The flower of youth bloomed sweet and true in the St. Petersburg night, as the France's free-wheeling youth turn Belgium's Golden Generation a shade of grey.
This game oozed premium talent, some of the finest footballers in the world at peak--or still rising, in the French case--on the planet’s biggest stage. It was a semi-final that felt like the final, and the first half brought references to the scintillating Italy-Germany semi in 2006 that belongs among the game’s best, or the epic tangle of Spain-Germany in 2010. The second half’s early goal almost surely dictated that the game wouldn’t reach the crescendoing fervor of those matches, but it had several thrilling moments even if Belgium eventually ran out of ideas and belief in a choppier second half.
Sometimes in football a game is won, but we all know the better team was on the losing end. Sometimes, like in the epic Brazil-Belgium match, one could argue who was better on the night but there was no doubt that Brazil was absolutely pounding on the door; it felt less like a convincing victory but more that the Reds had done a brilliant ‘just enough’ to win. And sometimes the better team on the night wins, and the end result creates a certain fog in which chapters of an epic are dropped, and the human propensity toward creating stories with inevitability creates mytho-history rather something approaching a true accounting. Let the record state that there was a swath of time that Belgium had France on the ropes, and Martinez had seemingly bamboozled Deschamps with his strange creation, but in looking for a moment of perfection or a lucky break, the Devils simply couldn’t find the details.
Belgium has given us quite a wild ride, with more goals from open play than any other (12), and the best set of team-combination goals of any squad (De Bruyne’s outside-of-the-foot cross to Lukaku and the two legendary counters). They featured the Cup’s best #9 (apologies to Harry, but the raft of PKs doesn’t count here), a top-3 dynamic dribbler in Eden Hazard, a master orchestrator in De Bruyne, a top-tier center back in Kompany (and in Alderweireld one who should be in the conversation), and arguably the Cup’s best keeper in Courtois (his stops v. Brazil were exceptional, as was today’s against Tolisso). This was an exceptional side and it’s unlikely that Belgium will have one to match it for a generation; spill a tear and a libation for a fan base that had every reason to believe. I think they go all the way against any other team but France, who were exquisitely matched to their strengths and especially attuned to their weaknesses, and whether anyone else could knock out Brazil is an open question. They were a tantalizing team to watch, but never really got into their full groove tonight, it would seem….Unless we walk back to the first 20 minutes, when a very different game presented itself.
The game opened with a seismic shot across the bow unlike any other I’ve witnessed at this level. At six seconds into the match, Kylian Mbappe pulled out a box cutter and nearly took out Belgium’s jugular.
A quick shimmy and stepover bamboozled Vertonghen, and then he was gone in a flash, outpacing the hot pursuit by Moussa Dembele. Six seconds later (!) he lays a squared cross ball right on to the charging Griezemann, who’s only diverted by a nick by the excellent Alderweireld. A little more nous by the Atletico man and he’s simply got to pick his corner. I will never see a first 14 seconds of a battle of titans like that again.
But after that, it was waves of Reds, crashing furiously upon the bow of the French defense, almost all the work of the dervish Eden Hazard, who continually dazzled with his acceleration, and left Benjamin Pavard grasping at air on several occasions.
There was the quick turn-and-shoot that whizzed just past the far post; the cut back to the right foot and smash that Varane somehow glanced over the bar; a fizzing run that beat both Pogba and Pavard but was swallowed by the end line; and a cross that a wobbling Umtiti shinned just past his own goalpost. Hazard was pure menace, and France played the bloodshot-eyed gambler, leaving Pavard on the island a few measures past sobriety. Fellaini continually surged into the seams, and Belgium got the ball wide to Chadli, whose crosses and corners ultimately failed the test. But let us remember that Belgian came-a-knockin’, and a goal would have changed the entire contest.
At the same time, France had little possession but surged forward in kinetic motion, continually prying at the back line. Umtiti picked out the hapless Giroud, whose flick in the air couldn’t quite get there; Pogba’s eye-of-the-needle through ball to Mbappe was swallowed by Courtois with the striker a lunge away; Pogba dinked again, a return to Giroud finding him off-balance; and Griezmann found Mbappe behind, only for his crossed ball to find Giroud once again unable to recalibrate his steps. I wouldn’t say France had them right where they wanted them; that was never the case when the ball was at Hazard’s feet. But they attacked with the ambusher’s spirit, always the marauders’ smash-and-grab at the ready. One could feel the irresistible lunar pull: Les Bleus had survived the onslaught, and as their midfield began to dispossess the Reds, the Belgian fabric was pulled hard at its edges, and one sensed a permanent deepening of frailties that dogged the Belgian side for a decade.
Belgium, the team of 1000 faces, had come tonight with one more curveball, trying to patch an original hole and a new one. With Thomas Meunier eligible, I would have jumped the shark and bet on Belgium. He was, as Thomas Pynchon noted of mushroom soup, the universal binding ingredient. He made a back 4 work--brilliantly against Brazil--and gave them one excellent side of the flank on a center back 3. They never had an answer for the left flank. Four years ago, one might remember that they played 4 centerbacks across the back, deploying Alderweireld and Vertonghen wide, surely the largest fullbacks every to start a World Cup Match. This has been a festering issue for years, as this 2016 report notes. Sometimes you can get away with that--in fact, against any team but Brazil or France in this cup, they probably could. With Meunier they dodged Brazil; without him, matched against the electric Mbappe, they were deep in the zone of choosing between bad options.
Martinez was golden with his tactical shift against Brazil, getting a great game from Fellaini, just enough from Chadli and Vertonghen on the flank, and the divine moment from the more advanced De Bruyne.
Here, he had to roll a different set of dice, loaded against him. The choice was to use three defensive mids but only one (the annointed Witsel) in that actual position. The formation was something of a debate amongst Belgo Footy Twitterati. I thought 3-2-3-2, but I think 3-2-4-1 was really the best description, but a damn lopsided 3-4-2-1, with Chadli asked to race back and forth whilst Hazard’s strides wouldn’t be wasted thusly. Fellaini would range high, as if the first 15 minutes were the last, and the nearly wholly neglected Moussa Dembele was rushed from Belgian football’s Siberia from Siberia to marshal the defense of Leningrad, from General Mbappe’s onslaught. To call this a tough ask is quite the understatement, and though Dembele had a few moments (especially sliding in to deny Giroud’s consummation of the supreme teamwork wondergoal), he proved unable to paper over the abyss, and his usually sure demeanor in possession unraveled in the brightest of lights. If you accept what seems reasonable--that Belgium have no quality left back--than Martinez was up the creek and Meunier was the paddle. In came Chadli, industrious and of good touch, but profligate on the cross. Once the set piece goal, once again expertly delivered by Griezmann, came through Umtiti, Belgium were up against it, and they couldn’t find their way back against a French side happy to bunker in and spring the counter.
De Bruyne didn’t have a De Bruyne day. Full stop. He completed 38/52 passes, a woeful percentage for a player of his quality, topped the dispossession charts (in a bad way), and despite a luscious clipped ball that Lukaku might have done better with--just over a jumping Umtiti--he just didn’t have his regular mojo working. Lukaku, too, struggled; outside of one ball played to his feet by Hazard in the first half, he received nothing in a dangerous area, and couldn’t find his way on to any crosses. The French midfield cut off supply and Varane and Umtiti did the rest.
Matuidi was, for me, the Man of the Match. He won more tackles (6/6 he entered) than anyone, had more interceptions than anyone, and was tied for the most fouls against, which didn’t include when Hazard wrecked him. He was just a little quicker to the ball than everyone else it seemed. I’ve doubted his quailty at this level (there’s a hell of a lot of talent on that bench), but he was fantastic today. He played quick passes into Giroud and Mbappe in the box, too, showing an appreciation for how swiftly the window of opportunity opens and shuts. Oh--and the explosive half volley in the first half--right on target though at Courtois--lifted humans from their couches, reminiscent of his 2015 blast against Serbia.
Pogba, Kante and Griezemann were all excellent in the middle third. As much as I’ve questioned Pogba’s penchant for looking too hard for the killer pass, I’ve appreciated his defense throughout and he both expended and sustained massive energy thwarting the Belgian attack. He was tasked with Fellaini when the latter was storming into the box in the first half, and was able to nick several balls through good intuition and positioning.
He ran back every time that a forward surge took him out of position; there’s none of the dilettante about Pogba when he’s defending, and for all stylish flair, social media, etc., that was an old school grind-it-out, whatever-it-takes win performance on the defensive half. On offense, he purred, choosing his options wisely.
Kante is what he is every game: the best defensive midfielder in the world. Maybe Wenger could have made something happen those last few years if he’d signed him. The two central men and Griezemann (and Matuidi at times) were exquisite in transition, calmly tapping the ball around the Belgians and springing a run at the Belgian defense. It was a gorgeous synchronicity, in the first half especially, almost effortless in undoing the Belgian probing and sending the Reds scurrying after the kid.
