Friday 20 July 2018

Contrasting styles will go head to head in semi-final

France coach Didier Deschamps. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters
France coach Didier Deschamps. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Miguel Delaney

Although his side had gone yet another game without conceding, Didier Deschamps was willing to concede a point.

"We played better, but it was not the perfect match," the French manager said after the surprisingly routine 2-0 quarter-final win over Uruguay. "There were technical imperfections. We can always play better."

Deschamps didn't quite mean the last five words in the way they came out, but it's true. Under his management, France always feel like they can be much better; like they're playing within themselves; like he can never figure out a formation to actually enhance their abundant talent.

The lingering question with the French is whether they're anywhere near as good as they can be.

The pertinent question for this World Cup, however, is whether France are already good enough.

That is not to say it is a weak competition, or anything of the sort. As frustrating as it is to see France's brilliant attackers trudge through games when it is so easy to envisage them triumphantly linking up, it does bring another quality. The lack of adventure does allow for a lot of security, with the side safe in the knowledge there is still sufficient quality to nick games and get them through.

Even if that feels like it is underwhelming for a squad of such outstanding talent, it is not to be sniffed at. It is what Germany have perfected for decades, that persistence that permeated through to this new generation, until they evidently had far too much faith in their talent in this World Cup.

It is why there was one very impressive aspect of the win over Uruguay, even if most of it was rather turgid. At this stage four years ago, France were playing the role of Uruguay, as they went out so meekly to Germany. This time, they were the Germans.

It was distilled in how Raphael Varane was the player displaying his mettle to score the header from a set-piece, rather than showing his naivety when failing to defend, as precisely happened with Mats Hummels in 2014. This was something else Deschamps conceded in his press conference.

"I'm happy for Raphael, he has gained four years of experience, these players have grown, have more maturity and baggage. That is necessary."

It also means they have the necessary experience.

One other lingering question with Deschamps, however, is whether he actually has any kind of core philosophy or idea as a manager or all of this is just a photocopied continuation of what he knew is a player.

It is impossible not to notice the parallels with his 1998 side, particularly that defensive solidity, but then the feeling remains that he seems to be placing the attackers on top of that with a loose plan for how they should play, rather than any deeper approach. Hence this array of curiously disconnected displays.

The semi-final will be something of a case study in that regard, given it involves two teams and managers of such contrasts. A former player who won it all, Deschamps appears willing to sacrifice fluidity in attack to reinforce solidity in defence, while Roberto Martinez is most concerned with the co-ordination of his own richly talented forwards.

On Tuesday, France may not play better, but we may get an answer on whether this approach is for the best.


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