Before his country’s thrilling win over Belgium on Thursday, Hugo Lloris said he could sense something special in the air around the France camp. That smelt like ordure by half-time in the Nations League semi-final, when Belgium were 2-0 up and Les Bleus, if not quite stinking out Turin, looked off-colour.
But by the time Theo Hernández arrowed in a fabulous last-minute goal in a 3-2 victory, it was fair to wonder whether we had witnessed not just an extraordinary turnaround, but a more substantial transformation of France. Are the world champions at last going to fulfil their potential?
That is a peculiar question to ask three years after France won the World Cup, and nine years into Didier Deschamps’ reign. It reflects the fact Deschamps has generally been a successful yet disappointing manager. He was brought in to restore order and win honours and he achieved that, but there has long been a suspicion that under someone else France could have won more – and won better.
To Deschamps’ credit he used his man-management skills and a basic gameplan to make France functional after he took over but, despite their extravagant attacking talent, they have seldom been flamboyant on his watch, mostly sparing rather than daring. After a previous meeting with Belgium – the 1-0 win in the 2018 World Cup semi-final – their opponents were not the only ones to grumble about the lack of French boldness.
Deschamps tends towards conservatism but it was interesting that even he claimed a long time after that match – in an interview with Eurosport this year – that his team had retreated much deeper than he would have wished, “but the players were happy with that and felt strong … What do you do?”
Knowing when to let players follow their instincts is part of what makes Deschamps a good man-manager, and can usually be enough when a team have solid defenders and exceptional counterattackers, but sometimes a manager could or should prod even gifted players to be more forward-thinking, to stimulate them to create, through his organisation, selections or words. That is especially true when he has several players who lean easily towards complacency.
The erosion of France’s defensive solidity since 2018 forced Deschamps to develop a way of playing more in opposing territory and triggering his players’ ingenuity. Recalling Karim Benzema was part of that but at Euro 2020 his team were a muddle, their uncertainty about themselves giving encouragement to opponents, as they surrendered a 3-1 lead against Switzerland in the last 16 and lost on penalties. Various players were at fault but the overriding conclusion was that Deschamps’ limitations had been exposed.
So he went into the Nations League denouement under more pressure that he has known for nearly a decade. If his team perform against Spain on Sunday evening like they did when fighting back against Belgium on Thursday, Deschamps could justifiably claim to be the manager to lead Les Bleus into a glorious new phase.
France’s chief failing in the first half on Thursday was their lack of intensity when trying to win back the ball, which helped Belgium to exploit a defence that remains wobbly even with three central defenders. Deschamps’ teams have rarely been aggressive pressers, especially when N’Golo Kanté is absent, but in the second half they seized the initiative, and suddenly Roberto Martínez’s team could not cope.
Paul Pogba led like few others can, and like one wishes he always would, imposing his unique combination of finesse, power and inventiveness. Most excitingly of all, the France front three of Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema and Antoine Greizmann, from whom so much was expected at the Euros, began combining with enchanting, deadly style.
Mbappé was particularly brilliant, even in the first half when many of his teammates sputtered. He needed a performance like this as much as his country did, because during the Euros he had been the most disappointing of the front three. He was even identified by some critics as the main reason the trio malfunctioned. The same formation worked well against Finland in September when Anthony Martial replaced Mbappé and he meshed neatly with the others while also – despite not being renowned for his defensive diligence – contributing more than Mbappé when France were out of possession.
Mbappé gave a characteristically intelligent interview to L’Équipe this week in which he spoke clearly about his career, the reasons why he requested a transfer to Real Madrid from PSG in the summer and why he would not sulk about PSG’s refusal to sell him. But that did not quell accusations that the 22-year-old had grown too big for his boots and had stopped developing his play. His performance against Belgium was the perfect response.
Belgium’s defenders had no answer to his speed, skill and sharpness and he took obvious pleasure not just in tormenting them but in colluding with Benzema and Griezmann. On Sunday Deschamps’ team will have to press even harder and smarter against Spain, who keep the ball better than Belgium. Do that and they could earn another title and show that the world champions have become great entertainers.