of the same. They haven't come all this way to suddenly change tack and express themselves at the risk of giving Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Co. space to exploit. Expect more play-acting as well if France are defending a lead with the clock ticking down.
There will probably be more groans and complaints, one supposes Les Bleus are ready for them, they would rather do it the ugly way.