For a solid hour, today’s France-Argentina match didn’t make a lick of sense. Then Kylian Mbappé up and decided to impose his own order on the proceedings, and that was that. France won by a deceptive scoreline of 4-3 that doesn’t at all communicate the level of French dominance on display.
This game was extremely stupid—but in a fun way, so it made for a game that was the good kind of stupid: ridiculous goals, moronic tactics, and one team clearly plastering the other everywhere except where it matters.
Most of the stupidity was provided by Argentina. The South American team continued its tournament-long practice of playing with non-sensical tactics. With a starting lineup full of extremely slow players, one real passer, and a single goalscorer, it seemed like Argentina would be best served playing a deep-defending, counterattacking style that would best suit the strength of their midfielders, the speed of their wingers, and the finishing ability of the key man in the middle, Lionel Messi. Instead, for some reason the Albiceleste played a possession game with a high defensive line, which played directly into France’s hands.
France have a team of players that are great at pressuring opposing players off the ball, of supreme counterattackers, of guys who are faster than a sport bike. The ideal opponent for France would be a group of slow guys who can’t pass the ball quickly and accurately under pressure and yet insist on holding onto the ball to build slow attacks in front of their high defensive line, leaving themselves wide open for counters during the many times the opponents are able to nick the ball off them. Which is why from the moment the match began, France seemed like a lock to cruise to victory.
Just about ten minutes in, France’s 19-year-old phenom Kylian Mbappé picked up the ball in Argentina’s end of the field and kicked it into warp speed. Looking like a guy running on one of those conveyor belt walkways at the airport and flying by a pack of pedestrians strolling on the regular floor, Mbappé sprited past a solid four Argentina defenders and won a penalty that teammate Antoine Griezmann would eventually score. Right then and there you could tell Argentina would not be able to hang with the Frenchies:
And yet somehow, Argentina found a way to stay in the game. Not due to any intelligent, repeatable actions by their players, of course. Mostly it was through pure, dumb luck. Like that time when France had been dominating the entire first half, roasting the Argies on the counter at will while preventing them from even coming close to creating a dangerous chance on the other end, but then Angel Di María scored himself a worldy from absolutely nothing and tied things up:
If it made no sense how Argentina managed to go into halftime tied at 1-1 while getting vastly outplayed for 45 minutes, it made even less sense when Argentina took the lead soon after the break. Again, there was no great movement or passing or even shooting that gave Argentina their lead, just a wild shot from Messi in the aftermath of a set piece that Gabriel Mercado deflected past France keeper Hugo Lloris on a fluke. With the score at 2-1 early into the second half, Argentina had scored twice and yet had failed to create a single good attacking chance. See? A very stupid game.
Less than 10 minutes later, France defender Benjamin Pavard scored the most beautiful and least logical goal of a match devoid of logic with a stupendous volley that I’ve watched on loop about 238 times and I’m still not tired of.
And so, an hour into a huge World Cup knockout match, we had one team beating the breaks off the other team and yet the score was tied at 2-2. With only 30 minutes remaining, the game could’ve gone either way. It would take a great player saying “Okay, this has been fun and all, but I think I’m gonna go end this already” and doing so to provide the decisive margin. That player was none other than the fearless, supernaturally confident teen, Mbappé.
In the 64th minute, after a blocked shot from a teammate, Mbappé reacted, thought, and moved quicker than anyone else in the crowded penalty area. He pounced on the ball, kicked it into a pocket of free space, and booted it low and hard past Argentina’s goalkeeper to put France back ahead:
Not even five minutes after that, France took the ball from their own penalty box into Argentina’s with just a few passes and some brilliant coordinated movement and Mbappé, surging down the pitch faster than anyone else as always, latched onto an Olivier Giroud through ball and smashed the ball into the net. France were up 4-2, and the game was all but over.
It wasn’t until France had for all intents and purposes already won the game that Argentina found some space to work with in attack. Seriously, I can’t recall a single truly threatening attack Argentina were able to put together before the last 10 or 15 minutes when France finally sat deeper and relaxed the intense pressure they’d put on Messi up until then. In those final minutes when France were just trying to while away the time before the ref blew the final whistle, Argentina did test the opposing defense for the first time all match. Messi set up substitute Sergio Agüero for a goal with a great pass two minutes into the scheduled four minutes of stoppage time, and Argentina even came pretty close to stealing an equalizer with the last kick of the game. Ultimately though, Argentina’s completely undeserved comeback fell short.
Argentina are dead now, but it’s not as bad a World Cup death as it might’ve been. They played about as well as their assembled talent and tactics would’ve portended, which is to say, they didn’t play well at all. But at least they were able to experience the joy of that big Nigeria win, since joy has been exceedingly hard to come by for this group for years now.
France, meanwhile, have to feel great about this game. They did cough up three goals today, but none of them were really of the worrying kind. In spite of those goals, France completely bossed the game and demonstrated that while their reactive playing style might not result in fireworks when they play teams they’re expected to crush, against the big teams that look to play with the ball and come at them, France are more than capable of eviscerating the best of the best. It’s no coincidence that it took playing a team like Argentina to wake them from their group stage boredom-induced slumber. And when France do find their backs against the wall in need of a star man to rescue them, they now know that they can count on the impossibly fast and ridiculously skilled Kylian Mbappé. The teenager may be just about the youngest player in the entire field, but he may also be the most deadly.