Tag: Corentin Tolisso

World Cup final: France have barely broken a sweat, but don’t write off Croatia

Gab Marcotti, Senior Writer ESPN FC

MOSCOW — View Sunday’s World Cup final the way most folks under the age of 30 consume sports — or so we’re told — and it’s entirely one-sided. When it comes to social media, viral highlight videos, cross-pollination with other celebrities, commercial endorsements and overall eyeball-catching power, it’s over before it has even begun.

France wins.

The entire Croatia starting XI has only a few million Instagram followers more than France midfielder Paul Pogba alone. Some of them don’t even have blue check marks (gasp!), while others don’t have accounts at all (double gasp!).

View the match from a different vantage point — pedigree — and it’s thoroughbreds versus wild horses who escaped to the hills. From Pogba to Antoine Griezmann to Raphael Varane to Kylian Mbappe, most of these French players have been under the spotlight since they were pre-teens. This World Cup final, for them, is destiny, part of their road map.

France are probably the deepest, most talented squad at Russia 2018 and there is a sense of both entitlement and expectation about their run to the final. They pretty much did it without breaking a sweat, at each turn doing just enough to dispatch the opposition, knowing they could raise their game at any moment. In many games, it felt like playing one-on-one basketball with a big brother who let you keep the score close but who — you just knew — could turn it on at will if he so chose.

Croatia? Talk about ugly ducklings. Mario Mandzukic has the distinction of being rejected by both Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone. Dejan Lovren, despite reaching the Champions League final with Liverpool in May, is routinely derided (often unfairly) as an accident waiting to happen. In February, Domagoj Vida was sent off after just 16 minutes of his Champions League debut for new club Besiktas.

Captain Luka Modric is a legitimate superstar, who might be a Ballon d’Or candidate, but is also a guy who is hated by large chunks of the country for his role in an ugly affair of perjury, corruption and embezzlement. Two years ago, at Euro 2016, some Croatian fans, so incensed with their federation and some of their players, fired flares onto the pitch in an effort to get their own team kicked out of the competition.

Little has come easy for Croatia in Russia, either. Nikola Kalinic was sent home after he refused to come on as a substitute late in the opening group-stage match against Nigeria.

They also fell behind in each of their three knockout games and somehow clawed their way back, twice needing penalties and once extra time — Wednesday’s 2-1 victory against England — to advance.

The difference is just as stark when it comes to the two managers. Both Didier Deschamps and Zlatko Dalic were hard-tackling defensive midfielders who were at the 1998 World Cup. Except Deschamps, one of the best ever in his position, was on the pitch and helped France lift the trophy for the first time in their history. Dalic was in the stands as a spectator, having paid his own way.

Upon retirement, Deschamps immediately went on to manage wealthy clubs like Monaco, Juventus and Marseille before getting the France gig in 2012. Dalic, meanwhile, held assistant- and youth-coach jobs before working in Croatia, Albania and Saudi Arabia (at a newly created club), before finally getting some recognition in the United Arab Emirates. He became Croatia boss only last October and only with the proviso that he would be gone if he failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Look, Croatia are a talented side. It’s just that a country with a population smaller than metro Detroit will, out of necessity, field a team where A-list stars like Modric and Ivan Rakitic share a place in the starting lineup with lesser-known players, to put it kindly. Guys like Ivan Strinic, who was released by his club last month and has made only 31 league starts in the previous three seasons, and Ante Rebic, who has bounced around five clubs over the past five years.

France, on the other hand, have three of the five most expensive players in history and one of them, Ousmane Dembele, is likely to be on the bench. They also boast the Premier League Player of the Year from two seasons back, N’Golo Kante, and the most expensive signing in the history of Bayern Munich, Corentin Tolisso; he is also likely to start on the bench.

They also get the luxury of an extra day’s rest since their semifinal, a 1-0 win vs. Belgium, was on Tuesday. And they face a team that, if you add up the three extra-time exertions Croatia had to battle through, has effectively played an additional 90 minutes of football.

At first glance, this might appear as one-sided on the pitch as it is in terms of hype, pedigree and name recognition. But lean in and look a bit closer.

For all their talent, France have played conservative, no-frills football throughout the tournament, in keeping with Deschamps’ mantra. Most of their goals have come on set pieces or counterattacks. They are a big team who have played with the humility of a small team, and that’s not a bad thing. However, if they go a goal down, it does make you wonder whether they can kick their performance into a higher gear.

Plus, there’s a psychological angle: Two years ago, at Euro 2016, France were heavily favored over Portugal in the final, yet they somehow contrived to throw it away on home soil. Sometimes demons from our past come back to haunt us.

Perhaps these teams are best summed up by the welcome message on the Instagram accounts of their two midfield generals. Pogba’s reads “Born Ready” and, indeed, his whole life has been prelude to this: big games, big stage, big hype.

And Modric? “The Best Things Never Come Easy”.

Which, if Croatia win at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, will be one of the most prophetic statements ever recorded on social media. It might also serve as a warning to France, who have rarely found the need to get out of cruise control in this tournament.

France reach World Cup semifinal but will need to hit top gear from here

Gabriele Marcotti, Senior Writer, ESPN FC

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — If Didier Deschamps’ crew do go on to win this World Cup (and they are two games away from doing so) perhaps they’ll be a fitting reflection of contemporary football, just as “black, blanc et beur” side that won it 20 years ago reflected modern France at the time.

