The conclusion to Michael Salter’s 2018 World Cup review…
Were France worthy winners of the tournament? Of course. They beat three very strong sides in the knockout phase, fair and square. And yet, in another of the many paradoxes of Russia 2018, they probably provided the worst-ever performance in a final by a World Cup winner.
It’s not unusual for teams to scrape ponderously through the opening round before going on to win a World Cup. Italy in 1982 come to mind, as do the much-criticised West German hosts of 1974. Even the Spanish tiki-taka virtuosos of 2010 took a while to get going, and in fact there were eerie forebodings of their 2018 failure in their first-up loss to Switzerland in South Africa.
Let there be no doubt: France were very ordinary in the opening round. The win over Australia, thanks to a debatable penalty and a freakish deflected goal, was cheap. Against Peru they were second-best for long periods, and the Denmark game is best forgotten. There was always the sense that they were relying on moments of inspiration from Mbappe and Griezmann, and although the team definitely improved during the knockouts, this pattern essentially continued.
What brought France to life, in a way, was Benjamin Pavard’s stunning volley against Argentina. It was psychologically important to have a different goalscorer, after the Griezmann-Mbappe axis had carried so much of the load, and they visibly lifted from that moment.
Plenty of parallels have been drawn between the 2018 champions and their 1998 predecessors: a main striker who didn’t score but whose contributions were somewhat undervalued (Giroud 2018, Guivarc’h 1998), a breakout star playing as a combination of winger and striker (Mbappe 2018, Henry 1998), et cetera. But another thing that deserves to be mentioned is the attacking contributions of the fullbacks in both teams, especially given that they did not field “genuine” wingers. Significantly, the cross for Pavard’s goal came from the other fullback, Lucas Hernandez.
In many ways, the “best” game the French played was their semi-final against Belgium. This was a high-quality game that could have gone either way, and would no doubt have gone the other way on a different day. But fair’s fair: the French faced their toughest defensive test against the elusive Eden Hazard and the inventive Kevin De Bruyne, and came through with flying colours.
In all their games thus far, however, the French had not really been subjected to an early press. It finally happened against Croatia, and the result was…panic.
Mbappe, for the first half-hour of the final, was invisible. Pavard was forced into error after error. Most notably of all, Ngolo Kante, one of the players of the tournament up to that point, had an utter nightmare at the base of midfield, even before his yellow card. His impression of a witches’ hat on the occasion of Ivan Perisic’s goal was a fair reflection of his sufferings in the first half overall.
And yet the French went into the sheds 2-1 ahead. It seemed inexplicable. But it was a very Russia 2018 story: a soft (possibly dubious) set-piece goal, and a VAR penalty.
Sadly for the Croatians, they simply ran out of legs in the second half, and Danijel Subasic’s doubtful fitness was exposed on the occasion of both of France’s second-half goals. Credit is due to Didier Deschamps too for the brave, necessary and ultimately perhaps decisive substitution of Steven Nzonzi for Kante: the Sevilla man added some desperately-needed bite and aerial presence to the French midfield.
So the final is likely to go down in history as a French romp, rather than the messy, lucky affair it really was. And it is this above all which puts Les Bleus of 2018 in a different category to the great World Cup-winning teams of the past. Although worthy winners, they were distinctly flawed ones, and their general style – the excessive reliance on two talented attackers, and on set-pieces – is not one which neutrals would want future World Cup contenders to copy too closely.
Croatia deserve enormous respect for their indomitable drive and team spirit throughout the event. Yes, they looked ordinary at times against both Denmark and Russia and needed penalties to get past both, but to win the semi-final in extra time after two previous 120-minute efforts was an outstanding achievement. Luka Modric, the most complete midfielder in the world, was a very deserving winner of the Golden Ball.
Belgium would have been worthy champions just as much as France. For once their splendid individual talents did manage to mesh, and they were involved in perhaps the tournament’s two best games: the magnificent Round of 16 clash with Japan, one of the finest matches in the tournament’s entire history, and the thrilling win over Brazil in the quarters. Third place was the least they deserved.
Gareth Southgate was honest enough in the aftermath to admit that although England finished in the top four, they were “not really a top-four team”. Although his team showed admirable commitment to attack at times, many of the old English problems remained: the lack of a true playmaker, the difficulty in playing out of defence, the absence of a Plan B. But they can be proud of their efforts in Russia. Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire established themselves as players of true international class.
Brazil were everyone’s favourites, but they fell short again. Was it a mistake to rely on Gabriel Jesus as a lone striker? Was Fagner the wrong choice at right-back? Did Neymar, once again, overshadow the rest of the team too much? Difficult to say. But they presented the best image of Brazilian football that we’ve seen at a World Cup since at least 1998, and for that at least Tite and his team should be commended.
AND, OF COURSE…
Australia? Predictably mediocre. One point, and no goals from open play, constitutes a pretty miserable showing. With Cahill, Jedinak, Milligan and perhaps Kruse on the way out, the team needs some regenerating in key areas, and it’s hard to see where the replacements are coming from, Daniel Arzani apart. That, and the deeply unimaginative appointment of Graham Arnold, suggests that there may be some lean times ahead.
– Michael Salter