Let’s be honest, we did not see it coming. When asked who would be lifting the famous World Cup trophy in Moscow on July 15th 2018: Germany, Brazil and Spain were the easy bets, with Belgium and France being the top outsiders. But none of us could see Croatia (who struggled in qualifications) playing the Final, and very few would have bet on Germany or Spain going home early, or on Russia making it to the quarter-finals. Difficult as well to imagine France lifting the trophy after their difficult first round. And yet, here we are… so the question is: how did we not see it coming? If we were looking, many signs were actually pointing in that direction.
There are more than one way to play (and win)
First, the so-called “malediction of the defending champion” who sent home Germany after the first round, is actually a trend: Spain 2014, Italy 2010, France 2002… you name it! Not so surprising after all, as coaches who won a World Cup tend to feel obliged to owe their winning players a second round. These players can feel overconfident whereas their opponents get extra motivation at the idea of facing the defending champion.
Second, like all good things, Football (the most popular sport ever invented and it’s easy to see why) has the ability to reinvent itself constantly and we are just witnessing a new era. Whereas the late 2000s was dominated by the famous ball possession style of FC Barcelona, Spain (2008-2012), and to some extend Germany (2014), the trend is now to a more defensive style with fast and clinical counter attacks. Where Barcelona and Spain loved to drive their opponents crazy moving the ball from side to side and enjoying a 70% possession, the new top teams now wait back, often leaving possession to the other team, and project themselves vertically at high speed towards the goal. Zidane’s Real Madrid won the last 3 Champions Leagues like that (2016-2018), Portugal won the 2016 Euro Championship the same way with only 40% possession, and so did Belgium to send Neymar and his teammates home early. If France won the World Cup, it is first and foremost because they mastered this combination of good defence and fast and lethal counter attacks.
Like in Chess, there are many ways to win in Football and France just showed us that there is an alternative to Spain’s possession style. Just like Spain needed Iniesta, Xavi or Fabregas to be performant with the possession strategy, France needed to be confident in its defence and its ability to score with very few opportunity. But in fairness with Mbappe’s speed, Pogba and Griezmann technique and players like Kante, Varane or Lloris in the back, they had the team for it.
The importance of Management
What was probably underrated by statisticians and bookies, is also the importance of Management for succeeding in a tournament that lasted about 60 days. Past performance is not as important as the ability of a team to live together and to stay united for about 2 months. France learned this lesson the hard way in 2010, with its players going on strike in South Africa, after some egos went in the way of the team’s common objective. Likewise Neymar’s obsession to save Brazil against Belgium made him misjudge some situations, playing too selfishly when passing the ball was the best option, and simulating fouls with destroyed its reputation and the team’s. On the other side Didier Deschamps, the French coach, built a young team (25 years on average, the 2nd youngest to win a World Cup), without strong egos (Benzema and Rabiot were left home), and clearly designed to live well together through the tournament. He protected the players who were criticized by the media (Pogba, Grizemann, Lloris…) and they gave it back to him by delivering stunning performances in this tournament. Finally Deschamps also adapted to the situation, quickly abandoning his offensive 4-3-3 with Grizemann-Mbappe-Dembele, designed for ball posession and which gave such great results in the test matches, to come back to his more defenseive 4-2-3-1 with Giroud and Matuidi to solidify the team, after the difficult win against Australia in the first round.
Deschamps, who won the World Cup as France captain in 1998, is clearly a master strategist and a great leader, and all the credit to him to have spotted much better than us what were the key success factors to win this World Cup and to have built a strong team and strategy around them. In the end, maybe France’s win was predictable after all.