Argentina – France: The Best For Last (3-3, 4-2 After Penalties)

The passing of the torch or the crowning of a glorious legacy? Two stars graced the grandest global stages in a fixture whose symbolic significance would dominate the narrative. Only one could take home the trophy, but both figures lived up to the billing in a spectacle for the ages.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Lionel Messi’s place among the pantheon of sporting legends is sure. But just how favorably will we remember him among the greats? Rightly or wrongly, this fixture would be a critical chapter in that narrative— and he has carried the brunt of pressure on his shoulders with aplomb. The difference time and again for Argentina in this World Cup, would his last dance come to a majestic conclusion?

His namesake is not without credit. Lionel Scaloni has sought and found answers to the problem at hand. Against Croatia, the Argentine manager moved from a 5-3-2 block to a 4-4-2 shape. The same four men were at the back for the final: Nicolás Tagliafico, Nicolás Otamendi, Cristian Romero, and Nahuel Molina. Ahead of them, Alexis Mac Allister, Rodrigo de Paul, and Enzo Fernández were in the middle of the park, but Leandro Paredes was absent. In his place was the veteran Ángel di María.

The fear of father time did not haunt the other protagonist in this plot. Kylian Mbappé stormed into the global consciousness in 2018 and has no intention of giving up his crown in Qatar. Adversity piled up against France before the tournament, but the forward has embraced a starring role for his nation. They are on the cusp of an achievement no country has achieved in sixty years, and at the forefront is a figure at the tender age of 23. Victory would cement his presence as the face of the new generation.

Alas, all was not well for the French in the prelude to the final. A virus had swept through the camp, forcing Théo Hernández, Raphaël Varane, Aurélien Tchouaméni, and Ibrahima Konaté to miss the squad’s last training session. In the end, it was only Konaté that dropped to the bench. Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano had also worked their way back to fitness to be a part of the squad. Hence, the same eleven players Deschamps fielded against England in the quarter-final featured in this contest.

Scaloni strives for the initiative in the war of wits

The duel between Mbappé and Messi was not only a symbolic one. In a tradeoff that recognizes their centrality in attack, they each have less of a burden in their defensive role. As they were on the same side of the pitch, one could infer the balance of the contest from whose star was on the back foot.

Scaloni has switched between shapes, while Deschamps has relied on a fixed plan. His men have relied on a blend of a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation to offset the freedom of Mbappé, whose work mainly centers on lurking near the passing lane to the right back and waiting to spring on the break.

Oliver Giroud drops off further than the left winger to offer central cover, and Antoine Griezmann intelligently supports the midfield. Behind them, a row of three in the middle of the park with the right winger shuttle laterally to support a broader back four. France did not stray from this system.

Their system is far from fireproof. It depends on a high work rate to achieve a decent level of stability on the flanks and has often fallen back on the class of their defenders in the penalty area— along with a little bit of luck. The Argentine manager looked to minimize the chance of fortune with a glaring modification. De Paul and Fernández constructed the game in the middle of the park, Mac Allister supported higher in the left halfspace, and Álvarez gave depth on the last line. Messi had his usual freedom to roam in the right halfspace, but to whom would he look to serve passes on the left wing?

An Ángelic ascent

That man was di María. He had operated on the right flank in the group stage but moved over to the left of the front three as a ball far outlet for switches once Messi had drawn in attention. Along with Fernández, whom Giroud did not cover as attentively as he did Sofyan Amrabat in the semi-final, he was a pivotal figure in the plan. His standard contribution in high stakes affairs would soon arrive.

35th minute: offensive sequence from Argentina. Giroud pushes forward to close down Romero, and Mbappé moves to his left to turn the central defender away from finding the passing lane to Molina. De Paul becomes free to turn on his inside shoulder, receives and then accesses to Messi in the right halfspace. Álvarez and Mac Allister make deep runs on the left, allowing Messi to switch to di María.

