In the end, France were the last team standing – and they did it Didier Deschamps’ way.
Having taken a barrage of criticism from his own country’s media for weeks on end due to his team selection and style of play, Deschamps can now turn around and wave that prestigious World Cup trophy right in their dissenting faces.
The attitudes of some to France’s performance in Sunday’s final was bizarre, because it was nothing out of the ordinary for this team. Deschamps is a manager who, by now, is notorious for being a safe, conservative manager and there was simply no way that he was going to go against type in what was the biggest match of his coaching career.
They rode their luck, of course, and there was an element of fortune in the first half with a few refereeing decisions, but looking back over the tournament it’s hard to argue with France’s place at the top of the podium.
To that end, despite the cavalcade of attacking and creative stars at his disposal, the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba (with the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Nabil Fekir on the bench), this was never going to be a swashbuckling display of ruthlessness.
The records will show that they scored four goals each against Argentina and Croatia and yet, for all of their goalscoring, neither match really played out as the expansive bombastic show of attacking force that could be inferred from those scorelines.
Functionality is, and always has been, the key characteristic of this France team.
And yet, there was always a sense that this France team could rise above that if it needed to. Deschamps is a ‘safety first’ manager but that level of conservatism always only ever seemed to be the Plan A rather than the only option available to him.
Against Argentina, for example, they responded to going 2-1 down by pushing forward and taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Once they had fully reasserted their dominance (less than fifteen minutes later), they were able to settle back into their usual game plan.
So the question then has to be asked, were France really that dull and conservative or were they just maintaining control of the situation? Few, if any, sides in Russia could match Les Bleus in terms of how they coolly handled any given match they were in so the evidence points largely to the latter.
As much as their forward line had been lauded (even Olivier Giroud, who somehow managed to get through the entire tournament without having a single shot on target), it was in their defence and midfield that the nucleus of their success was formed.
Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane, who would be well used to pressure and success with respective club sides Barcelona and Real Madrid, came together to form an impressive defensive and impenetrable spine in central defence, while the relatively inexperienced Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard were revelations in the full-back positions.
N’Golo Kante was his usual tenacious and energetic self in central midfield (the final aside), while Paul Pogba banished his selfish reputation by turning in a number of outstanding selfless displays as the Chelsea man’s partner.
That France were behind for a total of just nine minutes for the entirety of their campaign typifies that sense of outright control. They always seemed to have a higher level that they could reach, it’s just that the situation never really called for it. Putting in maximum effort at all times is one thing, but control and dominance mean that this isn’t always necessary.
It’s led to criticism from opposition players, usually in defeat. Thibaut Courtois and Dejan Lovren took their opportunity to dismiss France’s style of play having seen it up close, and yet that same style of play has earned them success.
It was rarely pretty, and there are still legitimate questions as to whether this style of play can be maintained going forward as the players continue to curb their more creative instincts, but the results in Russia speak for themselves.
There’s more than one way to win a World Cup, clearly, and in doing so, France will not be getting the plaudits that some of the more memorable winners down the years have been afforded.
However, that won’t matter to them or Deschamps – they got what they came to Russia for, and that’s all that they care about.