There are times the Kid Mbappe just seems to be a wholly superior athlete than the already excellent athletes he’s playing against (for fans of American football, the Randy Moss and Deion Sanders analogies seem appropriate). But Mbappe also showed that he can work in some small spaces, and he created multiple terrific chances when his runs off the ball weren’t 3-alarm panics for the Reds. Twice within a single minute (38-39) , he gathered the ball on the right and pushed inside, attracting three defenders. On the first, he queued up Griezeman, whose shot was blocked by a charging Dembele. Seconds later, a nearly precise replica of the setup emerged, and this time Pavard’s run was not picked up (he had been well tracked by Fellaini on the first run), and while Mbappe hypnotized four French defenders, he slipped the ball into Pavard’s inside run, only to be parried by a full Courtois spread. Today Mbappe showed that he doesn’t need acres of space, but can create his own--and goals for the taking for his teammates.
This was most telling on what could have been shortlisted for the greatest Cup goals of all time, with a Matuidi flick into Mbappe, whose double-touch blind backheel hit Giroud in stride, only to be well blocked by Dembele. Giroud’s been hapless but not to blame on this one (go to 1:12 on the video below).
At times, I’d say that Mbappe needed to be more selfish; at 67 minutes, after De Bruyne was dispossessed by Pogba, Mbappe led a 3 v. 3 fastbreak from the entire half a pitch ahead of him, and instead of driving it at Vertonghen, he can simply push into space and run by him) he went long across the pitch to Griezmann, whose laid off ball to Giroud was skied.
Ah...Giroud....If there’s a god of symmetry, England has to win so Sterling and Giroud can contest to see who can exorcise their goal-frame demons. Giroud now has 10 shots this tournament, none on goal. One imagines a 4-0 game if Lukaku and Giroud switch places. He offers them a target...but then does so little of substance with it. He struggles to track back (working hard but laboriously) fouls when he should be able to simply hold up the opposition, and is fully snakebit. French fans will well remember Stephane Guivarch, the 1998 French #9 who continually brought quizzical looks of “why? Can it be possible that we don’t have a better man for the job?” They won it anyway in ‘98, and it should be the case here, too. At this stage of his career (much like the young Christiano Ronaldo), Mbappe really has to be on the wing, so someone’s got to play #9. It is what it is, and it seems like France can figure out how to win without him doing anything of substance.
Finally, France got massive showings from Lloris, Varane, and Umtiti. The Lloris supersave on Alderweireld’s excellent turn-and-shoot changed everything--it had all the marks of the kind of goal that turns a match, and it would have reversed the compaction (and made the raft of centerbacks and defensive mids that Belgium deployed into a fortress).
Varane asks the question “who’s a better central defender in the world today?” with each performance. He was stellar in the air, delivered a textbook tackle on Hazard just as he was breaking through into the box, and managed to nudge Hazard’s first half-shot just over the bar.
I don’t think Lloris gets that one coming from behind the screen without that touch. Umtiti of course racked up the goal, a great flick off Griezmann’s delivery, and cleared a few crosses (one them a shank that left hearts-in-throats).
Hernandez had the much easier side to defend, but he did his job, though his crosses left much to be desired. Pavard had the unenviable task of trying to slow down Hazard, and he didn’t get much help early. He was overwhelmed, but let’s face it: no one can contain Hazard 1 v. 1. France really gambled on this, and came close to losing this. They won’t see anyone this good on the wings from either Croatia or England, certainly. As an interesting side note, both Pavard and Hernandez came into the side due to injuries (to Sidibe and Mendy, respectively). This left them with two backs that are less adept at attacking (particularly true on the left), but perhaps this sacrifice has given them the requisite shape for a high-stakes tournament.
Overall, I’d say that France has turned out to be an formidable defensive 11, with excellent chemistry in transition but who’ve really under-delivered with the final touch. In Mbappe, Pogba, and Griezmann, they have a trio of creators who can give us magical moments, and in Kante and Matuidi the worker bees who provide the platform. Still, with all that, it’s been two superb set pieces that have staked their leads in the last two wins rather than a consummated goal from regular play. Once they’re on top, they’re tight in the back and terrifying when playing into space. It will take something special to derail this train; maybe only the naivete of youth, perhaps, can delay the coronation. France and England are the tied for the second youngest teams, but France is just bursting with talent on the bench and knocking at the door (Adrien Rabiot is among the many excellent youth left at home). If they don't get in their way, and Mbappe bends toward Ronaldhinho (happy and direct but minus the partying) rather than Neymar's show-that's-bigger-than-the-game, they're in for an epic run.