MOSCOW (Reuters) - Despite having the most talented squad at the World Cup, France have made it to Sunday’s final against Croatia by embracing pragmatism over adventure, subsuming their individual flair for the collective benefit.
The 1998 winners have not blazed their way to a third final in 20 years. Instead, their path has been a calculated shuffle, with coach Didier Deschamps abandoning plans for a free-flowing side in favor of a no-frills but highly effective winning machine that has kept four clean sheets in six games.
France’s only truly impressive display in Russia was their epic 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16, when they cut through Jorge Sampaoli’s disheveled side on the counter-attack as Kylian Mbappe used his frightening power and pace to devastating effect.
That thriller was followed by solid 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarter-finals and a slender 1-0 victory over Belgium in the semis. In both games they found an opening from a set piece and then sat back, ceded possession, stayed solid and looked to pick their opponents off on the break.
It has not been the sweeping display many believe the team are capable of, but it has been good enough to take them to a second consecutive major tournament final and Deschamps has altered his strategy to get them there.
The captain of the 1998 side who was nicknamed the water carrier, Deschamps appeared to have ambitious plans for France when he picked speedy winger Ousmane Dembele in a front three in their opener against Australia and benched the powerful but ungraceful Olivier Giroud.
But with his plan falling flat and his side drawing 1-1 midway through the second half, Deschamps reverted to type, bringing on Giroud for Dembele and replacing Corentin Tolisso with the more experienced Blaise Matuidi.
The team instantly had more balance and grabbed a 2-1 win with a scrappy deflected goal.
Deschamps has largely stuck with the same side since, and the key to his strategy has been his ability to convince flair players like Paul Pogba to take on extra defensive duties.
Assisted by the tireless N’Golo Kante, the once most expensive player in the world has limited his attacking tendencies to construct a formidable shield in front of the defense.
Deschamps called the Manchester United man’s display against Belgium in the semi-final win “monstrous”. Pogba, meanwhile, said he was happy to oblige his coach’s requests in order to win football’s biggest prize.
“I want to win this World Cup and to do that you have to make sacrifices. Defending isn’t my strong point, I’m not Kante, but I’ll happily do it. I have grown up and matured,” he said.
France’s defense consists of the highly capable center back pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, key players for Spanish aristocrats Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively and who each broke the deadlock in tight knockout games.
Varane’s powerful header from a freekick opened up an unforgiving Uruguay side, while Umtiti’s glancing nod proved the difference against Belgium.
Both deliveries came from Antoine Griezmann, the top scorer at Euro 2016 who has enjoyed little freedom in attack but who has proved just as effective in other ways.
The background of France’s two full backs is another sign of the durability of Deschamps’ side. Both Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have plenty of experience playing in central defense, meaning they do not madly commit themselves forward.
Both have proved highly useful in attack, though: Pavard struck a sensational equalizer against Argentina, striking first time a pass made by Hernandez.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge