There is no doubting the magnitude to which Kylian Mbappé announced himself on the world stage on Saturday afternoon, scoring a brace and winning a penalty in an incandescent performance that has elicited comparisons to Michael Owen in his pomp and Pelé. Even those who have tracked Mbappé’s career closely from his earliest forays into the first team at Monaco could never have predicted this, despite his strong performances in France’s recent set of friendlies. However, for as much as Mbappé lit up the pitch in Kazan, what allowed to him succeed on such a momentous occasion is not perhaps quite so readily apparent and deserves a thorough analysis.
Didier Deschamps has developed a reputation over the course of his time in charge of France as not only being a pragmatist, but also one largely wedded to playing a 4-3-3. Yes, a 4-4-2 was used to great success in the European Championships two years ago, but one still had the sense that many players, notably Paul Pogba, were being, if not mis-used, then not allowed to express themselves to the extent of their talents. Pogba has never seemed to chafe at being used in a more defensive role, but one consistently had the feeling that he struggled to find the balance in this role compared to his time at Juventus.
In the intervening two years, Deschamps has delivered a set of uneven performances but has also seen a fair amount of succession ahead of this tournament, with the likes of Dimitri Payet, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna all either retired or unavailable through injury. The players brought into replace these individuals have begun to impress but are still (Benjamin Pavard’s stunning strike aside) largely still finding their feet with the senior side. The exception that proves the rule, of course, is Mbappé, who has wasted little time in exerting his considerable influence on a side of players whose experience outweighs his own by degrees.
On Saturday, then, Deschamps delivered what may have been his greatest moment as manager of France. Normally, the mandate of any tactical set up brought to bear in football at the highest level is to seek balance. Even the most-attack-minded formations are generally levelled off by a marauding full-back or a midfielder drifting wide to track an opponent’s run. On this occasion, however, France were having none of it, playing not as the 4-2-3-1 that the team sheet would have offered but rather as a bizarre asymmetric hybridised 4-4-2/4-3-3, with Blaise Matuidi playing not as a left winger but rather in the role that comes more naturally to him, as a left-sided central midfielder whose work-rate allows his more talented teammates the space necessary to operate.
On the opposite flank, nor was Mbappé playing as anything close to an orthodox winger, but rather the teenager was given an almost entirely free role, with Pogba, Pavard and N’Golo Kanté willingly picking up his slack. Able to cut inside or peel wide and create space for Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, he was simply superb and could have even perhaps done more with a bit more awareness from his teammates.
Here, Deschamps had recognised that, much as Mbappé’s time at Monaco, while he has vastly more experienced teammates (Griezmann, Pogba, Giroud), only in being given complete freedom, not only positionally but to be the focal point of attack, would his considerable gifts be given the space in which they could flourish. It was certainly a bold call to make to put that degree of pressure on such a young player, especially one who had come into this tournament perhaps slightly damaged by a stressful situation with his club team.
Mbappé easily put all that behind him, drawing on not only his own individual brilliance but the willingness of his teammates, under the aegis of Deschamps, to recognise how devastating he could be and subsume their own desires to facilitate his style of play. This is not to imply that Pogba and Griezmann were playing as water carriers, but as the far more recognisable names, at least in the world at large, it was they and not their impish teammate, who were expected to finally come good on their considerable promised at this tournament. For them to play in such a wholly selfless way was truly impressive to see and speaks volumes as to the evolution of this team as a group.
It’s not only that Deschamps has brought to bear this seemingly bizarre tactical formation and produced the motivation within the players to execute it properly, but that he has them thus in this way functioning as a team. The knock on France for at least the last two major tournaments is that the country produces a sublime collection of talents, but still plays a style of football too rooted in individualism rather than a collective mentality. However, with the current group, Deschamps has clearly turned that narrative on its head both on and off the pitch, with the will of the collective recognising the damage that Mbappé could do against a plodding Argentine back line and allowing the youngster, rather than one of the more experienced likes of Antoine Griezmann or Olivier Giroud to not only function as the team’s focal point but to be largely freed from his defensive responsibilities.
After the match, Deschamps further emphasized this newfound group ethos, telling the press, “There is an excellent mentality in this group and we did everything to go further. Since I am responsible for everything, particularly when it doesn’t go well I’m very proud. I’m very happy for them because they have been preparing themselves for weeks and months. We couldn’t miss it and we didn’t miss it.” It hardly may seem believable to see France’s execution and focus against Argentina as a planned turnabout after slinking into the knockout stage, but on the evidence on show on Saturday, it is difficult indeed to begrudge Deschamps this.
Looking ahead to the match against Uruguay, things will be much tougher. Oscar Washington Tabarez is clearly a manager with much more combined tactical and motivational nous than is Jorge Sampaoli, and has also arguably the best defence in the tournament, particularly in the form of the Atletico Madrid duo of Diego Godin and José Gimenez.
Thus, this feel-good story could be promptly turned on its head come Friday, but for one moment, at least, it’s surely no accident that France and their embattled manager are in good stead. After all, in tournament football, it is only results that are remembered, and thus far in Russia, Deschamps has delivered in an unparalleled manner.