France might have topped Group C unbeaten, but – playing against Australia, Peru and Denmark; none of whom are significant forces in the international game – they notched up a mere three goals in three matches.
Les Bleus “have yet to show anything to make us feel optimistic, to give us hope”, their 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly commented in The Guardian.
Indeed, France have so far shown lethargic attacking play, lacking any of the rapid creative moves and clinical passes that characterised their famous march to victory 20 years ago. In their first two matches, the players seemed to struggle to connect in their attempts to push forward. Then in the listless and goalless draw against Denmark on June 26, much of their tactical approach amounted to passing the ball sidewards.
Notably, the team’s supposed star striker, Athletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, has thus far displayed none of the protean prowess that brings results for his club.
Star anchorman Kanté
However, while Les Bleus are no longer among the favourites to take the trophy, they have shown themselves to be solid in crucial areas. Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud skilfully created space for the rest of the French attack in their 1-0 victory over Peru on June 21, distracting and intimidating the opponents’ defence with incessant darting runs. Meanwhile the goalscorer in that match, PSG’s Kylian Mbappé, has proven his worth as football’s most expensive teenager with a sometimes explosive creativity going forward.
Perhaps most importantly, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté has shown himself to be a fearsomely tough defensive midfielder, constantly anticipating opponents’ moves while tackling and intercepting with equal mastery. With these talents Kanté is well suited for the job of neutralising Messi, whose attacking flair was successfully cut off by the well-orchestrated defensive machinations of Croatia and Iceland.
That said, opposition tactics have not been the only factor limiting Messi. Much of Argentina’s attacking strategy seems to have rested on passing the ball to him and trusting in his well-known footballing genius.
But Messi is not Diego Maradona, whose particular gifts allowed him to carry whole matches for Argentina in the 1980s, as he dribbled his way to scoring with no assistance from his teammates. Rather, Messi has flourished under the Barcelona approach, in which the midfielders rapidly and relentlessly circulate the ball throughout their opponents’ half, thus giving him the space and freedom to deploy his ingenuity at will.
It seems that Argentina lack the pace for such tactics. With a median age of 30, theirs is the World Cup’s oldest squad. The team’s defensive midfield linchpin, 34-year old Javier Mascherano, appears to have lost the domineering menace with which he brought results for club and country alike. Indeed, he left Barcelona in January to play in the Chinese Super League, widely regarded as a bridge to retirement for has-been stars.
Similarly, the centerpiece of the Argentinean defence, Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi, looks too old and too slow at 30 to manage opponents’ full-throated attacking play. With Sevilla’s Gabriel Mercado to his right and Ajax’s Nicolás Tagliafico on his left – neither of whom have attracted the attention of top European clubs – Argentina’s three-man back line was ripped to shreds in their 3-0 thrashing by Croatia on June 21.
Yet Argentina have the means to upset Les Bleus. Flashes of brilliance were on display in their 2-1 victory against Nigeria, albeit against a weak opponent. Messi finally got on the World Cup scoresheet with a perfectly executed finish from Éver Banega’s long ball. Then Manchester United centre-back Marcos Rojo – drafted in to become the fourth man in Argentina’s defence – saved the team from crashing out of the tournament with a majestic 86th minute volley.
Nevertheless, for both sides, it remains to be seen whether such sporadic flares of excellence will be enough to get them far in the knockout stages – whichever of the two gets through the second round on Saturday.