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France vs Belgium, World Cup 2018: How Didier Deschamps won the great tactical battle where tactics never mattered

Deschamps and Roberto Martinez are both facilitators as much as they are tacticians, with France’s squad depth ultimately proving too strong in St Petersburg.

Like Che Guevara or Caligula, Didier Deschamps’ nickname was never intended to be complimentary. “You can find players like Deschamps on every street corner,” Eric Cantona spat ahead of a match between Manchester United and Juventus in 1996.

“Deschamps gets by because he always gives 100 per cent, but he will never be anything more than a water carrier.”
Deschamps however ended up adopting the moniker – “every team needs its water carriers,” he later mused – taking pride in how he hard he worked to win possession for his team, before passing the ball forward to his more creative colleagues. The nickname neatly surmises his management style, too. Deschamps’ biggest challenge has never been what system his team plays, but exactly how he condenses so much talent into one starting XI. He is as much a facilitator as a tactician. Winning is his only concern.

Roberto Martínez is in a similar position, of course. Like France, Belgium have a squad rich with ability across a wide range of different positons. And like France under Deschamps, Belgium under Martínez have frequently played within themselves, flattering to deceive, struggling to carve out a cohesive identity under the weight of so many superstar egos.

It was a problem that still threatened to cripple this talented team as recently as last month, when Belgium were held to a deathly dull goalless draw in a World Cup warm-up against a poor Portugal side shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo. Belgium were muddled, sluggish going forward and a mess at the back, and they were jeered off at full-time. “It wasn’t bad, but we could do better,” was Kevin De Bruyne’s rather gracious post-match assessment.

But against Brazil last week, everything changed. To the sound of some 11.35 million eyebrows raising in unison back home in Belgium, Martínez dropped Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens for the decidedly less glamorous Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, as well as moving Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne out of their favoured positions. And it worked. Martínez may not have had his best eleven players on the pitch – but Belgium looked all the better for it

It was the boldest tactical decision we have yet seen at this World Cup, and one which set up this semi-final perfectly. At such an advanced stage in the tournament Martínez had demonstrated he was finally willing to compromise on his famously unyielding vision of how best to win a football match – ready to cede possession with the introduction of a Fellaini – Axel Witsel midfield pivot, and ready to prioritise defence over attack. It was a pragmatic move that Deschamps himself would have been proud of.

This then was a meeting between the two most talented teams left in the tournament, with arguably the two most divisive managers, very much still in the process of how to best extract the best from their squads. And it was a meeting decisively won by Deschamps.

That eye-catching win over Argentina aside, this was yet another victory where France arrived and got the job done. There were a few flashes of the fireworks they can produce – Kylian Mbappé’s outrageous backheeled through-ball to Oliver Giroud a case in point – but for the most part this was France at their most functional. Even their goal was exceptionally measured: a third set-piece goal to take them level with tournament leaders England.

The fact that they can keep winning in this fashion, with so much attacking talent left on the bench – Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembélé, Nabil Fekir, Florian Thauvin – perhaps best illustrates how they are the best team in the world. They are winners with so much in reserve, and Deschamps deserves credit for knowing how best to ease off the handbrake while securing the results required to progress.

It is a lesson Martínez would do well to learn. Against Brazil he delivered an entirely unexpected tactical masterplan but here the changes he made to his starting XI failed to deliver. Mousa Dembélé struggled against Paul Pogba in midfield. Romelu Lukaku was blunt back in a central position. And moved back into midfield, De Bruyne was restricted to a role on the margins as he was earlier into the tournament.

Neither man sprang any genuine tactical shocks, instead Deschamps was the manager who better facilitated the talent he had at his disposal. Once again Deschamps has succeeded in strangling the life from a game with his team playing effectively, if not excitingly. And so much more than Martínez, Deschamps appeared the man with a better understanding of how best to deploy his finest talents. Unlike Lukaku, Mbappé was not lost amidst the cut and thrust of this slow burn semi-final.

Again Deschamps proved that he is a water-carrier manager, albeit one now appears destined for the World Cup triumph he enjoyed as a player. Cantona’s insult has never rung truer

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