France won the World Cup but weren’t able to escape criticism for the style in which they made it happen. Those arguments bypass consideration that Les Bleus probably rarely felt the need to show off or risk too much going forward because they were almost never forced to play from behind. Using unique tools in STATS Edge to look at the one instance in which they did, it’s clear gorgeous football is well within their repertoire. Their opposition just rarely made them resort to what we all wanted more of.
It’s safe to say the celebrated Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wouldn’t have cared much for this French team’s way of winning the World Cup, and not only because they denied his country a semifinal appearance.
He wouldn’t have seen France’s play as overly enjoyable to consume from the perspective of a fan, one he self-described later in life in Football in Sun and Shadow: “I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Les Bleus had their dazzling moments – Kylian Mbappe’s bursts and Benjamin Pavard’s golazo, to name a few. But Didier Deschamps and his players were occasionally criticised for conservative football, a conversation which reached its height after eliminating Belgium in the semifinals.
The special moments France did produce will be played for years to come, so here, we’re going to take a look back at the finer details of what led to one of those moments and how, when made to, France played the kind of football their critics craved. And what it tells us is those critics might not have been considering game context as they should have been.
Using the STATS Edge Ball-in-Play feature, we can watch nine minutes of the France-Argentina Round of 16 match in about three and a half minutes. This was a key time in the match after Argentina took a 2-1 lead in the 48th minute, and it’s the only time in the tournament France trailed. Pay attention to just how little of the ball Argentina have during this segment of a match in which Messi and Co. totaled 60 percent possession. There might be no better example of how dynamic France were in terms of simply switching it on when necessary:
When Spain won the 2010 World Cup, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta combined for 90 build up and sustained threat involvements in their 1-0 win over the Netherlands. Oranje managed 83 for the entire team. It wasn’t even a particularly impressive possession-based match for that Spain team compared to others in the tournament. They trailed for 42 minutes in their opening-match loss to Switzerland and never fell behind again, yet carried on in that signature style.
In 2014, Germany weren’t quite deploying that tiki-taka take on the world’s game, but they navigated their seven matches with possession-based styles coming in well above tournament averages. They trailed for eight minutes yet were German through and through with the way they continued going forward and delivering balls into the box.
France are champions four years later after being perfectly content to have less of the ball than their predecessors and neutralise opponent midfields with players like N’Golo Kante. All the while many of the tournament’s top possession-based teams struggled as set plays, penalties and the occasional counter attack ruled. France trailed for nine minutes, seeming to dare their opponents to make them exert.
Comparing a few teams with France on the surface, Belgians such as Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard weren’t necessarily wrong. France scored plenty, but they didn’t create many chances compared to others in terms of expected goals, and they didn’t go out of their way to have the ball:
What this tells us is France were efficient with an expected goal plus-minus of +1.07 per match. Within STATS Edge, if we were to click on France’s shots, we’d see video results of some serious finishing against Croatia, despite being outshot 15-8.
Croatia for the tournament were a different team than France, but what should stand out most here is they weren’t quite as clinical, though they too outperformed their expected goals:
Brazil are an example of a side that created plenty of chances and had plenty of the ball, but didn’t convert:
And Argentina were a side that had the ball even more but created little:
STATS Playing Styles allows us to go deeper, and it’s another video tool within Edge that show percent values of certain styles compared to a tournament average expressed by the dashed line at zero percent:
Selecting any of those styles for France or their opponent immediately returns corresponding video results. Compare French styles to those of Germany, and at first it may look as if the 2014 champions were a dominant side that got unlucky this year:
But anyone who watched Germany knows they were burned by the counter, whereas France’s style didn’t allow it, and that’s backed up by the styles of the opponents of each. Which brings us to the not so simple, yet often overlooked matter of winning the ball, which France did compared to their opponents:
Within Edge, all of these data points are linked to video, which makes it simple to single out some of the unsexy moments that made France less noticeably dangerous. In the following segment, N’Golo Kante at once wins a 50-50 ball against Kevin De Bruyne, and with the same touch sets up a shot from distance for Blaise Matuidi. It’s not a play that’s going to find its way into history as part of the World Cup-winning highlights, but it’s part of what made France successful:
That might not be the kind of methodical attacking football critics wanted, but it’s attacking football nonetheless.
France’s response to not playing quite the level of “beautiful” attacking football opponents and detractors wanted to see, it seemed all tournament long, was wordless but screamed: Make us.
And the truth is, no one could. There’s something beautiful about that, too.