In the end, France and Didier Deschamps took it. A very Russia 2018 final, settled by two counter-attacks, and featuring two set-pieces, a contentious VAR penalty, and a goalkeeping error. If ever a game summarised a tournament, it was this.
France and Croatia sprung no surprises, keeping the line-ups and tactical set-ups used by both in their semi-finals. France’s lopsided 4-2-3-1, with Blaise Matuidi dropping back on the left and Kylian Mbappe seeking space on the right, did see them line up more like a 4-4-2 in the press than in previous games; Paul Pogba’s energetic forays forwards to press Ivan Rakitic on Croatia’s left were also a clear ploy, and shows the midfielder’s defensive acumen. He performed a different role, man-marking Marouane Fellaini against Belgium in the semi, equally well, and it is time that questions about his discipline and defensive ability are put to bed.
Croatia, for their part, used a 4-3-3 again, staggered so that Rakitic sat slightly left and between the central, sweeping Marcelo Brozovic, and the more advanced and to the right Luka Modric. Modric, who has had an excellent tournament, drifted wide right, with Ante Rebic cutting inside towards Mario Madzukic, while Sime Vraslijko sought to overlap. The intention was, as has usually been the case for Croatia at this World Cup, was to attack through the wide areas, but here they specifically sought to overload France’s left, the more defensively solid side, to then create an opportunity to switch the play rapidly to France’s right, their weaker side defensively. The aim was presumably to catch Mbappe too high, and find space for the superb Ivan Perisic, but France’s 4-4-2 often held.
Having said that, going in 2-1 down at the break must have baffled Croatia. They had been the better side for swathes of the game, reducing Antoine Griezmann to a pressing and set-pieces role; the VAR penalty decision which went against Perisic must be seen as the game-changing moment, however well France then capitalised on it. 1-1 at half-time, and Croatia would not have had to push so high up the pitch from the beginning of the second half, which left them vulnerable to the rapid counter-attacking of France.
As the game opened up and Croatia pressed high, they left gaps. Throughout the tournament, Croatia’s midfield has been both their strength and their weakness. Rakitic and Modric can keep the ball, dictate the tempo, and find passes and space like few others, but achieving a balance with them, either as a double pivot in an attacking line-up, or with Brozovic as an anchor, has been difficult. Again, Croatia left too much space between the two more creative midfielders, and Brozovic and the defence, which was an invitation to Pogba and Mbappe.
Pogba has the passing, Mbappe the pace and skill. Between them, they exploited Croatia’s need to push up in search of an equaliser, and between them, they scored the two goals that put this final beyond the reach of Zlatko Dalic’s side. Even an error from Lloris, as much a testament to Mandzukic’s relentless energy and pressing as the goalkeeper’s ill judgment, did not unsettle France. They fell back deeper in their 4-4-2 shape, until Nabil Fekir’s introduction allowed them to carry and hold the ball a little more up front.
So France win the 2018 World Cup, certainly the most exciting and enjoyable one this author can remember. A counter-attacking side, resilient and, at times, uninspiring in when asked to break sides down, but utterly lethal when breaking at pace, France were deserved winners in a tournament where too many big sides failed to deliver. Deschamps, who joins that most elite of clubs, having won the trophy as a player and manager, steered his team to some memorable victories, mostly by placing his trust in a sound defensive system and trusting that Mbappe and Pogba would unlock defences when the opportunity arose. They did, and it has been their World Cup. And what a brilliant one, too.
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