How do you chuck the trophy away twice and still walk away with it?
Some would suggest there was a higher force involved, that there was some ordained plan for Lionel Messi to get his World Cup, to dot the last i on his resume, that it quite simply had to be. Others would suggest that Argentina are just better at penalties, and were able to somehow, by the length of Emi Martinez’s toe, get themselves there. Or you could say it was just a bunch of weird shit that happened.
Because Argentina did chuck the trophy away. France spent 79 minutes looking every bit of a team that had spent the weekend with the flu. While Didier Deschamps’s tactics have never really caused France to look lively, at least until they get the ball to Kylian Mbappé, that method (combined with everyone running around like they were trying to be extra careful to not shit their pants) made for a very lethargic and clueless performance. Not only were France standing off Argentina, but they were second to everything. Playing a mid- or low-block works when you close off the space you’re meant to. It’s not much of anything when you’re just standing still, as France basically were.
How much France was feeling the virus that ripped through their team this week, we’ll probably never know the full extent of. But there is some penalty for having Antoine Griezmann, basically a forward, playing in midfield, especially when he runs up against an opposing midfield as industrious and dynamic as Enzo Fernández, Rodrigo De Paul, and Alexis Mac Allister. Argentina outnumbered, outran, outthought, and outfought France’s midfield, basically having a 3-on-2 advantage in there with Griezmann cut off from everything.
While we will all remember this game for its last 40 minutes, France should be forever thankful for that, because the first 80 they were nowhere. Until their first penalty, they had one shot, off-target. Argentina took Griezmann and Mbappé out of the game by simply always having the ball and then cutting off any lane to them on the rare occasion that France could revive itself to string three passes together. The number of times France just dumped the ball out of bounds was staggering. “Staggering” would be a good word to describe how they moved about the field.
Argentina’s big call was to bring Angel Di Maria in from the cold to start the game, to attack the weak link in France’s defense, which was Jules Koundé cosplaying as a fullback when he’s really a centerback. The funny thing is that Argentina’s first goal came when they were able to pull Koundé inside, leaving Ousmane Dembélé to defend Di Maria and to give away a penalty.
Another of France’s decisions which we won’t know if it was a tactical call or enforced by illness was reinserting Dayot Upamecano back into central defense ahead of Ibrahima Konaté, the latter having been the star of the semifinal against Morocco. Ibrahima Konaté had reportedly been waylaid by the flu earlier in the week, so how fit he was is a mystery. But it was Upamecano who was caught way upfield and completely bamboozled by Messi’s touch and flick out to Julian Álvarez that triggered one of the most beautiful counterattacks you’ll ever see.
Again, the ease with which Argentina simply ran through and away from France on this counter could be attributed to France’s lack of legs thanks to fevers and hurling up lunch the previous couple days, but it doesn’t take away from the artistry of it.
And from there it should have been child’s play. And it was! Argentina continued to control the match and the ball without aggressively pressing for a third that would have capped everything off. But it also didn’t feel like they had to. France provided nothing, did nothing, and it felt like they had accepted their fate and were just hoping to get back to bed.
But this is Argentina, who have looked chaotic in defense while always doing just enough to get by. Argentina tried to chuck away a two-goal lead to Australia. They did chuck away a two-goal lead to the Netherlands. Only against Croatia did they look like they had things under wraps, and that’s because they had a three-goal lead. Which makes their slight lack of urgency to get a third against France pretty curious.
It’s not like France started to knock on the door. The penalty Nicolás Otamendi gave away wasn’t much more than a hopeless punt up field that Otamendi got caught out of position for and had to pull back Muani.
Once you open the door to chaos, chaos is usually going to stroll through. It was like the two teams swapped jerseys at that moment. Once Mbappé’s penalty hit the net it felt as if Argentina just knew a second would follow, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. Adrien Rabiot’s pass to Mbappé that set up the equalizer wasn’t even that great of a pass…except it was France finally jamming the ball into their star and just letting him do shit. A 1-2 with Marcus Thuram and suddenly France had Undertaker’d their way into extra time.
