Much of the discussion in France throughout the summer has centred around how, or if, Didier Deschamps can squeeze a host of attacking talent into an effective unit. While Deschamps has drifted away from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and then a diamond before arriving back at 4-4-2, albeit a newly asymmetrical one, those behind Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappé and friends have enjoyed much more consistency. A resolute, physical display from France’s back four in overcoming a dogged, if Cavani-less, Uruguay underlines this, while Mbappé and Griezmann may be capable of carrying Les Bleus past Belgium to the final, it is the French defence that is fast-becoming the real star of the show.
Last summer as France thrashed Paraguay 5-0, saw off Sweden in a hard fought qualifier and beat England despite playing 45 minutes with ten men, Didier Deschamps’ defensive unit looked markedly different. Having proved crucial to Monaco’s glorious 2017 title win, marauding their way through an all-action Ligue 1 campaign, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé seemed ready to ensconce themselves at full-back for France for the foreseeable future. The width, balance and crossing ability they provided was seemingly crucial to Deschamps’ plans as both men started all three of those wins.
Deschamps’ centre back slots seemed a little less certain and, had it not been for Laurent Koscielny’s injury which immediately extinguished any hope of him travelling to Russia, that might still be the case. Seen as an important figure for the unity of what has in the past been a potentially combustible squad – a feeling underlined by Griezmann’s dismay as Koscielny sustained his Achilles issue against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final back in May – the Arsenal defender was the only one of himself, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane to play in each of those three matches roughly 12 months ago.
With the influence of the attack-minded Mendy and Sidibé, and in the latter’s case a proclivity to be exposed positionally, that potential back four perhaps marked the opposite end of the spectrum to that which has provided a unerring base for Les Bleus’ World Cup progress so far. With Mendy and Sidibé lacking in fitness, understudies Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez, both more versatile and natural defenders, have provided Deschamps with a more compact, bullish and combative rear guard.
Staying true to his schooling at Atleti under Diego Simeone, Hernandez has scrapped and niggled his way through the World Cup so far, winning few friends but remaining undeniably effective and arguably France’s most consistent player. Pavard meanwhile, having looked nervous against Australia, has grown into the tournament showing a defensive intelligence that blossomed as part of a Stuttgart back three during an impressive top half finish upon their return to the Bundesliga. The former Lille defender’s strike against Argentina remains a leading contender for goal of the tournament.
With the addition of Umtiti’s physicality, the beneficiary of Koscielny’s misfortune, it is France’s imposing defence that have proved most important to their success to date. Friday afternoon saw Umtiti and co comfortably marshalling an admittedly weakened Uruguay attack, aiding in making what was a worrying match-up for Les Bleus fans, Didier Deschamps underlining his concern over Uruguayan physicality in the build-up, a surprisingly comfortable ride. Varane in particular proved invaluable with a deft glancing header, giving France the lead in addition to using his pace and intelligence defensively to help prevent Luis Suarez from having a single shot all game.
Mile Jedinak’s penalty proved to be the only breach of the France defence in Group C while the 2-0 win over Uruguay became France’s third clean-sheet of the tournament after a dire 0-0 draw with Denmark and the holding of an aggressive Peruvian side at bay. Even two of the three goals conceded against Argentina were almost unpreventable as Lionel Messi’s shot deflected in off Gabriel Mercado and Angel Di Maria produced a screamer to beat Hugo Lloris from distance.
Despite the frugal nature of Deschamps’ defence, much credit must also go to the midfield. It’s difficult to look past midfield Chelsea sentinel N’Golo Kanté as France’s premier performer over the course of the tournament and perhaps even at Russia 2018 as a whole. Although his characteristically understated dominance of games is unlikely to prove enough to win the golden ball, given the deference attacking players are afforded, as Saturday’s L’Équipe sung; “les Bleus can congratulate themselves every day for having him with them”.
So crucial is Kanté’s dynamism, assuredness in possession and ability to nullify attacks before they become dangerous, that France’s hopes may largely rest on him gluing together what has evolved into a somewhat jagged, if effective, set up with Mbappé given far more freedom on the right flank than Blaise Matuidi or Corentin Tolisso on the left. Without Kanté, French success to this point may not have been possible.
Accentuating how robust France have become, their attacking trident remains a little flat-footed. Despite Mbappé’s explosive display against Argentina, quite possibly not his last in Russia, at 19, maintaining such a high level over 90 minutes remains a skill that the precociously talented striker is yet to master consistently. Despite three goals to far, accounted for by two penalties and Fernando Muslera’s mistake on Friday, a fatigued looking Antoine Griezmann is yet to grab this tournament by its collar as he did in Euro 2016’s latter stages.
Meanwhile, despite remaining crucial to the effectiveness of the team as a focal point and creating space for his colleagues, Olivier Giroud remains a little on the fringes and is yet to score. However, this may be something of an omen for France, neither Bernard Lacombe nor Stephane Guivarc’h scored in Les Bleus’ tournament wins of 1984 and 1998 respectively whilst filling similar facilitatory roles. Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba however have had quietly effective tournaments, complimenting Kanté with their own midfield intelligence, mobility and ability on the ball. Even Hugo Lloris has emerged stronger from pre-Russia questions, producing arguably the save of the tournament in spectacularly denying Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres last week.
With the Russia World Cup already 28 teams down, France might just be favourites of the final four to emerge victorious. However, if they are to squeeze past Belgium on Tuesday night and see off England or Croatia on Sunday evening, Deschamps may rely on less heralded components of his squad while maintaining the balance that has slowly emerged between the potentially devastating, if still inconsistent, forward line and a belligerent, combative, street-fighting rear-guard.
“Diabolique” read L’Équipe’s headline on Saturday morning, meaning ‘fiendish’ or ‘ruthless’. With France carefully navigating their way through the tournament so far, it might be the pragmatic ruthlessness of Lucas Hernandez and N’Golo Kanté that gets Didier Deschamps team to Sunday’s final rather than the flare of Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann as was hotly-awaited before the tournament began.