It was never part of the plan for Didier Deschamps to unveil a gambler’s instinct. France’s manager reads from a pragmatic playbook. When he was putting the finishing touches to his tactical preparations for this contest, Deschamps never could have imagined that Kylian Mbappé would have been standing over a penalty with two minutes of extra-time remaining, readying himself to rescue France for a second time and become the first player to score a hat-trick in a men’s World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966.
Everything had spiralled out of control, Argentina’s emotion trumping French cool. Caution? Organisation? Waiting for moments to strike on the break? Forget it. Lionel Messi had given Argentina a 3-2 lead and France needed something extraordinary.
Of course, fairytale endings are often ripped up when Mbappé grabs the script. Even Messi could feel the narrative slipping away as Mbappé stirred towards the end of normal time, a two-goal lead vanishing, the story changing from Argentinian fantasy to France establishing themselves as one of the greatest teams of all time.
How to make sense of it all? France, flu-ridden and misshapen, were barely with us for the first 79 minutes. They lost it once, fought back from 2-0 down, lost it again and equalised again when the astonishing Mbappé converted his second penalty.
By the end Mbappé had the Golden Boot. Not the trophy, though. That belonged to Messi, which felt right. Argentina were the more complete team. France did not deserve to escape and the harsh reality is that Deschamps must reflect on the meek way his team started. It finished with a penalty shootout; really, though, France lost it during a wretched opening.
The deposed world champions were outclassed during the first half. It had been a choke, a collective and individual capitulation, a tactical and psychological failure. If ever there was a moment for Deschamps to roll the dice this was it.
Drastic action was necessary after Ángel Di María made it 2-0 to Argentina. After watching his team arrive late to every loose ball and play as if they would rather have been somewhere else during the first 41 minutes, something snapped in Deschamps.
The desperation of the double change followed. In truth Deschamps could have replaced the lot of them. As it was, two numbers went up on the fourth official’s board: those of Ousmane Dembélé and Olivier Giroud. They were the fall guys who had to endure the humiliation of a premature exit from the biggest game of all.
It was hard to argue. Giroud angrily kicked a bottle when he reached the bench, but he had landed no blows on Argentina’s centre-backs. As for Dembélé, he had started the evening by letting a pass run out for a throw-in. After doing so well to force his way back into the France team, the Barcelona winger froze. Much had been made of Dembélé’s improved work ethic before the game. But he is not a defender, as he demonstrated when he lost Di María, naively fouled the winger and presented Messi with the chance to open the scoring from the spot.
That sense of panic was unlike France. They did not muster a shot in the first half. Antoine Griezmann and the hapless Theo Hernandez conceded possession in dangerous positions inside the first 10 minutes. Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot got nowhere near Messi in midfield.
Meanwhile Mbappé was hurting his own team rather than Argentina. The issue is that the 23-year-old’s talent gives him permission to cheat in a tactical sense. Much like Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, Mbappé holds a high position when France lose the ball and waits for counterattacking opportunities. But the issues with that approach were evident when the forward let Achraf Hakimi charge forward from right-back during France’s semi-final against Morocco. Order was restored only when Deschamps took Giroud off for Marcus Thuram, who went to the left, and put Mbappé in the middle.
Deschamps will wonder if that should have been the play from the start. Mbappé never tracked back on the left to help Hernandez with Messi, and was more dangerous when Thuram came on. Randal Kolo Muani, who would win the penalty for Mbappé’s first goal, offered more drive than Dembélé.
Yet it was a response to Argentina seizing the initiative. Deschamps had been thrown by Lionel Scaloni adding width to his team by starting Di María, who hung out on the left and tormented Jules Koundé.
This will inform criticism of Deschamps. France are often spoken of in grudging terms. They are clinical and cold, surgical and precise, pragmatic rather than flamboyant. They rely on moments, on flashes, sometimes even on opponents beating themselves.
What often gets forgotten is that France can play. They were missing key players but their depth remains enviable. After 71 minutes Deschamps turned to his bench again, introducing Eduardo Camavinga and Kingsley Coman, who sparked the move that led to Mbappé’s spectacular second goal by barging Messi off the ball.
France almost went into overdrive at 2-2. Even so, it is not how Deschamps wanted to win. He wanted an early goal, perhaps from a set piece, then maybe another on the break. Two-nil would have been nice. Deschamps would have hated a desperate and top-heavy France losing their identity and balance in midfield, their adrenaline levels dipped during extra-time, Messi running riot.
The question is whether Deschamps needs to send his team to play with more authority from the start. All tournament there has been a sense of France doing just enough. They were fortunate to get away with sitting on 1-0 leads against England and Morocco. In the end their luck ran out. It was their punishment for waiting too long to let their talent reveal itself.