France now pushes forward to the knockout stage, but not without escaping criticism. It can be said that no French team is beyond harsh critique. Yet, Les Bleus faithful found true cause for concern with three low scoring and underwhelming matches in hand. After review, however, I find myself finding comfort in France’s most consistent player in the group stage —N’Golo Kanté.
Deschamps for obvious reasons, anchored the defence by starting Kanté, but it was not simply starting Kanté that created the spark I witnessed. His renowned ability to smoulder an opponent’s attack for 90 minutes without tire is nothing new. What I did notice, was Kanté becoming the star amongst stars.
Get French Football News rated Kanté’s first game a 6.5 in relation to Deschamps’ use of him. Kanté played deep and obstructed Australia’s counter-attacks and finished with what we have now come to know as a typical Kanté performance. After impressing with defensive play, Kanté served as the igniting fluid for many of France’s counter-attacks. However, after his first game, Kanté’s performance seemed hindered from further praise by his positioning on the field which left us wanting more.
“More” is precisely what Kanté provided in France’s next match against Peru. Kanté earned every bit of Get French Football News’s 8 rating against Peru by inserting himself any and everywhere during the match. The biggest surprise to me was not Kanté’s ability to lock down an impressive Peru attack, but rather, the attacking plays he ignited. Every play was started by the pit-bull that is N’Golo Kanté.
It felt as if only seconds would go by before another Kanté interception or tackle occurred followed by a run and perfectly placed pass from the tiny giant. I could not help but think he was not only the man of the match but the best player on the pitch in every facet of the game.
The last match in the group stage campaign came against a “solid” Denmark team who would also find themselves through. The criticism of France may have been justified with their performance. They produced stagnant football and struggled to put together any resemblance of a formidable attack befitting their squad’s talent. France seemed to be playing with ten men with a completely absent Dembélé. The only silver lining came with France’s substitutions. Fékir came on for an underwhelming Antoine Griezmann. Fékir then made an immediate impact with attacking effort, which seemed to be what the team was lacking—effort.
A simple want to get forward on the field and attack. Based on the inconsequential outcome of the match, it could be said that Denmark were satisfied with keeping France at bay. Even so, the midfield did well to cover up the sloppiness of the defence. It appeared that Kanté received the same holding orders as in the first match. Nzonzi may have been the only starting player on either side to show any class at all. At a minimum, Nzonzi made his contribution to France’s World Cup campaign and reassures the rest of us as Pogba’s backup.
It is unknown if Deschamps has made an internal decision to instruct the team to be more defensive today, with Matuidi again expected to play as a left-winger vs. Argentina. Not to say the defence has not struggled at times during these matches. But, the 4-2-3-1 system appears to be more defensively structured. The formations, selections, and the brilliance that Kanté is providing have fortified the defence. Even with poor solo performances from individual defenders, a lone penalty kick is the only goal scored against France in the 3 opening matches of the World Cup.
This would indicate that France’s World Cup 2018 tactical preparation is holding firm and the individual player performances will hopefully improve as France moves forward. I would also be negligent if I failed to mention that Pogba has been involved in every goal France has scored to this point. If there has been a change to France’s philosophy, then Pogba has also bought it. Pogba was smart in transition and has only burst forward when opportunities presented themselves. This midfield duo has been my personal highlight of the group stage for France.
France is no stranger to world-class defensive midfielders, but I must say Kanté is making his case for one of the best. To say Kanté is a defensive player would be a true statement but, does him no justice. Kanté is one of the most creative players on the pitch, by intercepting opponent attacks & spraying the ball wide; this “defensive creativity” is what has given birth to counter attacks. My case is that if France is to win this World Cup, they will need all of their stars, but as a team that best utilises their individual strengths. France have not clicked offensively, but if France can control the midfield in combination with the firepower and quality they have up front, they may have a chance to put Argentina on their back foot during counter attacks, which is a facet of the game that France have struggled with.
France and Argentina, alongside Germany, have been the most criticised teams at this year’s World Cup. However, in their own way, the former two have answered the call. Teams tend to play to the level of their opposition and the team who wants it more, typically wins. France have no excuse, as Mbappé famously said: “Age is not an excuse. You can play or, you cannot.” This World Cup is France’s chance, Griezmann’s chance, and Deschamps’ chance to prove that they deserve the comparisons to the 1998 team and that they once again belong in the hierarchy of top-tier footballing countries.