France showed some frailty while becoming the first nation to reach the World Cup knockout phase. But with Kylian Mbappe, their flaws may not matter…
Kylian Mbappe’s brace helped France remain perfect through their first two games, making them the first team to punch their ticket to the knockout phase. But, mercifully for everyone else, the World Cup holders showcased further moments of frailty alongside their undoubted, perhaps unrivalled, attacking brilliance.
The fact that they aren’t flawless makes France a thrilling ride. Didier Deschamps may not have appreciated the periods during which they ceded control to Denmark but, in Mbappe, the defending champions have a cheat code.
The 23-year-old wasn’t at his brilliant best at Stadium 974. Indeed, in the first half, it was Ousmane Dembele, on the opposite flank, who looked France’s biggest threat. Which perhaps provoked Mbappe to turn it on after the break.
When the No.10 flicks his switch, he can’t be stopped. Against even world-class players, usually opponents can mitigate and if not stop them then at least limit their contribution. But when Mbappe finds his groove, resistance is futile.
Rasmus Kristensen offered a valiant attempt at locking down the French left but it was dizzying double trouble for the Leeds full-back. With Mbappe looking to get inside him, and Theo Hernandez going the other way, Kristensen was almost doomed to fail.
It may not have seemed so at the time, but France’s most recent stroke of injury misfortune may work to theirs and Mbappe’s favour. Theo is playing only because of his older brother Lucas’s bad luck in the opener against Australia. But the younger Hernandez is undoubtedly the greater attacking threat, which he demonstrated by setting up Mbappe’s opener with his sixth assist in nine caps. The AC Milan full-back’s darting runs are causing France’s opponents to take their eye off Mbappe, even for a split second, which is usually enough time for the attacker to nip to the shops and back.
But, with the modern-era France, everything comes at a cost. Frailty in defence is the price Deschamps must pay for the domination of their attack. And still he seems reluctant to pay it.
His preference for Lucas Hernandez was evident in his selection against Australia, and the choice of a third centre-back to play on the right of his defence was a compromise for Theo Hernandez’s adventurousness.
Even that didn’t shore up France completely. Denmark breached their defence once while Martin Braithwaite and Mikkel Damsgaard both got clearer sights of Hugo Lloris’s goal than the keeper would like.
When Lloris was beaten, it was by the head of Andreas Christensen. Adrien Rabiot has taken with him his early season form for Juventus to the France camp but both sides of the midfielder were on show today. He switched off when France conceded the corner before losing concentration again to allow Christensen his free-header. With Rabiot bringing the chaos, it was left to Aurelien Tchouameni to offer the calm efficiency alongside him at the base of France’s midfield.
Now Deschamps can think ahead to the last 16, he will no doubt be tempted to make the midfield duo a trio as the tests get harder. Deschamps is a coach who craves control, which is rarely achieved when outnumbered in the middle, especially while his left-back takes every opportunity to get up in the vicinity of Mbappe.
Let’s hope Deschamps resists such temptation because this France, a side both fabulous but flawed, is a lot of fun. Especially with Mbappe seemingly intent on making this tournament his. With seven World Cup finals goals already and the remainder of this tournament and likely at least two more ahead of him, Miroslav Klose’s record might be Mbappe’s too by the time he’s finished.
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