Usually, extra time is just a 30-minute exhibition of 22 exhausted players trying not to fuck up royally and cost their team an important match. That’s almost always exacerbated in a World Cup when the stakes are the highest. But again, this is Argentina, who are soccer’s Tin Cup and just have to hit the three-wood off a bad lie to try to reach the green in two instead of just taking the layup. Much like their extra time against the Dutch, they seized control again and produced almost all of the chances. France had emptied their midfield to try and equalize in normal time, so Argentina had the run of the place again.
And if Lautaro Martinez hadn’t become the lovechild of Romelu Lukaku and Gonzalo Higuaín, maybe penalties wouldn’t have been necessary. He blew a chance in the first half of extra time by taking a touch he didn’t need and letting Upamecano time to slide in to block his shot. At the absolute death of extra time he had a free header that he sent in the completely wrong direction.
He will argue that he set up Messi’s apparent winner, though:
And yet, when you’re hellbent on shooting yourself in the face, and no one is more so than Argentina, you’ll succeed in opening up a new orifice in your skull. So you’ll slide out to block a shot with your elbow in chicken-dance pose, giving Mbappé a second penalty to bury.
And Argentina could have, and should have, lost it all.
That’s just another punt upfield that Argentina contrived to turn into France’s best chance of the game. And considering Martinez barely got a toe on it, it could lead one to conclude that yes, it was all meant to be. The World Cup was always going to be in Messi’s hands. Or Martinez just timed this to perfection, either way.
And so it ended after another penalty shootout, with Argentina not missing.
Perhaps it’s the best kind of final, and certainly the best one to watch, in that you could read whatever you want into it. The destiny aspect for Argentina. Or maybe a testament to their grit and willpower in the face of also their own self-destructive streak. Rarely does a team have to survive its own, overwhelming worst habits and yet come out on top. Or perhaps it’s the heroics of Mbappé, who basically dragged France to nearly a second-straight World Cup on his own. As well as Mbappé apparently being virus-resistant. It could be all of that.
Never has a World Cup winner been so at war with itself as Argentina. They were brilliant going forward, as evidenced by their second goal or their third goal against Croatia. And yet their defense always felt like it could step on a landmine it forgot it put in the ground, and it did. Maybe the greatest illustration of Messi’s brilliance is that he was able to outscore his own defense’s incompetence and his team’s determination to make it so damn hard.
The final, at least for the last third of it, was everything all at once. Argentina have been everything all at once for the whole tournament. In that sense, only they could win such a game. When the chaos boils within, the chaos on the outside must seem the norm.
Argentina’s flowing, definition of counterattacking soccer should be shown at academies all over the world, but Mbappé is just that big of a swinging dick that he has to take it:
It was a little odd that there was no check of Argentina’s penalty, as it seemed pretty soft, but other than that, it stayed out of the way.
Let’s just enjoy the eight months we’ll get before he’s needlessly crowbarred onto the Women’s World Cup coverage that we won’t have to listen to him mistaking talking louder and faster for saying something more important.
It is strange that a team that came close to accomplishing something essentially unheard of in the modern day, defending the World Cup, will be minorly mourned outside of France. France will say they played the way they had to to achieve so much, and we can all do one if we didn’t like it. And this was all testimony to the simply ridiculous level of depth the country has as its disposal. They lost their entire midfield before the tournament started, didn’t matter. They lost their starting left-back in the first game, and could bring in a better one who just happened to be his brother. The reigning Ballon D’or winner broke down before the tournament started, and so did his backup, and yet France still had the forward around who knits the attack together better than those guys.
And yet, given how stale they could make things, given how conservative they mostly were, it doesn’t feel like a great loss or missed opportunity. France boiled down most every match to a moment or two that they were supremely confident would go their way given their talent and experience. They ran into a team in Argentina that causes far more of these moments simply on accident.
They’ll probably always wonder what would have happened if their preparation hadn’t been jostled/ruined by the flu. It’s unlikely they would have been too much more vibrant in attack, because they just haven’t been. It’s not how they won four years ago. And yet again, it was Emi Martinez’s toe away from working again.