At the midway mark of the first half, he chopped inside Dembélé and broke away into the box. The Frenchman clipped the heels of the ball carrier, giving away a penalty. The responsibility lay with Messi to bury the penalty. The talisman delivered, stroking a shot from twelve yards past Hugo Lloris. Indeed, the pair worked in tandem time and again: Messi switched the ball from the inside channel to di María, who would keep an eye out for his teammate as a cutback option on the edge of the penalty area. This route to the back of the net never materialized, but it highlighted Argentina’s superiority.

Di María’s double stirs Deschamps

Worse was to come for France. Álvarez, Messi, and Mac Allister combined expertly to break open the field in the 36th minute. Di María was the spare man on the left flank, rounding off a stellar sequence of play to bag a brace and deepen Deschamps’ concern. Defensively, they could not shackle Messi. Offensively, Griezmann could not impose his will on the contest: Emiliano Martínez did not face a single shot before the break. It was not long until Deschamps turned to the bench for a solution.

Randal Kolo Muani came on for Ousmane Dembélé on the right flank like in the semi-final, Marcus Thuram filled the spot on the left, and Mbappé moved into the middle in place of Giroud. Thuram and Mbappé went on to swap positions while Kolo Muani gave more stability on the right flank, but the French were still short of ideas in the final third. Scaloni then set about shutting down the contest.

Mbappé: the dream snatcher

Di María departed the field, making way for Marcos Acuña. Argentina defended in a 4-4-2 shape but sat in a lower block. On the other hand, Deschamps went full throttle in the attack. Kingsley Coman replaced Griezmann and featured as a right winger, Mbappé stayed on the left wing, and Kolo Muani joined forces with Thuram in the center. France tried to forge a threat with an extra presence on the last line, but their opponents seemed stable enough. That dynamic would soon dramatically change.

Ten minutes remained on the clock when Mbappé knocked the ball long to chase. Otamendi failed to clear his lines, and Kolo Muani powered past his marker to draw a foul in the box. Mbappé slotted home from twelve yards, restoring the hope of a turnaround. He rewarded that faith in an emphatic style. The forward nodded an aerial pass from Rabiot back to Thuram, spun free from Molina, and swiveled to hit a volley beyond Martínez. Suddenly rising from the ashes, the French were level.

Mister Magisterial fulfils destiny

Neither star was willing to give up the fight, so the drama continued. Argentina regained control of the contest, probed the center of a frailer French block, and reclaimed the lead. Lloris parried an effort from Lautaro Martínez, whose running was a constant menace in extra time but could not deny the talisman from the rebound. Messi, the matchwinner, would surely be the narrative. Cue another twist in the tale. The elbow of deputy right back Gonzalo Montiel blocked a shot from Mbappé. The referee awarded a penalty, and the forward duly converted from the spot again to seal a historic hat trick.

Mbappé would walk away with the Golden Boot, but would he take home the trophy too? He hit the spot from the spot for the third time; Messi did not falter either. The rest was down to the supporting casts. Martínez denied Coman, and Tchouaméni then missed the target. Montiel atoned for his error, putting victory in the shootout out of reach for France: a perfect swansong for the magisterial Messi.


Commiserations to France. Others have been envious of their reserves of talent, but Deschamps had not entrusted several of the figures on this side under the bright lights before. This outfit can call on the resolve of its penalty box defense and a robust counterpunch like in 2018 but have also been more offensive than the World Cup winners in this campaign. That quality has hurt some of their stability, but it still maps out a path to success— thanks in no small part to Mbappé. His time will come again.

But the here and now belongs to Argentina— and above all, Messi. While his shootout penalty did not secure the triumph for his nation, another virtuoso display on the biggest stage shows how he has been the master key in the puzzle. The rest of the cast ably supported him during the tournament— both on the pitch and in the dugout, and Scaloni’s problem solving is a matter that merits praise. However, the plan rested on the brilliance of a genius whose performances have now immortalized his legacy.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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