It is tempting to call France the favourites to win the 2018 World Cup. They possess a squad that is as close as it gets to being truly complete and this was apparent in their semi-final against Belgium. Moreover, between them and Croatia, it’s France who are one of the proverbial ‘Big Strong Football Teams of the 21st century’. Listing out their former players is akin to doing a roll-call of some of the legends of the sport and pretty much the same could be said about the current squad in about ten years. Yet, one doesn’t need to take a microscopic look at the Croatians to know just how wrong this assumption of France’s outright superiority is.
Between them, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic – who have formed the core of the side – have won the Champions League four times, the Europa League once, four Spanish league titles, three Bundesliga titles and the Italian Serie A three times. Their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was an integral part of the Monaco squad that beat Paris St. Germain to the French league title and reached the Champions League semi-final in the 2016/17 season. None of these can be compared to a World Cup but the point to be made here is that a big-match situation is not an entirely alien concept to Croatia’s best players. The notion of France being outright favourites can be crumpled up and thrown in the dustbin.
France are fierce counter-attackers. Most of their goals in the knockouts, when not scored from set-pieces, have come from counters or attacks that have been quickly put together. Adjacently, they look ponderous when required to hold the ball and build attacks slowly. France failed to impress in their group stage matches against Australia and Peru because in both instances, they were allowed to keep the ball and had to build attacks instead of going direct.
Croatia, on the other hand like to hold the ball and press the opposition high up the pitch when they don’t have it. In their semi-final fixture, this pressing forced Jordan Pickford to resort to long balls so as to relieve the pressure. This eventually forced England to bypass Jordan Henderson and eventually, their forwards looked rather isolated. With the forward pressing high up, Croatia also made sure that they do not allow crosses from reaching Harry Kane. But such a tactic, in which a team looks to press when the ball is in the opposition half and load defenders in the box when it comes to dealing with crosses, leads to big gaps in midfield. England were wretched themselves and they could do nothing about it but Croatia can ill afford to do the same against France.
15 – Kylian Mbappé attempted 15 dribbles against Belgium 🇧🇪 (7 completed), highest tally for a French player in a World Cup match since Opta analyses the competition (since 1966). Hook. #FRABEL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/DM6D53S82b
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) 10 July 2018
Kylian Mbappe has shown previously in this tournament what he can do when given a relatively empty midfield to run through. His piercing run through the entire Argentine half of pitch before provoking a penalty is one of the many moments that are now part of this World Cup’s lore. He is a better finisher than the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard. Moreover, France will surely start target man Olivier Giroud, as they have in every knockout match in Russia.
A loose midfield would also be a hunting ground for Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. Hence, if Croatia use the same tactics as they did against England on Sunday, the powers that be over in Paris can book an open top bus for parading the World Cup trophy at halftime. To prevent something like this from happening, Croatia will have to press as a team and not allow the French to push their defensive line back.
It is also worth remembering that Croatia’s attacking threat can prove troublesome to France. Didier Deschamps has laid his team out in variations of a 4-2-3-1 in the knockouts with either N’Golo Kante or Pogba assisting Benjamin Pavard on the right due to Mbappe’s tendency to stay forward. Ivan Perisic is the man who will be operating in that area and he often keeps switching places with his counterpart on the right, Ante Rebic. They are expected to continue with this in the final and in that case, France will be very unhappy to see Perisic pulling Pogba or Kante away from the thick of the action in the midfield and give Modric and Rakitic space and time to orchestrate attacks. If they do choose to stay on those two players, France could end up playing into Croatia’s hands as their two wide midfielders would start running the show, which is exactly how the latter like to play. In this case, the back line of Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris will have a very busy night. Pogba has also been involved in defending crosses and so he too will be holed up in his own team’s box.
Tactics, though, would start losing their meaning once the match reaches the latter stages. The pressure of being in the dying minutes of a World Cup final sets in and no player, no matter how experienced or talented, can escape from it. Didier Deschamps and his opposite number Zlatko Dalic would hence like their team to take advantage early on. It would hence be unwise to miss the opening minutes.
In fact, it would be silly to miss any minute of this match.
It is the World Cup final.