France kickstarted its 2018 World Cup campaign with three points on Saturday against Australia. But only by a matter of inches. Literally, inches.
The French beat the Aussies 2-1 on an absurd Paul Pogba that scraped the underside of the crossbar and only barely crossed the entire goal line. Goal-line technology replays showed just how fortunate Les Bleus were:
And the goal itself, which broke a 1-1 tie in the 80th minute, was as ridiculous as that image – both because of the slick passing exchange that led to it, and the finish. Pogba combined with substitute Olivier Giroud, then poked a looping half-volley over Australian goalkeeper Mat Ryan – seemingly with the aid of a wicked deflection:
In a sense, it was a fitting way for France to escape with a win. Because the performance was far from convincing.
A tale of two penalties (and VAR)
After 55 minutes of toil, France appeared to have been bailed out by the first on-field video review in World Cup history. Pogba slid a through-ball to Antoine Griezmann. As Griezmann galloped onto it, he was taken down by Australian right back Josh Risdon.
Referee Andres Cunha initially waved away penalty appeals. Twenty-five seconds later, however, upon the ball going out of bounds, he halted play and consulted with the VAR. He went to his pitchside monitor, and emerged from it to point to the penalty spot. Griezmann converted to give France a lead:
But shortly thereafter, an unthinkable mistake from Samuel Umtiti returned the favor. This time, no review was necessary. Umtiti needlessly threw his hands up into the air as a cross flew into the area and over his head:
Cunha pointed to the spot again, and Mile Jedinak equalized:
With the score level, the spotlight shone once again on an underwhelming, laborious French performance.
France’s buildup problems
For a team with oodles of attacking talent, France didn’t look all that dangerous throughout the 90 minutes. And there were a few reasons for that.
France’s biggest problem is that its style isn’t conducive to success as a superior team. Its ball possession is oftentimes too pedestrian – too slow, not high enough up the field. And when it loses possession, it doesn’t swarm to the ball like Germany, Brazil and Spain do. It doesn’t press in a coordinated fashion much at all.
So it relies on individual brilliance. The plan is basically, “hey, you four young attackers [Pogba included] who are worth a combined $700 million, go do cool things.” Nothing is choreographed or systematized. Fluidity and off-the-cuff invention sound great in principle. But in many cases – like France’s – they’re euphemisms for a plan that lacks definition.
And that type of plan is especially ineffective against a team content to sit deep, defend, and force the game to be played in congested areas. That’s what Australia did. And the Socceroos did it well.
But the upside of simply asking special players to do special things is, well, sometimes they do them. Sometimes Pogba proves why he is the most unfairly maligned player in the world. Sometimes France, by way of individual brilliance, can escape by the finest of margins.
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• Pique accuses Ronaldo of diving to earn game-tying free kick
• World Cup Day 2 roundup: Suarez lacks characteristic bite
• Schaerlaeckens: Spain shocked first by managerial change, then Ronaldo