Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Despite never coming close to engineering a cohesive team performance, Didier Deschamps possesses the World Cup trophy for the second time. Individual talent, shining through at both ends of the pitch, dragged France to glory. Croatia, who executed their gameplan to near-perfection, can only reflect on what might have been.
Having outlasted England in the semi-finals, after a third consecutive bout of extra-time, many expected Zlatko Dalic’s tireless side to finally wilt here. But, once again, it was a case of fatigue be damned, as the Balkan side went for the French jugular from the off.
High-pressing was again on the menu, costing Benjamin Pavard possession at the hands of Ivan Perisic in the opening minutes. Samuel Umtiti was duly forced into one of two early covering challenges to deny the Inter Milan winger. France, in short, were rocked.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in the performance of N’Golo Kanté. Normally composure personified, the Chelsea midfielder found Croatia’s pressing game too hot to handle here. Eventually withdrawn in the 55th minute, after completing a stunningly low 57% of his passes, Kanté was also partly responsible for Croatia’s first-half equaliser.
Temporarily switched to the right at that point, Perisic drifted in behind Kanté to claim Mario Mandzukic’s headed flick-on. Kanté duly fouled Perisic, and France lost three consecutive headers from the resultant free-kick before Perisic cancelled out Mandzukic’s own-goal opener.
From left to right
That kind of frail French penalty-box defending was no aberration either. Deschamps’ previously impenetrable-looking rearguard conceded six chances from set-pieces, always seeming vulnerable to crosses sent their way.
And, surprisingly, most of those crosses came from the right-flank, as Croatia eschewed their up-to-now unshakable dedication to left-wing attacks. Switching their attentions from left to right eventually turned the tide against England, as Gareth Southgate failed to stamp out Sime Vrsaljko’s freedom. The Atletico Madrid right-back formed a potent partnership with Luka Modric, who loves to drift wide in possession.
So it proved here, as the touchline tendencies of both Vrsaljko and Modric forced Blaise Matuidi to abandon his tucked-in role on the left of France’s midfield. Kanté, too, was frequently drawn wide-left, leaving a yawning gap between he and Paul Pogba that Croatia didn’t do enough to exploit. Ivan Rakitic, in prime position to do so, attempted only one through-ball before the break; Perisic, who nipped in behind Raphael Varane, couldn’t make his first touch count.
France opened the scoring not long after, as Croatia evoked memories of Mario Fernandes’ extra-time equaliser by defending a free-kick too deep. And Les Bleus restored their lead before the break from the spot, too. But there was more than a touch of fortune about those goals, each resulting from dubiously-awarded dead-balls, and both masking France’s truly woeful transitions into attack.
Sure, Croatia’s rabid counter-press had a lot to do with that counterattacking crumminess. But the scale of France’s failure to bypass the press was truly stunning: Antoine Griezmann’s disputed penalty aside, Deschamps’ side could not manage even one shot on Daniel Subasic’s goal before the break.
Only the space in front of Kylian Mbappé offered the French attack any real open-play hope. And that space proved key in the lead-up to Griezmann’s spot-kick award. Incredibly, despite wisely switching their attacking focus away from the teenager’s flank, Croatia still encouraged left-back Ivan Strinic to advance as normal. That’s why Domagoj Vida was spooked into heading a Hugo Lloris long-ball behind, lest its target Mbappé speed onto it instead.
Handball was given against Perisic from the resultant delivery, and for the third game running France had a set-piece lead they could defend with their lives. When you’re a goal up, and this good at defending, who needs a functioning attack?
Croatia’s press continued to bamboozle France at the start of the second-half, however. Rakitic robbed Pogba early on to feed Ante Rebic with a through-ball. But the headless winger, a peripheral figure here again, was foiled by Lloris. Yet, Lloris’ goal-gifting howler aside, that was the last shot on target France’s packed defence would concede.
Indeed, Mandzukic’s consolation goal would prove to be the only big chance of a tight clash that belied its six-goal scoreline. The showpiece of the world’s game was every inch the stalemate it promised to be. Only France’s early good fortune, and the space Croatia’s related abandon afforded Mbappé, ratcheted up the goals tally.
Pogba, whose accurate long, forward passes stand as one of this World Cup’s most surprising developments, was the other key actor. The much-maligned Manchester United midfielder twice found Mbappé in behind Strinic between minutes 52 and 59. Subasic denied Mbappé to spoil the first attack, but Pogba himself finished the second. Subasic’s save from Mbappé, incidentally, was the only penalty-area shot France managed from open-play.
Down 3-1, and forced to chase, Croatia promptly lost their shape completely. Shunted temporarily to the right-wing, a weary Mandzukic found himself dribbled by left-back Lucas Hernandez. Marcelo Brozovic, the only Croat midfielder back in position, couldn’t stop Mbappé from firing home Hernandez’s square-pass.
Dalic then switched to a 3-3-4 for the last 10 minutes, by removing Strinic and going with a forward line, from left to right, of Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Mandzukic and Marko Pjaca. But Pjaca, a disaster throughout his only start against Iceland, couldn’t do anything right. And Perisic was reduced to hopeful crosses into a well-fortified French penalty-area.
France still looked uncertain until Nestor Pitana’s final whistle. But their ultra-compact shape, featuring both forwards withdrawn goalside of the opposition midfield, never looked in real danger of losing its lead. For defence, after all, is what France’s triumph at this tournament was built on. For the first time, a World Cup winner lifts the trophy with a sub-50% average possession share. And there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself: reactive football is just as valid as the proactive variety, after all.
But, given the massive talent at Deschamps’ disposal, and his complete failure to mould it into a functioning attack over the course of a six-year tenure, this victory feels false to a certain extent. Navigating the final three rounds by thrice taking the lead from a dead-ball, before then relying on all-out defence, is far from sexy.
But, ultimately, it was enough for France, who will feel the end justifies the means. Croatia, meanwhile, who outmatched Les Bleus every step of the way on Sunday, surely cannot believe their luck. Football, as ever, is a cruel, cruel game.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112