Among the 22 players on the pitch during today’s World Cup semifinal that pit France against Belgium, there were a solid half dozen capable of explosive, awe-inspiring feats of greatness. Unfortunately, none of them were able to do anything terribly explosive or awe-inspiring, so France’s 1-0 win to send them to the World Cup final wasn’t as entertaining as it could’ve been.
The match wasn’t awful, exactly. It started auspiciously. The opening 20 minutes or so was an exhibition of just how much speed and technical quality both sides have, as both bombed up and down the pitch to either create or defend against one of the endless back and forth counterattacks. Still, most of the silky Eden Hazard touches and the blistering Kylian Mbappé sprints eventually fizzled out before they became anything too compelling. On the French side, most of this momentum-killing fell to Olivier Giroud, who would’ve had a hat trick if the goal were up near the stadium ceiling rather than down there rooted to the field. Giroud’s most egregious failure was when he botched this outrageous piece of skill from World Cup star Mbappé that would’ve instantly become one of the moments of the tournament:
For those who care for such things, the game was pretty interesting from a tactical point of view. Belgium’s most lethal weapon in their astonishing upset win over Brazil in the previous game was their counterattack. With Brazil looking to dominate possession deep in Belgian territory, the Red Devils’ strategic, intense pressing from deep, and the three players they kept up near the halfway line all match, meant whenever their opponents turned the ball over, Belgium were just a pass away from sending a couple players galloping towards Brazil’s goal with favorable numbers.
France weren’t so generous. With no intention on giving the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Hazard that much space in front of their defenders, France sat back much deeper and forced Belgium into trying to create chances through long, methodical possessions. Against France’s physically imposing and compact defense and midfield, Belgium had neither the strength nor the guile to consistently break down France’s defensive block. On the other end, France’s counterattackers feasted on Belgium’s exposed defense. Hence why France had only 36 percent of possession but took 19 shots to Belgium’s nine.
The tactical stuff was all well and good from an intellectual perspective, but it didn’t offer much visceral thrill. Neither did the match’s sole goal, which came from yet another set piece in a tournament lousy with set piece goals:
At no point before or after Samuel Umtiti’s 51st minute goal were France under much sustained pressure. This has been a consistent aspect of France’s entire tournament so far, as they’ve yet to really feel the heat during any match. They’ve only trailed once this World Cup, for less than 10 minutes during a game against Argentina in which France had no trouble breezing into the Argie penalty box whenever they felt like it. Not once have France ever looked like losing, not even today against a great and hungry Belgium team fresh off what is still the most impressive win of the tournament.
With their spot in the final secure, France will be the big favorite against either England or Croatia. If they keep playing with as much defensive solidity and counterattacking threat as they’ve demonstrated all tournament long, they shouldn’t find it too hard to lift what would be just their second ever World Cup trophy. For the sake of us neutrals, let’s hope France’s eventual opponent coaxes a little more flair from France’s assorted stars than they were made to show today.