France opened their 2018 World Cup campaign on Saturday morning against Australia – but it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Euro 2016 finalists.
The favourites of many to lift the trophy next month, Didier Deschamps’ failed to live up to that tag and, although they can be happy with the three points, the manner of their performance should worry manager Didier Deschamps and bring his tactics to the forefront again.
So what did we learn from a tale of VAR, a ridiculous handball and a fortuitous winner?
France’s performance was nowhere near the level of World Cup favourites
France can count themselves lucky to have emerged from Kazan with three points, as a draw would not have been a harsh result on Les Bleus. They were disjointed for almost the entire match, and moving the ball between the different channels seemed to be a chore at times.
The full-backs, albeit making their competitive debuts, didn’t offer an awful lot, the central defensive partnership of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane looked devoid of concentration, Corentin Tolisso had a nightmare, Paul Pogba – for whom this system was built around here – didn’t quite justify that (aside from some bright flashes), and the front three looked lively but with little in the way of end product to show for it.
Aside from standout performer N’Golo Kante, every one of those French players needs to step up at least one level going forward.
Didier Deschamps’ tactics still have to be called into question
Finding a balanced system that maximises the talents of his star players is an unenviable task, but it’s patently obvious by now that Didier Deschamps is not getting the best from this team. There’s a level of tactical guesswork at play here that, if it looks of against Australia, is going to look woefully inept against the likes of Brazil and Germany.
The manager’s decision-making in the middle of the match was poor, the 4-3-3 formation choice in hindsight looks to have been the wrong one (and designed to pander to certain players when the system should have been more important) and one still gets the sense that France’s prospects of winning this competition would be greatly improved but for the manager.
Six years into the job and still seemingly throwing tactical systems at a dartboard. Oh, for a Lopetegui-style ‘scandal’ right now…
Australia should take confidence from their performance
Seen as the unfortunate whipping boys from a tough group, Australi’s performance against the group favourites suggested the Socceroos are to make much more of an impact than simply making up the numbers.
They were confident, never let the occasion or opposition get to them and looked dangerous from set pieces. With Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic pulling the strings in midfield, they certainly have the tools to cause problems for Denmark and Peru in their next games – that they will probably have the ball in those fixtures, therefore, will probably be a positive.
If the defence can stay as strong against the likes of Christian Eriksen and Jefferson Farfan as they were against Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, then this group could be a lot tighter than people might have originally thought.
Aaron Mooy was the standout playmaker in midfield
Of anyone on that pitch, Mooy least deserved to be on the losing side. The Huddersfield midfielder bossed the centre of the pitch, playing a number of key passes and being at the centre of everything good about the Australian play – doubly impressive given the calibre of the French midfield with which he was jistling for space.
The Huddersfield man will expect to see a lot more of the ball along the ground in the next two matches, and on this performance, he will be more than up to the challenge. Premier League audiences will already know all about the 27-year-old and what he can bring to the table, and both he and Rogic will be called upon to help the Socceroos build on this encouraging display.
VAR at the centre of attention again
We’re at the stage now where every single VAR call is considered a point of controversy, as by now people are so firmly entrenched in their opinion on it that it will either be a welcome addition to the game or one of the worst things to ever happen to football.
Here, it worked. The referee had made a decision, the VAR gantry asked him to check the footage and reconsider (though the 90-second delay between the two was probably too long), the official saw the incident from several different angles and ultimately reconsidered. It was a quick process and relatively painless in terms of match-flow.
The issue then becomes one of the referee making the right call or not. That is a human call, as pretty much all referee decisions are, and the issue of subjectivity should be at the forefront at this, not VAR. Regardless of whether the ref made the right call or not, that is on him. VAR has come in for plenty of criticism over the past twelve months but this, as a practice, is an example of it being used perfectly.