Before facing Argentina, France hadn’t come close to reaching the heights that neutrals had hoped for. Given the ridiculous amount of talent at Didier Deschamps disposal, it seemed criminal that they had only scored three goals in their three group stage matches. They didn't even top 12 shots in a single match. What France lacked in attacking spark has been mostly made up with a stingy defensive setup, but the fact that France have been good doesn't make it less disappointing that they hadn’t been able to kick it into a higher gear in attack.
Even after scoring four goals against Argentina there are still a lot of questions left unanswered about France's attack. Although the goal outburst did make two things crystal clear.
- France can attack open space against a poor transition team like Argentina, which is a much different proposition than asking them to create dangerous attacks during possession play
- Kylian Mbappe is a freak of nature when given even the slightest of openings
That second point isn’t illuminating and it’s definitely not high level of analysis, but it is awesome. Until they faced Argentina, France’s uninspiring attack hadn’t created enough instances where Mbappe could run and turn successful individual battles against a defender into dangerous moments for his teammates. Argentina’s porous defensive structure and Mbappe’s amazing gifts set the stage for a headlining performance by France’s wonderkid.
It was clear from the start that whenever Mbappe had the ball with his back to goal Argentina would try and pressure him into either a dispossession or a backwards pass. This was even more prevalent when Mbappe received the ball in a wider position near the sidelines where a pressing Argentina defender could use the sideline as an extra defender, making it difficult, even for someone as explosive as Mbappe, to maneuver. It wasn't a perfect plan, but it did keep Mbappe relatively in check early.
The problem for Argentina was that those moments didn’t occur nearly enough. France operated in a 4–3-3 defensively, keeping the forwards tucked inside to prevent easy penetration into the middle of the field. This meant that whenever France had the ability to create counter situations, Mbappe’s was in a more central area, not out on the wing. There might not be a player more dangerous when given access to the middle with a full head of steam. Mbappe’s two most electrifying runs in the first half resulted in a free kick near the area and a penalty drawn.
It was quite odd watching Argentina devise an attack that was clearly meant to dominate the wide areas and create crossing opportunities despite having Lionel Messi in a central role. Unsurprisingly Argentina only completed two of 21 attempted crosses the entire match. This allowed France to do what they’ve done for the entirety of the tournament: stay compact and occasionally feel frisky enough to try and create transition opportunities by funneling the ball through the center of the pitch.
When France tried to play slowly through the back, Mbappe would try and find ways to migrate into vacated space between the lines of Argentina. There was one sequence in particular just past the halfway point of the 1st half which was illustrative of this. He receives the ball but has to stretch fully to control it with his back to goal, which provokes two Argentina players to put pressure on him. After some ball circulation from Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Samuel Umtiti, Mbappe meanders into the open space and gets the ball with ample time to turn and release Benjamin Pavard with a pass. Though these 18 seconds of play didn’t even lead to a shot generated by France, Mbappe's awareness off-ball allowed France to at least create a momentary scare.
With all that said, Argentina only conceded five shots through 60 minutes of play, and two of them were the penalty by Antoine Griezmann and the golazo from Pavard which made it 2–2. They were bending a lot but, even accounting for the two goals, they hadn't done much breaking. Any scenario where a team with as much attacking talent as France doesn't get an open play shot inside the box for such a prolong period of time is a win. This is what France’s shot map looked like through 60 minutes of play.
But, between the 60th and 70th minute, things just got silly. Mbappe’s first goal came from a deep cross by Lucas Hernandez. Before the cross, Pogba receives the ball in space with both Blaise Matuidi and Griezmann making runs from very deep areas. This allows Pogba to hit a wide open Lucas Hernandez to set up the crossing situation. With a three against two at the heart of the box in France’s favor, Mbappe makes a run from right to left into the penalty box to collect the loose ball and use his ridiculous ability in tight areas to get a shot off and make it 3–2.
Mbappe’s 2nd goal was a brilliantly worked goal on the team level that showed the upside of France’s attack, while also making you wonder why these moments haven’t happened more often throughout the tournament:
- Hugo Lloris receives the ball, France have a 4v2 to start off possession, with Kante dropping deep to give Lloris an easy pass to move the chains and get past the first part of Argentina’s defense.
- Kante makes a nice pass to Griezmann that bypasses the Argentina midfield into their backline. Griezmann dropping deep to receive the ball attracted an opponent to pressure him, allowing Giroud to run into the vacated space and become an inviting target if Griezmann makes a good layoff to Matuidi.
- Matuidi receives the ball and makes a nice pass to Giroud. All of these actions occurring meant that Argentine defender Nicolas Tagliafico would have to react and try to close down Giroud. As long as Giroud doesn't mess up the pass, it's a one against one for Mbappe against the goalie even with the late pressure by Federico Fazio.
These 10 minutes finished off what was left of a sputtering Argentina side, one that allowed Mbappe the space needed to destroy everything in his path. If the first half showed Mbappe’s freakish intersection of athleticism and coordination, then the second half showed the intellect that he possesses which makes him the entire package. It's scary that he's only 19 year old.
Kylian Mbappe could have stunk up the joint this entire tournament and it wouldn’t have changed the fact that he’s still the premier young talent in world football. He has a combination of skills and athleticism that come along once or twice in a generation, but even the curmudgeons among us can’t help but admit that it’s cool that Mbappe got to show out on such a big stage. I wasn’t even four years old when original Ronaldo tore up the 1998 World Cup (pre final), and it’s awesome that people of my age and younger will be able to wax glowingly about Mbappe’s performance in a similar manner that generations prior were able to with Ronaldo. This isn’t to say that Mbappe’s the same level of supernova talent that Ronaldo was, but it’s clear that his future is ridiculously bright as long as his health doesn’t betray him.
As for France, what lies ahead in the quarterfinals is a matchup with Uruguay that could end up being a defensive rock fight with few shots and fewer good scoring opportunities. There are still major questions to be asked of France regarding their title winning prospects, and it’s hard to see Uruguay make the same mistakes that Argentina did over that fateful 10 minute stretch in the second half. But the mere existence of Kylian Mbappe means that France have someone who can conjure up moments of brilliance with greater frequency than almost anyone else that’s left in the competition.