LUSAIL, Qatar — After a World Cup where everything went pretty much according to plan until the final, France’s players experienced the biggest roller coaster of emotions on Sunday against Argentina and Lionel Messi. Down 2-0 in the first half, then up after Kylian Mbappe’s two-minute brace leveled the scores late on; down to a Messi goal in extra-time, but up again as Mbappe leveled once more with two minutes remaining. Then finally down in a sea of sorrow and regret after the penalty shootout as Argentina lifted the trophy.
Losing a World Cup final is always tough. It is even more cruel when it comes on penalties. The wound is too raw to think about what positives to take away from the tournament, but when they do, Didier Deschamps and his players will reflect on why the first 60 minutes of the final were such a disaster and why the following 50 were much better .
Such a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance from Deschamps’ men had not happened before at this tournament; it was actually the opposite. Aside from the second-string XI losing 1-0 to Tunisia in the final group game, France had been composed, ruthless and efficient throughout. But it seems the pressure of the final, the presence of the legendary Messi against them and the noisy support from the Argentine fans caused the team to lose their mojo and forget what had made them so good in Qatar.
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Argentina had a wonderful first half, scoring first from a Messi penalty and then following a fine move finished off by Angel Di Maria, but Deschamps will have to figure out exactly what happened to his side. Did he fail to prepare well enough? Did he get his tactics wrong and struggle to react after his team’s early struggles? Did the virus that hit the France camp during the week play a role and weaken the players physically?
There are a lot of questions to answer, but one thing is for sure: Since Deschamps took the France job in the summer of 2012, his team had never been dominated like this in a major tournament. Not by Germany in 2014 (1-0, World Cup quarterfinal), not by Portugal in 2016 (1-0, Euro 2016 final), not by Switzerland in 2021 (3-3, lost on penalties in Euro 2020 round of 16) . There have been some defeats in qualifying campaigns or the Nations League, but not in the same way Argentina controlled things in the first half. And certainly not in a game of this calibre.
France were sloppy in possession, second to every duel, lost every second ball, and looked devoid of any fight. Something had to change.
Dale Johnson recaps the refereeing decisions during Argentina’s win vs. France in the World Cup final.
For the first time in his managerial career, Deschamps substituted two players after 40 minutes — taking off winger Ousmane Dembele, whose foul had given Argentina a penalty for the first goal, and striker Olivier Giroud, who didn’t have much of the ball before coming off and looked frustrated. Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram came on and gave France a fighting chance in the second half, as the genius of Mbappe took over.
Without a shot until the 70th minute and chasing the game with time running out, the 4-2-4 that Deschamps put in place after Kingsley Coman replaced Antoine Griezmann to take up a position on the right wing — with Mbappe and Kolo Muani central and Thuram on the left — worked well to put Argentina under pressure.
When Kolo Muani broke away and won a penalty with little more than 10 minutes remaining, converted by Mbappe, France were sparked back into life. A minute later, Thuram provided the perfect lobbed assist for Mbappe’s brilliant second goal and the game was tied. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but the desire, the belief, was back, and that’s what the team have to remember going forward. France showed a lot of commitment after going 2-0 down, they didn’t panic, and what they lacked in their usual ruthlessness, they made up for with courage.
Extra-time saw another Messi-Mbappe back-and-forth of goals, but France could have won it in the dying seconds of the game as Kolo Muani’s shot was saved by Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
In the shootout, Messi and Mbappe kicked things off with their usual class before the pressure proved too much for Coman and Aurelien Tchouameni. They are young; they will learn. France’s young generation will get so much from this defeat, and the future is bright as long as lessons are learned. They will all be stronger in 18 months’ time for the Euros in Germany.
Maybe, at times, Deschamps’ minimalist style is not enough. With the players he has at his disposal, he can do more. Maybe going forward, Mbappe should play up front as a second striker, where he is the best against the top teams, rather than on the left wing.
France could have won this final, but on the balance of play they did deserve to lose it. Going into this game with a lot of ambition and confidence, they seemed surprised by how aggressive and well organized Argentina were. Yet, considering the players missing through injury (Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Christopher Nkunku, Presnel Kimpembe and Lucas Hernandez), the issues before the tournament around the French federation, as well as the illness doing the rounds at the hotel, the 2022 World Cup has been very positive for France.
On Tuesday, Mbappe will be 24. He may not have added another World Cup to his list of achievements, but he keeps breaking record after record. His eight goals in the tournament are one of the highest for a Golden Boot winner, while he is the only player in history to have scored four goals in World Cup finals and the second to net a hat trick in one — after England’s Sir Geoff Hurst in 1966.
Mbappe showed why he is the leader of this team, and while Messi was the superstar who eventually came out on top on the night, France’s future is in very safe hands.