France entered the final just as they did the World Cup in Russia - with the tag of heavy favourites to win. Deschamps’ men forged an assured path to the showpiece in Moscow relying on an impressive defensive backbone and incredible individual talent to overwhelm Argentina, Uruguay, and Belgium in the knockout rounds. The French team lined up as expected in a 4-4-2. Varane as usual started in the right center back position.
Croatia, for their part, had a much more turbulent ride to the final. The Croatians went into extra time in each of their elimination games beating Denmark and Russia on penalties while scoring a winner and holding off England in the semi-final. Modric and co showed amazing resilience in their matches managing to emerge victorious after going behind in all their knockout games. Zlatko Dalic selected the same XI that started the previous match with Modric at the heart of the midfield.
France’s defensive structure and fortune define first half
Although France started on the front foot and dominated possession in the early exchanges, it didn’t last very long. Concerns that Croatia would suffer from less rest and more demanding games quickly evaporated as they grew into the game and took control. Their structure was conducive to effective ball circulation further enhanced by the quality and profile of their players.
However, France landed the first blow when they went ahead courtesy of a Mandzukic own goal in the 18th minute. This kind of situation was ideal for France whose strategy for the most part has been to counter-attack after taking leads. Varane and Umtiti’s fantastic partnership and France’s overall defensive structure with Matuidi and Mbappe’s coverage down the wings as well as the Pogba-Kante (moreso) tandem helped shut down Croata’s creativity.
The Croats did not relent and managed to get an equalizer ten minutes later after one of their brightest stars during the campaign collected the ball after it bounced around following a Modric set piece. Perisic shifted to his left and pulled the trigger to send a powerful shot past Lloris. Croatia had just began increasing the tempo and cementing their influence when they were stopped in their tracks a mere three minutes later.
In what will no doubt go down as one of the biggest officiating decisions (and moments) in the World Cup, the referee awarded a penalty after the ball made contact with Perisic while defending a France corner. Griezmann made no mistake and converted to give his team the 2-1 lead.
France’s lethal breaks and Croatia’s underwhelming crossing
The second half was a demonstration of France’s immense defensive capabilities. Les Bleus hadn’t conceded a single goal in over 180 minutes of football in the quarters and semis. The team collapsed into a compact block commanded by the aforementioned centerback pairing. Varane and Umtiti’s height, pace, and technique were difficult for Croatia to deal with as the pair cleaned up aerial deliveries and came out on top of individual challenges and 1v1s. That being said, Croatia were supremely disappointing with their deliveries and seemed to over-hit many of their crosses not giving Mandzukic (already dealing with numerical inferiority) much of a chance. Modric was a prime culprit as many of his freekicks and corners were not especially threatening.
France countered very well and utilized Mbappe’s pace to maximum effect. The young French forward was constantly released down the wings where he used his superior speed to drive into the box. One of these breaks, started by a superlative bullet long pass by Pogba, resulted in a goal scored by the latter following a blocked attempt. Mbappe himself got in on the action later with a golazo from long distance. While there are fair questions as to whether Subasic could’ve done better to deal with both efforts, they were very well taken and would’ve taken wonder saves to stop. The rest of the game was essentially a formality even though a LLoris mistake allowed Crotia to score a second.
What the numbers say and final thoughts
Despite all the goals, there wasn’t a ton of chance creation occuring in the game. Croatia actually did much better (although in part because of Manduzkic’s goal in 2nd half) than France in open play registering a much better xG rating. They also had double the shots although France did manage more on target (6 to 4).
Impressive finishing, great defense, and good fortune ensured France emerged as 2018 World Cup Champions. Varane’s resume continues to stand out as one of the most complete in world football all at the age of 25.
Modric (awarded the Golden Ball) and Kovacic — who unfortunately didn’t feature in the final — can take pride in having helped their team to a historic World Cup final for the first time in Croatia’s history. Although this was seen as their golden opportunity given the age of key players on the team, this tournament was a great success for them and if not for some deciding incidents not going their way, they could have accomplished the impossible.
One final note for Benzema who misses out on sharing in the joy of this win due to off-field matters. The obvious consolation is that his peers, friends, and nation will have another World Cup to add to the collection. Even though he didn’t directly contribute to this victory, Benzema was a great servant of the national team and helped lead them during less rosy times in the lead up to their current dominance on the world stage. He should enjoy the summer and rest up as Real Madrid will be waiting for him to take them to glory once more.