Just win, baby.
Coming into the 2018 World Cup, the only question looming over an outrageously talented France side was manager Didier Deschamps’ uninspiring tactics. Would the former defensive midfielder, who captained his country to the tournament crown in 1998, let his team of thoroughbred attackers loose, or would he keep the shackles on?
Through five matches, that question has been answered. Emphatically so.
Outside of a wild 4-3 win over Argentina that had more to do with the South American side’s defensive ineptitude than anything else, Les Bleus have been an absolute bore in Russia.
And it’s working.
France, courtesy of a glancing header from the quietly excellent Raphael Varane, and a brutal blunder from goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, slugged its way to the semi-finals on Friday, fighting – at times literally – past Uruguay, 2-0.
Related: Varane header, Griezmann gift propel France past Uruguay into semi-finals
Sure, Edinson Cavani’s untimely calf injury was a massive blessing for the European nation – replacement Cristhian Stuani offered the incisiveness of a wet dishcloth before being replaced in the second half – but outside of one great save from Hugo Lloris, the French backline was hardly threatened.
With each France match in this tournament, there’s palpable anticipation of the exhilarating starting XI Deschamps could roll out. And then, like clockwork, there’s contempt at the conservative lineup he opts for.
With Blaise Matuidi suspended coming into Friday’s contest, Deschamps had a collection of riches on the bench that would offer a more attacking presence; neutral supporters who wanted to be entertained would have been happy with any of Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir, Florian Thauvin, or even Thomas Lemar, who is the most defensively sound of that quartet.
Instead, they got another central midfielder, as Corentin Tolisso slotted in. You could almost envision Deschamps laughing off the suggestion that he do something other than stick with his blue-collar approach.
Ostensibly a left-winger, Tolisso tucked inside, much like Matuidi, to offer further defensive cover in midfield alongside Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
Would that free Pogba? Not quite.
The Manchester United superstar’s more defensive role throughout this tournament – and at Euro 2016 – has been arguably the biggest gripe French supporters have with the 49-year-old tactician. Pogba, among the most vibrant midfielders in the game when he gets the opportunity to stretch his legs and create chances for his teammates – or have an effort himself – has been asked to focus on his defensive duties.
“I know he wants me to simplify my game,” Pogba explained of Deschamps’ instructions earlier in the tournament, according to Julien Laurens of ESPN FC.
Based on a map of his touches against Uruguay, he’s sticking to that; Pogba didn’t get on the ball inside the Uruguayan penalty area on Friday:
(Image courtesy: WhoScored)
It robs us of what we want to see out of the 25-year-old, but, again, it’s working. Pogba surely won’t mind not scoring or setting up a tally if he gets to grasp the World Cup trophy come tournament’s end.
The same goes for fellow star Griezmann, who, despite sitting on three goals in the competition – two penalties and Friday’s gift from Muslera – has been equally vital in getting his boots dirty defensively. He won more tackles than any other player against Uruguay, dropping deep to help his team regain possession on five occasions.
Winning ugly is still winning, at the end of the day.
If Portugal proved anything two years ago en route to capturing the Euro 2016 crown – over France, ironically enough – it’s that it doesn’t matter how you win matches at a major international tournament.
Playing expansive attacking football and creating a boatload of chances may be the best way to ensure success over the course of a league campaign, but when you only need to get through seven games, being defensively solid – boring, even – and capitalizing on your chances at the other end is often enough.
Recent history suggests as much, too. Germany conceded just four goals during its triumphant 2014 World Cup run. Spain and Italy were breached just twice in 2010 and 2006, respectively.
France has conceded four tallies thus far in Russia, but the barn burner against Argentina that accounted for three of them felt like an outlier. The other, meanwhile, came courtesy of a penalty for a foolish handball that Samuel Umtiti is unlikely to replicate the rest of the way.
What was supposed to be the most entertaining team in the competition – along with Belgium, perhaps – is instead rolling along unspectacularly.
It may not be pretty, but with France now sitting in the semi-finals, just two wins away from the ultimate prize, the results are hard to argue with.