Adaptability helps France beat Croatia to lift FIFA World Cup for the second time
In football, pragmatism usually trumps panache. At least that has been the case in modern football with teams forced to try different styles of play in order to break down conservative opponents. (FIFA World Cup final highlights)
On Sunday, Croatia were expected to press a France team that has throughout this World Cup campaign refused to have a go at opponents despite possessing one of the most heralded attacks in the world. Didier Deschamps’s France team has been dubbed reactionary by fans and media alike but it is not just the ability to react to the style of play of opponents but also to different situations that has helped them reach this far.
On Sunday evening, that helped them get past an exuberant Croatian side 4-2 and win the World Cup for only the second time in their history. At half-time France had just one attempt at Croatia’s goal. Croatia had seven, two on target, and two-thirds of possession.
Yet, while Domagoj Vida did have a chance to head in from a corner right before the end of the first half, Croatia found few openings apart from the one Ivan Perisic scored from. There was a pattern to the game that was controlled by France for most periods. Croatia’s frenetic start did little to rattle France who were comfortable with allowing Perisic space on the left flank.
France populated the box as soon as the ball came into the final third, making life difficult for the likes of Mario Mandzukic. At the other end, there wasn’t a single chance that France could conjure until the 18th minute. Time and again this summer, they have however shown that France can force opponents into mistakes or pounce at the slightest error.
Both of France’s goals were through setpieces, both through errors by Croatian players. It was ugly, hardly the kind of football a team of France’s quality would be expected to bank on throughout a World Cup campaign. The reward, however, was handsome.
Deschamps always knew he had the players to pull off something like this. At Atletico Madrid, Griezmann and Lucas Hernandez have both been accustomed to Diego Simeone’s smothering tactics against stronger opponents. Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane have similar taste under Jose Mourinho.
At Chelsea, N’Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud have had doses of reactionary football with Antonio Conte. Despite the riches available to him, Deschamps had the perfect combination of players who could adapt to different circumstances.
At 2-1, Croatia were always going to respond and they played into France’s hands by perhaps not borrowing from their opponents’ ploy of playing a more patient game. As Zlatko Dalic’s team pressed, France played with a compact backline. Wingers Perisic and Ante Rebic had a man each to track their runs and Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, N’Golo Kante – and later, his substitute Steven Nzonzi — all helped keep the central areas constricted for Croatia’s attack.
With players at their disposal, France needed only a bit of distraction for an opening. When Pogba scored France’s third goal, the Croatian defence had been stretched thin, allowing the United midfielder to shoot not just once, but twice from the edge of the box. As Mandzukic, Rakitic, Perisic and Rebic tried to chase every ball after France’s third goal, Deschamps had already won the tactical battle.
A desperate Croatia left space open for Mbappe to shoot in France’s fourth. Two years after Portugal had frustrated France’s attack in the 2016 European Championship final, Deschamps mastered the art of mastering circumstances. In the process he joined Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the third person to win the World Cup both as player and coach. Croatia’s never-say-die spirit and pressing ability may have taken them to a maiden final but the adaptability of France won them the World Cup.