Friday’s 2-0 win over Uruguay saw France — not everyone mind, but we’re talking the team as a whole — generally rewarded for being more talented rather than necessarily playing to their potential. As in previous games, they did it without breaking much of a sweat or giving you the impression that they were pushing the limits of what they could do. It all felt a bit blase, a bit millennial, a bit roll-of-the-eyes “I can’t believe I need to actually take this test when I do this stuff already.”

Take it any way you will. Maybe this is part of Deschamps’ master plan: start slow, roll through the group, conserve energy and get stronger as the tournament progresses, making sure you peak at the right time. Or maybe he’s just a guy with the deepest, most gifted squad in the tournament who, thus far, has gotten all the breaks.

It was evident from kickoff. Look at who lined up behind Olivier Giroud. You have the second-most expensive player in history (Kylian Mbappe), the most expensive player in the history of Manchester United (Paul Pogba) and the most expensive player in the history of Bayern Munich (Corentin Tolisso)… and those two teams named only happen to be two of the richest clubs in the world. Then you have the guy who (if he didn’t have a buy-out clause and had chosen to move) would have been the most expensive player in the history of Barcelona (Antoine Griezmann), as well as the guy who was player of the year in the Premier League two years ago (N’Golo Kante).

Put together as a unit, this ought to be the sort of group that road-grades the opposition. Even rolling over big, flinty, sharp boulders like Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. And yet, we saw very little of it. In fact, if you’re a believer in expected goals, France created virtually nothing.

“We have margins for improvement, certainly,” said Deschamps after the match. “But we already improved a lot since the Argentina game. And that was already good.”

Maybe so. But the difference between the sides was Raphael Varane’s glancing first-half header and Fernando Muslera getting Vaseline hands off Antoine Griezmann’s tame effort in the second half. (By the way, the Atleti star explained that he didn’t celebrate because of his “love of Uruguayan culture” and his “many Uruguayan friends.” He could have added that celebrating a goal marked by a blunder of that magnitude is rather unbecoming for a millennial unless it’s a match-winner.)

This is a team that leaves you wanting more and then scratching your head when it doesn’t come. With so much firepower, you expect if not goals, then at least plenty of chance creation and maybe some sparkle.

That said, consider the sort of game France’s three most attacking players had. Mbappe was all set to build on his stellar performance against Argentina and really make this World Cup his own. Yet there are two bits that stand out from his performance. One came after 15 minutes, when Giroud headed the ball back across the box and he found himself all alone, with the closest defenders a good five or six yards away: in “Mbappe-time,” that’s an eternity. You expected him to volley it past Muslera or, if he wasn’t quite confident enough, to take a touch (either chest or foot) and then fire it home. Instead, he attempted a weird, uncoordinated header that looped not just over Muslera but the cross bar, too.

The other was uglier still, at least judging from the replays. Cristian “Cebolla” Rodriguez may or may not have struck him in the midsection but the collapsing-house-of-cards reaction looked like an attempt to emulate the worst of Neymar. It was distinctly unlike Mbappe. Blame it on youth and inexperience and move on.

Under Deschamps and his 4-2-3-1, Pogba is mostly confined to the midfield hard-hat role alongside Kante and we only saw him on the ball intermittently. With Tolisso (not exactly a natural winger) out wide, the idea was that the United man could get forward and Tolisso would slot inside to help out. The latter happened, the former did not. Against a midfield of Rodrigo Bentancur, Lucas Torreira and Matias Vecino — no disrespect — it was probably overkill.

Then there was Griezmann. Yes, he assisted quite brilliantly on the Varane goal but the second was a gift from Muslera, which is why we didn’t get to see the Fortnite celebration. Other than that, there was a lot of goodwill and ferreting away but the chemistry with Giroud, though improving, still didn’t yield chances.

This is where you’re left to wonder if it’s the players or the manager because when asked about it post-match, Deschamps kept going back to the same theme: how well France controlled the game and how solid they were defensively.

“We didn’t want to give them any opportunity and apart from the great save from [Hugo] Lloris, we did exactly that, denying them any dangerous chances,” he said, perhaps referring to Hugo Lloris’ feline deflection of Martin Caceres’ header. “We were never under pressure, and I am so happy with the control we had.”

Maybe it’s a question of priorities. Deschamps is a fundamentally conservative manager, which is fine. But given what he has at his disposal, he’s a bit like the guy who buys the world’s most sophisticated iPhone and then uses it as a coaster for his hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Beyond that, if you’re going to play some sort of mega-shutdown, grind-it-out Catenacciostyle, which probably isn’t the right strategy with this side anyway, then it needs to be better than this. That means counterattacking effectively when you win the ball back, which France did not do — in fact, the Griezmann goal came at the end of a four-on-three counter where the movement was so flawed he had no choice but to shoot from far outside the box — getting your big striker to hold the ball up so the defenders could push on (which Giroud managed only in part) and keeping your cool at all times (the Mbappe-Rodriguez melee could well have resulted in Pogba getting booked and that would have meant a semifinal ban).

“OK, so we didn’t play the perfect match,” Deschamps insisted. “You can always improve…”

The question is whether, in a game of such fine margins, Deschamps can continue to get them to clear the bar every time. Right now, it requires a major leap of faith to believe that he can.